Documentary maker Stacey Dooley is a sight for sore eyes. There’s no denying that. And she’s sweet. She genuinely cares about what’s going on in the people she interviews. She is clearly drawn to the misfits in society and wants to know all about them. She is not an agressive interviewer, I think her gentle attitude plus her real empathy for people ensures they open up to her. This also makes for comfortable watching, even if the subject matter is uncomfortable.

There’s a funny scene in the Brasil episode where she gets two street vendors to confess that yes, from time to time they sleep with she-males and they even prefer them over women, although they keep seeing themselves as straight. Even in Turkey she gets a similar confession from ‘johns’ (guys who visit prostitutes) on the street. In Turkey men seem to be more agressive towards her than in either Russia or Brasil, in Turkey she almost gets mad when a bunch of young guys keep asking her for sex. All this is not exactly eye-opening. The hypocritical anti-LGBT violence throughout the series pained me, but didn’t shock me, because I’m so sadly aware that it’s rampant. Transgenders often do not become much older than somewhere in their thirties for example. I doubt very much they live much longer in either Turkey or Brasil, on average.

What was eye-opening was the story of one Russian prostitute contrasted with the working conditions of the other prostitutes in the series. Let’s call her Aurora. 

First we see prostitutes who barely manage to scrap together a living in a hell-hole of a brothel. Although they have some protection, because they have one guard (who doesn’t look very impressive…) and they can monitor each other (often a mere curtain is between the prostitutes when they are being used for sexual gratification), it’s still very unsafe. They get robbed by armed men. This seems to be a regular thing. Out on the street it’s even worse. Shivering ladies need to pay off the Russian police just to keep going. It seems to be very dangerous as ‘johns’ drive up in their car. The rates are very cheap and the ‘johns’ can be very dodgy.

Contrast that with Aurora. We watch her direct her own sexy photoshoot. It’s clear she’s calling the shots. We learn that she orders a photoshoot once a month. The pictures are very suggestive and glamorous. They also give off a vibe: I have standards, I’m not easy to,get, I’m exclusive. They are added to her own profile online.

She has clear standards and boundaries, online there’s a list of the things she does. She will only accept ‘dates’ in four or five star hotels, because guys who book three star hotels usually don’t have much money. Clearly, she is not available to just anyone.

Stcey Dooley is quite flabbergasted. Aurora seems to enjoy her ‘line of work’. She makes a ton of money. In one night she can make more than the average monthly Russian salary.

Now why is this girl clearly so better off than the other women? Is it just a cooincidence that Aurora makes so much more money and operates in a far safer environment, and makes more money servicing far less clients (which reduces the risks substantially)?

She looks good, but she is not stunning. Russia is full of stunning women, Aurora does not stand out, in a country like Russia you could almost call her ‘plain’ or averagely good looking. So what is it then?

She actively grooms herself to be a ‘brand’, a top shelf ‘product’. She creates an image that men want to pay top dollar for. She has made herself exclusive. If you would take a book like ‘oversubscribed’, a clever marketing book, we would probably find that she applies lots of excellent marketing principles. 

So, is she so much more succesful because of her attitude, her business strategy and her high personal standards? Yes, I do believe so. She’s taken the time and put in the energy to squeeze the most out of the ‘market’.

It’s mosly about the way she presents herself and her firmness about what she will accept. It’s not so much her looks that help her to pull this off, it’s her ‘vibe’. Your vibe attracts your tribe. You can’t tread on me, she seems to convery. I’m calling the shots. The other girls seemed to give off the vibe: ‘ok, use me, but please leave me a tiny bit of cash so I can get to eat today’. This isn’t the girls’ fault of course. Who knows what hell they’ve been through before they landed where they are? In the traumatized state of mind they are you can hardly expect them to put a high price on themselves and present themselves as exclusive. Their self-esteem was already smashed before they resorted to prositution.

The series does not dig deep. We do not learn much about the background of the people interviewed. Did Aurora have start-up capital when she launched herself? How did she pau for her first expensive ‘agent provocateur’ lingerie set? How did she pay for her first professional photoshoot? To present herself the way she does she needs a lot of money. Did she have that cash before she started? If you start out with zero you can’t do what Aurora does.

Stacey Dooley – who obviously has qualities that could make her an excellent interviewer- does not dig that deep,

The series also never suggests what can really be done about prostitution. In fact, you may most likely come away with just the idea that prositution serves a great purpose in society and all we need to do is accept and create the safest possible environment for the prostitutes. I’m not so sure about that. It would have been far more interesting if the series had also made an episode about the Netherlands, Scandinavia and Germany for example. To contrast legal approaches and determine what works best. I do believe prostitution is paying for sexual assault. Something like allowing yourself to be raped, but for financial compensation, small or big.

The conditions for the prostitutes should indeed be made as safe as possible. I think it’s the clients that should be targetted. Both prostitutes and clients need help, but a different kind of help.

It’s probably impossible to eradicate prostitution entirely, not even with the harshest measures, but we can make it a lot safer for those involved and we can ‘re-educate’ a large portion of ‘johns’, who often don’t realize or care how desperate the people are who they are using.

It’s impossible to look at prostitution without looking at many other aspects of society, our attitudes towards sex, our psychology, our culture, our attitudes towards relationships and communication between men and women, for example.

The series is superficial all things considered and offers but a glimpse of an ‘underworld’ that has very complicated links to our every day world. It also lacks a determined approach. It sort of meanders in all directions. This is probably because Stacey Dooley’s approach is mostly voyeuristic. 

At least on camera, because here and there she gets vehement when the prositutes are blamed and stigmatized for being prositutes, hinting that she does have a clearer opinion as to what should be done than the series shows.

The book ‘Paid for’ is a better start to know more about prostitution. Get it here.