UK: What’s Wrong with Paying for Sex?

Raymond Tallis, Rod Liddle and Germaine Greer tackled the ethics of prostitution at a debate at the Royal Geographical Society this week. Web editor Anna Bruce-Lockhart went along to see how it went.

Thursday November 13th 2008

Is it wrong to pay for sex? This was the motion of a debate I went to hear this week at the Royal Geographical Society in west London. The title alone was intriguing enough, but added to the irresistible allure was the prospect of watching Germaine Greer battle it out in public with the boffinous Professor Raymond Tallis (one of Prospect magazine’s top 100 public intellectuals and the man Radio 4’s Kirsty Young identified as her favourite Desert Island Discs castaway) as well as Rod Liddle, columnist for the Sunday Times and Spectator.

Greer and Liddle were against the motion, which slightly confusingly meant they were for the idea that it’s acceptable to pay for sex. Tallis and his two cohorts, more about whom later, were against.

Greer’s argument was that paying for sex is only natural when you are part of a culture in which everything is for sale anyway. “Waitresses smile for tips, nannies treat children with tenderness for a paid wage. Financiers sell their souls – and that’s a lot worse.” One point came across particularly clearly: that it would be cruel of society to expect unattractive people who can’t get sex the usual way to go without it their entire lives – “After all, we can’t ask them to be celibate.”

Next to speak was Professor Tallis. He was one of the heroes of the night – witty and likeable, and taming the indignant Greer with retorts such as “Good riposte! Poor point though”, to the delight of the audience. Also, in response to the wry interruptions of Liddle: “I’m not sure you’re actually making a point so let’s put it in parentheses for now shall we?” before seamlessly picking up where he’d left off.

To him, paying for sex was degrading. His speech was pretty high-brow – and to be honest I didn’t understand a lot of it – lots of lengthy, elegant sentences with impregnable words. But my overall impression was a poignant one – that our deepest human need is to be loved and cherished by another person, and reducing the sexual act to an itemised bill of what goes where was deeply inhuman. “It’s wrong, but not from a moral standpoint,” he concluded. “Sex is beautiful, and paying for it diminishes us all.”

I assumed that because Rod Liddle was sitting next to Germaine Greer and had spent much of the evening frowning matily with her every time the opposition said something vaguely opposing, that he would be both progressive and a feminist. How wrong I was.

Despite the perplexed brow and self-effacing shoulder hunch that sometimes denotes someone who is quite bookish and quite nice, he struck me as a bit of a twit: while outlining the case that prostitution is inevitable, that it’s just the way we’re built, he opined that in one way or another men were always paying women for sex anyway – whether it was taking a girl out on a date, picking up the bill at dinner, or even marrying the wretched creature in order to make sure he had sex on tap.

Not one person challenged him on this point – although a woman in the audience came back to it later on, saying that she, for one, enjoyed having sex and had never felt manipulated into this joyous activity via jewels or a free dinner. I rather wanted someone to ask him what century he thought it was and whether he knew women were allowed educations these days, and jobs, that they had money of their own to spend in restaurants, thanks very much. But I didn’t, of course, as that would mean standing up in front of everyone with a microphone and stringing words together in some sort of order.

Joan Smith, writer and human rights activist, picked up a more militant theme when it came to her turn. Women who became prostitutes, she said, did so out of necessity and not because they enjoyed it. Many had pre-existing drug habits – and more than that, the men who took advantage of their services were misogynists. In fact, most of the men who picked up prostitutes hated women and wanted to abuse them. There were a few gasps from the audience at this point – although the two pursed-lipped ladies sitting beside me met it with murmurs of approval.

Her argument was proved, she said, by the figures: mortality rates among “prostituted women” (Smith prefers this term) were six times higher than among the general population. “Prostitutes are 18 times more likely to be murdered,” she stated, to stunned silence.

But then the debate opened to the floor – and an interesting thing happened. A woman stood up and introduced herself. “My name’s Katharine,” she said, “and I’ve been working happily in the sex industry for the past 10 years.” I can’t imagine the courage it took for her to do that. She was frank and clever and made the point that to label the sex industry as wrong, and to criminalise men who went to prostitutes, had a destructive effect on the prostitutes themselves – many of whom enjoyed what they did and should be allowed the right to keep doing it.

At the end of the evening, the side of the debate that espoused Katharine’s view won out. Greer, Liddle and their third team member, Belinda Brooks-Gordon, won the majority vote and the motion was passed in London that night. It is perfectly acceptable, should you want to – whether you are male or female, heaven-sent or physically repulsive – to hand over money for payment in kind.

Link to original on The Guardian

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