Recent events suggest we don’t like hypocrisy very much, although most of us are obviously hypocrites ourselves, in one way or another. Louis Theroux flourishes in this grey area, between the views of upright, respectable folk and our more complicated reality. We’re all capable of saying one thing and doing another, when we think no one’s looking.


In the case of porn, the subject of one of Theroux’s three new, US-based documentaries (the others are on gangsta rappers and far-right influencers), the contradictions are rife.

“It’s the myriad hypocrisies – which I share, by the way. People who might watch porn on their computer, but think the people who make it are ugly or disgusting. It’s a classic old trope, isn’t it? That double-edged attitude to sexuality in general,” he says.

Indeed. Billions consume pornography, and nobody talks much about it.

“One of the themes in the world of porn is that because many people in the mainstream view it as somewhat distasteful, while probably at least some of them are using it, disreputable people thrive and a lot of bad stuff happens.”

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So, as we’re here… what about his own relationship with porn?

“In my life, of course, I’ve been a user of porn. I sort of see it as a bit like… maybe this sounds harsh, but it’s a bit like junk food, right? It’s not something you’re especially proud of using. But there are times in your life when you can’t get a decent meal, or you’re in a rush, or you’re just trying to get a need met.”

He’s hardly alone, is he? Though not everyone would have answered the question. What has changed relatively recently is that very young children now have access to pornography, and while almost everyone agrees this is certainly a problem, nothing much is done about it. Perhaps because no one knows what to do.

The singer Billie Eilish, who’s now just 20, said recently that she started seeing porn from the age of 11, and it “destroyed my brain”. She had nightmares because some of the content was so violent and abusive. It also affected what she expected in her relationships.

Theroux and his wife Nancy Strang have three sons, aged 15, 13 and seven. Is he worried for them?

“It’s something I’m conscious of, [but] slightly tuning it out. I tend to think it’s a legitimate cause for concern, but also that children raised by parents who are looking out for them and keeping an eye on them are reasonably robust. I’m on the cusp of my kids entering that stage of their lives, so I may have a rude awakening ahead of me. I haven’t even disabled the settings on my internet.

“I’ve talked to them. I have said to them, ‘When you see porn, if this is something you’ve stumbled across, just so you know, that’s not the real world. That’s not how people have sex. That’s people who are performing and doing things to satisfy consumers and don’t mistake it for how sex takes place.’ Along those lines. And it’s like, ‘Shut up, Dad.’”

Louis Theroux's Forbidden America
Louis Theroux's Forbidden America BBC

And of chart star Eilish, he adds: “Someone needed to say to her when she was a child – it sounds like I’m blaming the parents, and maybe I am, slightly – children and young adults need to understand that the porn world isn’t the real world.”

It really isn’t. And if Theroux’s documentary is anything to go by, it’s not a remotely alluring one. The business of making porn has all the erotic charge of a trundle round your supermarket on a wet afternoon in late November.

“Is it sexy? Listen, some of the women are obviously attractive, but when you see the nuts and bolts – no pun intended – it’s quite evidently not being done for pleasure. It’s a day at the office.

“I’m a professional and always in work mode,” says Theroux, laughing, “so even if it were sexy, I would disable my sexy circuits for the duration of the shoot. It’s a bit comparable to being on location when you’re filming surgery: it’s oddly unaffecting. You would think it’s a bit off-putting, or even revolting, seeing someone cut open, and similarly with sex – but you’re actually almost too close to it and it’s all slightly too surreal to have that much of an impact.”

This isn’t the first time he’s covered the porn industry. In fact, it’s Theroux’s third documentary on the subject. There was an edition of his Weird Weekends way back in 1998, and then Twilight of the Porn Stars in 2012.

This year’s film, Porn’s MeToo, makes the case that some “office” politics have changed, and power has shifted – the #MeToo movement and social media platforms have made a difference, a positive one, particularly for women.

“Social media platforms based on a paid subscription have given performers autonomy. You have a world in porn where, thanks to direct access to the fans and consumers, someone like the 29-year-old porn performer we interviewed, after about 10 years in the business, describes making between $150,000 and $250,000 a month, just on one particular social media subscription site – so she doesn’t need directors and she doesn’t need producers. She can speak her truth.”

The documentary shows her speaking her truth from her substantial home as her partner barks instructions: “Put your booty there, sit back, put your head back, shake your booty.”

Is she really calling the shots?

Theroux thinks so: “I didn’t see any element of coercion. Unless you’re defining coercion so broadly as to mean we’re all coerced by invisible… you know what I mean? My strong conviction, my sense, was that she was basically in charge. They’ve since split up, by the way. She’s announced it on social media.”

