Sex is everywhere, but we're not as relaxed about it as we like to think

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The Independent Online

I see no reason at all to doubt the premise of Irvine Welsh's novel Porno, that sex now is everywhere, as common a human currency as conversation about the weather, and every bit as meaningful. Even if one's actual social life is too sheltered for such a fact to be strikingly apparent, the briefest of trawls into the media confirms that it is so.

I see no reason at all to doubt the premise of Irvine Welsh's novel Porno, that sex now is everywhere, as common a human currency as conversation about the weather, and every bit as meaningful. Even if one's actual social life is too sheltered for such a fact to be strikingly apparent, the briefest of trawls into the media confirms that it is so.

Channel-hopping after 11pm? Wandering along a commercial high street and being exhorted to "Fcuk for Britain"? Or simply opening an e-mail account and waiting to see what turns up in the inbox? Each of these activities seems designed to confirm to the innocent consumer that there's nothing wrong with selling sex, to any person, of any age. Even former cabinet ministers, it seems, aren't beyond getting in on the act. Last week Mo Mowlam signed up as an agony aunt for the childish, sex-obsessed Zoo magazine, alongside a "glamour model" called Jodie Marsh.

All of which makes it rather anomalous that actually selling sex - outside the confines of one's own home - remains illegal. How can it be that in our market-led utopia, the market dictates nearly everything, except whether or not a person can make an honest living from prostitution? Could it be that in these oh-so-liberated times, we're still a little confused?

Certainly the Government seems as confused about prostitution as it did a hundred years ago (when, in contrast to us, society was highly repressed yet prostitution was still totally massive). David Blunkett, in proudly announcing the first major overhaul of the laws about the sexual market for 50 years, compares himself to Gladstone. For him, prostitution is still about saving fallen women from themselves.

The policies that attract him most are those that promise to "keep girls out of prostitution and to help women escape the trade". In other words, what the Home Secretary would like most of all is for the horrid problem of prostitution simply to go away. This desire he shares with the electorate. Few people are concerned about prostitution, unless it is causing a problem in their own neighbourhood.

And because the sort of chaotic prostitution that is conducted on the streets is so often an indicator of other social ailments - deprivation, poverty, abuse, poor education, addiction - in most neighbourhoods it does cause a problem.

The Government's new consultation paper might hope to reduce the stigmatisation of women that occurs when they turn to prostitution. But as long as our attitudes around sex remain so confused, the prostitute will remain a hate figure.

Yet if Mr Blunkett is confused about prostitution, he need not feel too many pangs of shame over the matter. It turns out that even prostitutes are confused about prostitution, as the initial response to the paper from the International Collective of Prostitutes confirms. The collective is against any action that makes the already blighted lives of prostitutes more difficult. But it emphatically does not want "managed zones", where prostitution is allowed in limited areas, or even full-scale legalisation. This is because "prostitutes prefer to keep their anonymity, their freedom and their complete earnings", even though they want the police and the judiciary to move away from punishment and towards protection.

In other words, prostitutes want the sympathy and the protection of wider civil society. But they don't want to pay any of the taxes that provide these things.

It's an interesting vision of a self-starting enterprise charity, fraught with danger, linked to organised crime and feared by householders up and down the land, unanswerable to government or citizen, yet protected by them when things go wrong all the same.

And it is also very much in tune with the temper of the times. The permissive society aims for freedom without responsibility. This is the sexual universe that we are encouraged to embrace. But all it creates is a dangerous, uncivilised, lawless mess.

Women suffer, men suffer and nobody worth respecting wins. Why do we know this? Because if we were really as relaxed about sex as the consumer culture tells us we should be, then there would be no market for prostitution at all. But there is, and it would help us to face the reality of our sexual lives if the law acknowledged that.

Infidelity, mendacity and impotence

Sometimes the metropolitan media goes utterly bonkers over a "story" that is actually of absolutely no interest to any normal person. It knows it is wrong to keep publishing this stuff, but it can't help itself. Just like I can't now. The saga of Rod Liddle and Rachel Royce is one such story.

The couple broke up recently. Ms Royce, who has two children with Mr Liddle, has been explaining the mechanics of the break-up in the newspapers.

Why she thinks this is a good revenge on Mr Liddle, a man whose entire notoriety is predicated on his inability to stay out of the limelight and get on with his job, is anybody's guess.

Mr Liddle has been maintaining what to him is a dignified silence on the matter, claiming only that he is not proud of what he has done. Mendacious, unfaithful, willing to place unbelievable pressure on his children in the pursuit of his own selfish gratification, Mr Liddle has plenty to be ashamed of.

So far, though, he only wants it on the record that his former wife is wrong to imply that he might ever use Viagra. With an entire being so terribly priapic, why would he need to?

¿ Conflicting news about MRSA. It was described by one newspaper as the thick-skinned variant of a bug that lurks in our noses and dines on sugar, forming grape-like clusters that can do without food for weeks on the skin, waiting for a new host.

Which makes it sound quite invincible, until you read in another newspaper that you can get rid of the bug completely by washing it off the skin in question with soap and water.

People say that part of the problem is that the NHS doesn't grasp its enormity. I'd go one further and suggest that it is Britain as a whole, not just the NHS, that has lost its faith in soap. A recent survey suggested that the British suffered more abroad from dodgy tummies on holiday because we don't bother with basic hygiene.

Somewhere down the line we got the idea that soap was nasty stuff that dried your skin out and should only be applied when the word "opera" was being bandied about. Now what we need to bring back is nice cakes of brick-red carbolic that you cut up with a cheese wire. Now wash your hands.

¿ This week, former Cabinet minister Ms Mowlam can be read answering Danny, by e-mail, who wonders if he should dump his girlfriend because sex with the prostitute he's been seeing is better. Ms Mowlam gently suggests that this is a bad idea. How extraordinary to learn that she can actually spot one sometimes.