Documentaries about sexuality provide the viewer a unique glimpse into other people's sex lives. They offer something that isn't quite pornography (even though some people may find them pornographic) and isn't Hollywood's representation of what real sex is. At their best documentaries about sex let people represent themselves and share their experience with the rest of us. At their worst they are a freak show, parading real people in front of a camera and setting them up to seem pathetic, pitiable, and plastic.
The list below (presented in alphabetical order) includes my favorite sex documentaries as well as other docs that in my opinion have missed the mark. But you should be the final judge of what works for you, so consider them all. If you have a favorite that isn't in this list, or if you want to add your comments to any of the descriptions, let me know.
The filmmakers, Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato, picked up male sex workers on the Santa Monica strip and offered each of them $50 to come back to a room and do an interview for this complicated portrait of male street sex work. Like most of their work the film is an exercise in gawking and exploitation but the filmmakers are up front about this, and as a viewer you have a choice. And while they weren't getting paid much, at least they were getting paid and given the opportunity to speak their minds.
A largely glorifying documentary about African American street pimps, men who make money by managing female sex workers. It's hard to know how much of any public discussion of pimps is hype, and this film doesn't do much to begin to untangle the way that race and racism informs what we know and how we talk about pimps in the United States. Directed by feature filmmakers the Hughes Brothers.
A documentary about the organization NAMBLA (North American Man/Boy Love Association) which believes that adult men and young boys can engage in health sexual and emotional relationships. A difficult subject but an important one for documentaries to address in a direct way. I'm not sure how I feel personally about the way this film treats its subjects, but I know that it's better that we have the film to use as a discussion and educational tool.
Documentaries about porn industry tend to give us editorial, often moralistic, fantasies of good and evil, self-deluded, or coerced women preyed on by lotharios lurking near the bus station. The Girl Next Door, offers a compelling alternative to the traditional tale. Christine Fugate’s documentary manages to do something few films about the porn industry succeed in, she provides a sufficiently pruirient voyeuristic look into the porn world AND she lets her subject represent herself on screen without heavy-handed editorial.
This National Film Board of Canada production was a flashpoint for the so-called feminist sex wars of the 1980s. Considered by some to be extreme propaganda and by others to be a heroic truth telling exercise, this documentary takes a clear anti-porn stance in its investigation of the sex industry and the people who work in it.