I used to present Woman’s Hour on Radio 4, and porn was a subject we covered reasonably regularly, because listeners were telling us about its negative impact on marriages and relationships – and were concerned about their children. It’s not clear-cut: some younger women say it’s empowering, and “feminist porn” exists. The debate about sex work is also a live one – and there are strong views on both sides. Theroux is clear on what he thinks: “I genuinely see sex work as work, and valid work, and I know that’s controversial in some quarters. These stories are hard to tell, because enlightened, thoughtful, intelligent people can disagree passionately about what it means to be paid to have sex.”

Theroux tells me there is a documentary to be made about the impact of pornography, particularly on young children, but in fairness to him that wasn’t the programme he set out to make here. “In a weird way,” he says, “that’s analogous to what we look at in the Extreme and Online episode [airing this Sunday], which is angled around the idea that there are far-right influencers who have direct access to our phones and our laptops, and who, for younger ears, come across as somewhat plausible, or attractive and appealing.”

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Theroux is well aware that he’s popular with young viewers, which makes him so important to the BBC: “For reasons I don’t fully understand I have a very young audience. I seem to get most of my viewers online. And I know, from feedback I get, that many of them are in their teens and 20s.”

That means that, thanks to this documentary on the far right, they will now be introduced to people such as Nicholas Fuentes. A slight young man with a fuzz of facial hair, Nicholas is 23 and lives with his mum and dad. His views (no immigration, women shouldn’t have the vote) are ridiculous. He is a figure of fun, until you realise how many people are taking him, and others like him, seriously – Fuentes has been ordered to hand over documents to US authorities who are investigating last year’s storming of the Capitol by Trump supporters.

So isn’t it irresponsible to give men like this (and overwhelmingly they are men) any more attention? Theroux says he and his team thought a lot about exactly that.

“Are we platforming them? What I’ve tried to do is think through and balance out, almost in a cost-benefits way, what you get out of bringing a critical lens to a world that, like it or not, has influence, but at the same time clearly making a wider audience aware of them, some small minority of whom may find parts of it appealing. As much as social media companies try to strike them out, they still get traction. It’s whack-a-mole because their content goes viral. As a documentary-maker, I guess we took the leap of faith that, as a team with our experience and track record, we’d be able to bring the necessary level of acuity and responsibility.”

Viewers can judge whether they got that right for themselves. I found the men featured in this documentary repellent and absurd – which is exactly what they want, of course. I am a liberal feminist and I was well and truly triggered. Job done, boys. But there’s a reason that Theroux is an award-winning documentary-maker: “I’m trying to be as accurate as possible in how I characterise them, because I don’t want to fall into the trap of failing to see the qualities that make them appeal to so many.”

Theroux cuts through their belligerence in his inimitable way, part slightly bewildered English gent, part razor-sharp inquisitor. Whatever he does, his interviewees are no match for him. One is even wearing a T-shirt with Theroux’s face on it. Which makes it very strange when he tries to throw Theroux and the camera crew out of his house after he’s questioned about doing a Nazi salute at a far-right conference.

“I think I used to play up to the idea of being a cringing geek,” says Theroux. “And I’m not under any illusion, I still come across as English and maybe a little bit nerdy, but as it turns out, in this world, I pass for something relatively physically powerful.

“These guys are gamers, they live online. It’s no coincidence that one of the reasons why extreme politics, as it exists on the internet, appeals to them is that a lot of them don’t do that well in the real world.”

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With Louis Theroux’s Forbidden America, the documentary-maker, who has dual US and British citizenship, is back on the US fringes, where he often seems most comfortable. Why not make something about, say, county lines drugs gangs in the UK?

“I’d love to do something like that. And obviously I have done programmes in the UK.” But, he adds, “America is a vast country, it’s socially chaotic, it’s a petri dish of competing ideas and ways of life.”

It also helps that Theroux has a lower profile in the US: “I’m liable to be approached for selfies [in the UK], which normally I’d be happy to do, but it’s just weird to be doing it while I’m trying to film a sensitive scene about whatever it happens to be, drug-dealing or mental illness…”

It’s been almost 30 years since Theroux began his TV career working for US documentary-maker Michael Moore on TV Nation, where his bookish demeanour helped land him the job because it proved a funny contrast against his subjects – klansmen and cult members. So how much of what we see of Theroux today is “real”? Or is he performing?

“I am a performer. We all, in our work mode, have performances. If you work in retail or sales, there’s a performative aspect,” Theroux says.

“I do know that when I’m on location and I’m interviewing someone, I’m conscious of there being a camera. But it’s not a performance in the sense of me being untrue to who I am.”

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This edition of The Big RT Interview originally appeared in the Radio Times magazine. For the biggest interviews and the best TV listings subscribe to Radio Times now and never miss a copy.