The Royal Geographical Society has seen it all. From Darwin arguing 100 years ago that we are descended from apes to Germaine Greer arguing last night that it is wrong not to pay for sex.
The debate was organised by IQ2, and the house was packed with the great and the good of London’s chattering classes. I dashed back from Copenhagen to hear the sparring, smashing my laptop on the way and thus missing the first few minutes of Joan Smith’s entirely predictable and utterly dreary rant against trafficking. I don’t think any of the 650 or so people in the audience would deny that it is wrong to subject children to repeated rape, or wrong to smuggle people in to a country where they don’t speak the language and can’t leave an unwanted job. But that’s not what the debate was about. It was about buying sex. And since the overwhelming majority of punters buy sex from people who want to sell it, there doesn’t seem to be a problem. As Germaine Greer said, when you’ve agreed to buy a service from someone who has agreed to sell it, it would be wrong NOT to pay for it.
Other speakers for the “it’s wrong” side were a little more subtle in their arguments, but no more convincing. Jeremy O’Grady essentially used the “sad fuck” argument: people who can’t get laid for free are miserable gits who should be ashamed of themselves, while Raymond Tallis went for the sacred nature of the union: the stickiness, heavy breathing (oh, and orgasms) justified only in the glorious conjoining of two kindred spirits. (Though when I asked him afterwards, he allowed that masturbation was OK.) On the other side Rod Liddle was not especially relevant but certainly not wrong in arguing that the sex trade would continue regardless of whether it was wrong or not, while Belinda Brooks-Gordon brought a bit of humanity to the discussion, actually relaying the experiences of some sex workers (imagine!).
The most coherent arguments of the evening came, not surprisingly, from my mate Catherine, who likes her job selling sex quite a bit and stood up in the audience to say so. Like many sex workers, she’s cross that people like Ms. Smith are trying to make the job she loves so hard for her. Joan replied that she didn’t want to crimimalise people who sold sex, just those that bought it. Which Catherine pointed out was like allowing people to write anything they wanted in a newspaper, but making it illegal to read the paper. She was funny, coherent and utterly convincing, and I’m just sorry she wasn’t up there on the stage. I had actually suggested her as a speaker to one of the blokes who was organising the debate, but was informed that the IQ2 likes to stick with intellectuals. As though selling sex and being intellectual are somehow mutually exclusive…
The chatterers were, however, persuaded voting 449 to 203 AGAINST the notion that it is wrong to pay for sex. The organisers redeemed themselves by taking both Catherine and me for a jolly dinner in great company, and on the way home Catherine seduced me into buying an Apple Mac to replace my shattered PC. I paid dearly for it, but am greatly gratified. How can it be wrong to pay for pleasure?