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Television Review

TO OUR modern culture, there is no subject more deeply interesting than sex. Our most pressing imperatives include, on the one hand, the drive for individual emotional and sexual fulfilment and, on the other, the energetic mass prurience which would like to ensure that genitalia as underemployed as Action Man's are a precondition of entering public life. This is doubtless why Channel 4 and Carlton last night both launched new series on the subject.

Channel 4, strenuously high-minded, gave its series a posh name and an anthropological spin. Carlton, meanwhile, stuck to Anglo-Saxon monosyllables and an editorial tone from round the back of the bike sheds. Of the two, the latter approach was, in many ways, both more genuinely revealing and more attractive - or at least, less compromised.

Anatomy of Desire (C4) claimed to be "the first fully integrated analysis of human sexual desire". "Instinct", the first of four programmes, took as its subject the war between men and women, introducing Mr Nishi, whose role was that of a sort of sexual French Foreign Legionnaire. A "sex hunter", his job is, for pounds 300 a go, to chat up potential sexual conquests for his Japanese clients, who are mainly married men. This we saw him doing with the unselfconscious persistence of the drunk bloke at the late- night bus stop who keeps telling you that you are beautiful.

"I'm chatting you up on behalf of another guy," he wheedled, on a crowded Tokyo thoroughfare. "Go away," responded his quarry. "Definitely not. No way. In your dreams. Oh, all right then..." Blimey. She was evidently one of the hyperactive adulteresses identified by US university psychologist Helen Fisher, one of many academics wheeled on to add intellectual bottom to the enterprise. The academics had an innovative line in experiments. One trial included getting chaps to inhale vaginal mucous while grading girls for attractiveness. Another asked girls to sniff T-shirts which men had slept in for three days.

Research indicates that, despite the stinkiness of men, women are quite keen to marry them, so long at they are socially dominant and change their T-shirts regularly. As evidence, series director Simon Andreae produced a couple of American sex gods. Hugh Hefner, a late-comer to the charms of marriage (currently separated from his wife, noted a postscript, because of "different interests"), and Dick Drost who, though lacking the use of his legs, has created a sex theme park in California full of men with cellulite and girls dressed in tight white boots and nothing else. The conclusion of all this was that men and women are both seeking long-term relationships, spiced up with sex on the side. Well, fancy that.

Vice - The Sex Trade (Carlton) concentrated on the sex-on-the-side aspect. As the opening credits rolled, a husky voice-over claimed that "for the first time, the women who sell sex and the men who pay for it talk candidly about their lives". Oh, really? You wonder if producer-director Nigel Miller has heard of Kitty Fisher or Frank Harris.

The novelist Pat Barker, who took prostitution as her subject in Blow Your House Down, has written about the trade's "trench humour". No doubt there are as many miserable cows in prostitution as there are at supermarket check-outs, but Carlton found an extraordinarily telegenic lot. Leila has a "menu" on which she lists her services for "adult babies" - "I get them on the potty, and they do a poo," she explained, adding that she felt very lucky not to have to get involved in "anything degrading". Karen was flogging away enthusiastically in a Manchester massage parlour ("it's not seedeh"). Caroline, 61, had an ad in a contact magazine which galvanised Bournemouth. Gemma, 19-years-old and pregnant, works the streets in East London. She plans, she said, to go back to work after the birth, "just so the baby's got some nice things" and then quit.

Oh dear. Until then, it had all seemed quite harmless, even jolly. A commercial transaction between consenting adults - you mildly titillated over your cook-chill Thai curry, and the girls drumming up trade (it doesn't

do to underestimate the selling power of telly - Leila got into her current line of work after seeing a television programme about adult babies).

But somehow Gemma, with her Scary Spice glasses, her gang-rape experiences and her unborn child rather spoiled the tone of harmless, Carry On-style fun. The fact that Gemma was there to pump on our moral outrage glands, thereby relieving our consciences, added a sophisticatedly repellent undertone. Vice may have been more upfront in its approach than Desire, and less reliant on soft academic "findings', but Karen was wrong. It was still very, very seedeh indeed.