Subterreanean Sex

Robert Stagg 25 January 2008

Harriet Harman has been making noises recently. This is unlike her. Since she has become a paid-up and face-down member of the governing classes she has made her already sub-cognisant musings sub-audible too. She has shut up. It consequently came as something of a jolt to hear her on Radio Four a couple of days ago, talking about prostitution, sounding as passionate as she was hectoring. She huffed, and then puffed, about her contempt for smutty newspaper ads.

She offered a lame slice of evasiveness about censorship. She toured European attitudes to prostitution with all the zest and brio of a Wikipedia print-out. Nonetheless, she whirled this listener along for a tolerable four minutes.

But there’s something not altogether satisfying about Ms. Harman’s benign analyses. There’s too much of the milk of human kindness about her, compounded by an ugly wish to ventilate about societal ills. It’s an unattractive combination. She can prattle all she likes about making the act of paying for illegal sex, and cite Sweden as an exemplar as she wishes, but there is no space for nuance under all the inflated sighing. The Swedish government, claimed the criminalising of male customers has taken a thousand prostitutes out of ‘circulation’. They have. Sex has gone subterranean. ‘Clients’ are concerned about prosecution, so the trade has shifted from dimly populated streets and brothels to apartments where the male species can wave their privates, and their fists, as privately as they like.

The effect on Sweden has been palpable. Sex trafficking into the country has doubled. It’s become a destination, an especially secret disco, a venue, a cible. Swedish authorities consider prostitution dead. Thus: no urgency for rehabilitation programs, counselling, and all that dirty jazz.

The Swedish system is a mirage. Moreover, discussion in this obsessively gendered fashion has permitted our elected representatives to make fiery and rash statements. Godfrey Bloom, a salaried moron from UKIP, indulged in some hazy social analysis when pondering “outside of sex trafficking, it seems to me that it’s the women exploiting the men”. Well, yes, we just can’t keep our trousers on when a tickle of temptation comes along. But that’s quite the point.

Attributions of blame are plainly stifling discourse. It’s possible that Harriet Harman has strolled into the psychological trapdoor flagged up by Franz Kafka in The Trial: “The right understanding of any matter and a misunderstanding of the same matter do not wholly exclude each other”.

The legalese of all that needn’t furrow our brows. Harriet Harman understands that we cannot allow the grubby process to continue feeding on itself. But what she doesn’t apprehend, and probably can’t comprehend, is that elimination and prohibition rarely equate. The desire to trade steady gazes at genitalia is almost exclusively a private one. When dragged, bawling and cringing, into the embarrassment of social quarters, it will cease feeding upon itself and begin cannibalising itself. The difference there is a slim but essential one: one that Mr. Kafka grasps, and one that Ms. Harman has blithely let slip.

Robert Stagg