TV UK, 7 October

The truth about Sex Traffic.

Dolan Cummings

Topics Culture

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Channel 4 is continuing to have fun with American drama. This week both The Sopranos and Six Feet Under were pushed back half an hour to 11.30pm to make room for a repeat of Father Ted and a new episode of Eurotrash respectively.

The exception to the late night rule is the new series of The West Wing, which is on at 7.35pm on Friday nights, when any sensible person is in the pub. The schedulers must have been killing themselves laughing when they thought of that little wheeze. Or maybe they get back-handers from TiVo. Meanwhile, peak time is dominated by such ground-breaking domestic fare as Too Posh To Wash and Going Straight, nauseating Format TV for people who don’t actually like TV but get frightened if left with their own thoughts for too long.

Channel 4 does occasionally have a go at the real thing, however. If NY-LON was a well-intentioned flop, next week’s Sex Traffic (Thursday at 9pm) is much more worthy of attention. The two-part drama follows two young Moldovan sisters hoping to get to London to find work, who instead are effectively sold into slavery in the former Yugoslavia and trafficked across Europe. Sex Traffic can certainly be accused of sensationalism, and someone has already had a pop at it in the Guardian, on the grounds that it concentrates on the horrific extreme, rather than highlighting the more mundane hardships of East European women who choose to become ‘sex workers’ in London.

For me, though, Sex Traffic gets away with its sensationalism, partly because it is lavishly produced and well acted, but mainly because that sensationalism serves an interesting political agenda. Through the plight of Elena and Vara, writer Abi Morgan tries to dramatise the dynamics of power that make women like these so vulnerable (and make prostitution seem like a good choice for their compatriots who are not actually forced). This means exploring the peculiar relationship between Eastern Europe and the West as much as any ‘gender issues’.

The eye-catching element of the plot is that Western peace-keeping forces, specifically those working for a US defence contractor, are involved in the trafficking. Bosnia remains one of the more fashionable ‘benevolent occupations’ around the world, but given the institutionalised inequality in these arrangements, the abuses portrayed in the drama are all too believable. Indeed, according to Amnesty International, it is the NATO force that feeds the sex trade in Kosovo, and US, French, German and Italian soldiers have been directly involved in rackets (1).

Sex Traffic’s weakness is also political, however. Certain aspects of the story are plain cartoonish: the wicked American capitalists ruthlessly pursuing profit, Serbian goons raping the women. The latter does not so much shock as confirm conventional prejudice, making it a kind of politically correct pornography, as the unpleasantness of watching sexual violence is rewarded with the warm glow of ‘political awareness’.

This is a shame, because Sex Traffic is otherwise a successful political drama, which deals with some genuinely new and interesting issues. While it has a whiff of ‘campaigning’ about it, it suggests no obvious solutions to the problem. In that sense, it is closer to a Cold War thriller, focusing on how individuals operate within the context of a complicated but rigid political reality. A bit like spending an evening watching Channel 4.

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