It was back to basics at Intelligence Squared last Tuesday as we debated the morality of prostitution. Newspaper executive Jeremy O’Grady proposed the motion by taking us on a graphic tour of Amsterdam’s red-light district which he’d visited ‘in an anthropological capacity’. The spectacle of hungry-eyed men sloping from door to door with their moist tongues lolling from their mouths had convinced him that buying sex was demeaning to all concerned. ‘Thinking about sex in the same way as buying a ticket degrades your humanity.’ Mutual desire should be the essence of sexual relationships. Anticipating his opponents’ arguments he examined the notion that courtship and marriage are morally identical to prostitution. The difference, he said, is that a man taking a woman out to dinner is paying to facilitate her desire for him. When he hires a prostitute he’s paying for the absence of her desire for him.
Opening for the opposition Germaine Greer argued that our entire society is based on commerce. ‘Everyone must sell something to make a living.’ She knew from experience that ‘waitresses who show cleavage get tips’, and she saw no reason to single out prostitutes for censure. ‘There’s a lot of faking it in the service industries, sex included.’ Attacking the myth of ‘sexual idealism’, she rubbished the idea that coition produces a mystical convergence of the souls. ‘Just because he puts his little finger up your nose doesn’t mean you’re spiritually united.’ There are worse things to sell, she said, than your body. ‘Your child, your kidney, your soul.’ In comparison with ‘the whole panoply of exploitation that is the consumer society, prostitution is honest and innocent’.
Independent columnist Joan Smith led off with a barrage of statistics proving that a high proportion of UK prostitutes are trafficked and forced to work as sex-slaves for no wages. Even where prostitutes aren’t coerced physically, they’re driven into the profession by poverty or addiction. Prostitutes live in constant fear and danger, with many ‘suffering trauma levels comparable with combat veterans’. The men who use their services are disgusted by sex and motivated by power-lust and a desire to degrade and hurt women. Smith’s solution was ‘the Swedish model’ which criminalises the punters, not the prostitutes.
Rod Liddle offered some sceptical pragmatism. ‘The relationship between the sexes is transactional and always has been,’ he said, and he analysed erotic desire according to gender: ‘Men can produce 365 children a year (more if you’re Russell Brand), while women can produce just one. Naturally women seek partners who’ll provide wealth and security while men seek partners who are youthful and fertile.’ Ethically, the rites of marriage are no different from ‘a topless hand-shandy procured for 15 quid behind King’s Cross station’. The ineluctable truth is that all sexual relations are determined by biology and economics.
Cultural critic and philosopher Raymond Tallis regretted that sex could be traded as a commodity. ‘It reduces a woman to a human pissoir’ and ‘brings something deeply impersonal into the ultimate physical expression of intimacy’. As a philosopher he was reluctant to make absolute statements so he qualified his side’s argument with an adverb. ‘It’s usually wrong to pay for sex,’ he said.
Dr Belinda Brooks-Gordon, a psychologist and expert in the sex industry, queried Joan Smith’s statistics and said the figures on sex-slaves are overstated. The crimes committed by traffickers and by violent punters are already illegal and are irrelevant to the question of prostitution. Her experience suggested that many prostitutes are intelligent, well-qualified women who enter the profession willingly. Many of their customers have honourable motives too. Ageing widows, war veterans and the disabled have a right to enjoy sex. Criminalising such harmless, consensual contacts would create ‘sexual McCarthyism’ while diverting police resources away from real criminals. During the floor debate Dr Brooks-Gordon’s views were endorsed by a highly articulate prostitute who provided this ironic characterisation of ‘the Swedish model’ as proposed by newspaper columnists like Joan Smith. ‘Suppose it were legal to write a column,’ she said, ‘but illegal to read one. Imagine how your income would be affected.’ That brought it home. When the votes were taken the motion had been soundly defeated.
VotesBefore the debate For 134 Against 341 Don’t Know 221
After the debateFor 203 Against 449 Don’t Know 45