Editor-At-Large: Men are two-faced bastards. Madam, I rest my case

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The Independent Online

If ever you want proof that men are two-faced bastards, consider the case of Margaret MacDonald. Ms MacDonald comes from a nice middle-class background.

These days she speaks five languages fluently and is learning another three including classical Arabic and Japanese. After a convent education in the Home Counties she completed business courses at universities in London and Reims, and studied at the Sorbonne. The chief executive of a successful business which traded in 20 major cities, she employed nearly 600 operatives and was considered a charming, fair boss. She had advertised her business for years in the classified pages of the International Herald Tribune, so clearly was not exactly operating in a clandestine manner. She wasn't a gun-runner, a drug-dealer, a trader in body parts or a fly-by-night conwoman operating a time-share scam. She wasn't a slum landlord or an arsonist.

Yet today this woman languishes in jail in Paris, handed a four-year sentence and a fine of £105,000 for "aggravated procuring" of women for prostitution. Not one of her clients, or her employees, has spoken a word against her. Not one person in this ludicrous saga has claimed to have been exploited, to have done anything disagreeable or unpleasant, or given a service for which they were not amply rewarded. No one was forced to have sex with anyone they did not want to. Terms were agreed in advance, no one felt poorly treated as a result. Yet the police who arrested her called her a "pimp".

France, like Britain, has a repugnant attitude to the sex industry. In London and Paris, girls as young as 12 or 14, mainly from eastern Europe, sell themselves for sex on the street. They are run by organised gangsters (ie real pimps), fed drugs and treated like pieces of human garbage. A documentary on Channel 4 showed immigrants from eastern Europe in Rome even selling their 12-year-old sons for sex to a reporter. Our own government seems over-exercised in stamping down on anti-social behaviour among the young, issuing tagging orders and trying to keep unruly youths locked up in their own homes rather than come up with a strategy that would provide them with places to feed their enormous energy in a creative rather than a destructive manner. When it comes to removing girls exactly the same age off the street and deporting their pimps they seem to have a depressingly low success rate, and seem strangely unmotivated.

The jailing of Ms MacDonald could so easily have happened here. Remember the case of Cynthia Payne, who received a six-month jail sentence in 1980 for running a brothel in Streatham where "luncheon vouchers" were redeemed for sex. Why is the legalising and licensing of brothels not even on the Government's agenda? In France, we are seeing a right-wing government wasting time arresting people like Ms MacDonald when a survey shows that 63 per cent of the French population want brothels licensed, and one in 10 men claim to have had their first sexual experiences with prostitutes. A fine would have sufficed to repay any tax unpaid by Ms MacDonald.

The whole idea of calling sex for money "immoral earnings" seems arcane when half the twenty-somethings in London will be having unprotected sex on Saturday morning with someone they meet the previous evening. It's OK to shag in toilets, corridors, behind dustbins and in cars, and then wake up and text message your friends. And yet Ms MacDonald, who seems to be providing a perfectly good service, gets a longer sentence than a paedophile teacher (15 months handed out by the Court of Appeal last week).

For some reason, madams such as Heidi Fleiss, Cynthia Payne and Ms MacDonald are regarded as master criminals, who have to have custodial sentences. All clearly possess skills that would go far in many spheres of public life. It is just their misfortune that the majority of the people who implement laws are male, the very people who also form the majority of the consumers of the sex industry in all its many guises, be it lap-dancing clubs, peep shows, "saunas", strip clubs, cheap hookers, or explicit, top-shelf magazines. Of course, women like pornography, and some pay for sex, but I would argue we are not the people providing the millions of pounds of untaxed income that drives the sex business in Britain.

David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, has an opportunity to face up to the needs this huge industry serves, and should start by making it more accountable by licensing brothels. That way he gets rid of the pimps and gets the drug dealing off our streets. And who better to act as his adviser than Ms MacDonald?

Cut and run

Cult director Jane Campion (The Piano) showed her latest work, In the Cut, in the London Film Festival last week. Meg Ryan has undergone a radical transformation into grungy English teacher who ends up having an affair with a relentlessly macho detective investigating a serial killer in her neighbourhood. It was about as convincing as me playing Meg Ryan in When Harry Met Sally ... After watching about two hours of endless dimly lit sex in squalid apartments, I came to the conclusion that Ms Campion likes her women to be victims. Both Meg and her half-sister seemed weirdly limp and pathetic, putting up with stuff that no woman I know would stand for. In the first scene Meg goes for a drink in a rough bar with a black student, leaves her bag on the table as she goes down a pitch-dark corridor to the loo, where she watches a girl giving a man a blow job. I was very pleased to see her bag, with all its contents, still on her seat when she returned and found her friend had gone. Clearly Ms Campion likes to blur fantasy and reality, for this is not New York life as I understand it. Frankly this is a feeble detective story dressed up as "art" cinema, and not worth the bother.

* Staying at the Hotel du Vin in Brighton last week, I ate supper at 6.30 on Sunday night before I went off to perform my show in the Comedy Festival. The dining room was empty, but of course we had to sit by the kitchen as it was the only table "available". At breakfast the next morning all the guests were pushed together in the centre of the room, because that's what the staff wanted. A friend got a corner table by virtually having a tantrum. It's interesting how staff ask you if everything's all right all the time, but they haven't actually twigged that you, the customer, are more important than they are. The people on reception could not have been nicer, but there's something about young waiters that drives me nuts. If there are four in a restaurant and two people want bills, you can guarantee the staff will all be staring at the computerised ordering machine, having a good chinwag.

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