Pete Martin: Morality a cover for control

Plans to regulate sexuality could lead to a more controlled society, argues Pete Martin. Picture: Reuters
Plans to regulate sexuality could lead to a more controlled society, argues Pete Martin. Picture: Reuters
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REGULATING ‘sexual entertainment’ may promote safety on some of our less salubrious streets but could it also be a cover for suppressing dissent and reducing levels of tolerance in society, asks Pete Martin

Last week, the Scottish Government published a consultation paper on the licensing of “sexual entertainment”. In my whole life, I don’t think I’d ever heard the phrase “sexual entertainment” before. Certainly, growing up in a typical Scottish house in the 60s and 70s, there wasn’t any.

At the first hint of hanky-panky on television, my dad would suddenly develop a loud cough and feel an overwhelming need to change the TV channel. Or mum would desperately need a cup of tea, and send me to make it.

My older brother did once bring a copy of Playboy home, which was almost instantly detected by our mother. When my brother misbehaved, my mum would try to knock sense into him, sometimes with a broom handle. For my sins, she merely admonished me, saying – I thought, somewhat sadly – “Not all women look like that.”

In my limited experience, I’ve found this to be untrue. Unlike most blokes, the female of the species tends to look pretty good in the buff.

So, when I first left home, perhaps as an act of rebellion or a sign of my newfound cosmopolitan self, I put up a big painting of a nude woman in my room at the university halls of residence. When my mum came to visit, she didn’t mention it. She simply hung her coat on the picture.

In truth, I guess I’ve led a fairly sheltered life since then. When we set up our creative agency in Leith, the area was considerably less chi-chi than it is now. With broken windows and grimy net curtains, Malmaison was a doss-house for down-and-out sailors; and Coburg Street was a destination for kerb-crawlers. We started our business there simply because the rents were low, and the Kings Wark became our habitual haunt on Fridays after work.

Early one evening in summer, my business partner and I were leaving the Wark. As we stepped into the warm air, a silver-haired gentleman in a nice grey suit and tie stopped us with, as Coleridge might have said, a glittering eye. “Excuse me lads,” he said. “Can you tell me where the hoors hang out?” The answer was obvious since the women waited in plain view round the corner by the bridge over the Water of Leith. But before we could reply, he added: “None of your young things, mind. I’m just an old ship’s cook”. We duly gave the ancient mariner the information he sought. Then he pointed at the Kings Wark. “See that,” he said. “That used to be a great pub. It used to be the hoors’ place. Now it’s just full of f***ing yuppies.” Standing in what we imagined were trend-setting suits with denim shirts and loud ties, it’s still unimaginable he mistook us for men of the world.

Indeed, the first time we stumbled into a strip joint it was by accident. That’s how worldly we were. After attending a creative awards show, we wanted to go for “one for the road” and found a small down-market bar that seemed to open late. Sat in the corner close by the pool table, we were halfway through our first pint when the tough-looking barmaid approached us. “If you want to stay in,” she said, “it’s £3.”

This seemed a small amount to pay for a “lock-in”. So we duly coughed up . Then a young lady in lingerie leaped on to the pool table and began gyrating. She was wiggling her derriere so close to our pints we were worried she might spill our drinks. As the old Double Diamond ad used to protest, “We’re only here for the beer”.

That seems true of any boozy blokey night out I’ve been on. About once every seven years, by my reckoning, at some ungodly hour you might find yourself propping up the bar in a strip joint. However, the most interesting jaunt was on a “stag do” to Berlin at a point in my life when I’d given up drinking. In tow with a bunch of pie-eyed guys when you’ve been on sparkling water all day, you get a clear-eyed view of the business of paid-for nudity.

The place is crowded and the atmosphere heady. But I’d say most punters are there for a laugh rather than a leer. And they’re not all men – there are fully-clothed women among the audience. Some things I guess you wouldn’t notice if you’d had a few drinks. The ratio of working women to drinking men is low – as is the standard of the fit-out and décor. Like a dark, sparkly fairground for grown-ups, it’s all façade, jaded and faded. And, despite the smiles and flirtation, the women really are working. Smart, tough and stone cold sober, they seem pretty good at parting men from their money.

Which isn’t to say that “sexual entertainment” doesn’t look like a difficult or potentially dangerous job. You could imagine the fine line between the need for tough guys for protection, and the risk of scary men for exploitation. You can imagine a conveyor belt of catastrophe that moves from exotic dancing to drugs to prostitution and violence. But maybe it is imagination. The Scottish Government’s 2005 Working Party on sexual entertainment “did not find significant specific evidence of criminality linked to adult entertainment venues in Scotland”.

Officially, stripping is linked with only one drug. The 2005 Working Party recommended that adult entertainment should still be controlled under alcohol licensing. In 2010, the SNP government tried to introduce a separate system – an idea rejected by the Scottish Parliament as too complicated. Now, with the aim of improving safety and working conditions – and tipping its hat to gender equality issues – the new consultation re-opens that debate. It also includes the consideration that local authorities could effectively ban such businesses in their areas.

According to the Scottish Government, there are about 20 sexual entertainment venues in Scotland. I suspect that the vast majority of us do not care about them. We are neither particularly turned on or off by the idea of strippers, female or male. Indeed, the popularity of TV shows such as Game of Thrones – with scenes that would have given your dad a coughing fit – suggests we’re much more broadminded than our parents’ generation. We think titillation has its place – after the watershed, on a hen night, in a “gentlemen’s club”. It’s just the in-your-face sexualisation of daytime life that gives us pause.

Nonetheless, it seems certain we are entering a period in which permissive attitudes will come under attack from pressure groups. Well-meaning liberals who don’t trust men will have genuine concerns about gender issues, exploitation and violence. Mean-minded reactionaries who don’t trust women will merely clamour for a clampdown on individual freedom.

In the UK, such “morality” seems political, if not hypocritical. Conformity is a form of social control, suppressing dissent around inequality, economic opportunity and democratic participation. The real difficulty is that one man’s morality is another woman’s stoning: too often repression and oppression go hand in hand.

As Freud suggested – and the Catholic Church has evidenced more recently – repressing sexuality isn’t the best idea. It just comes out in weirder ways. That’s why Victorian values don’t produce safer, more equal societies. Open, broad-minded, free-thinking cultures do. And they do better economically too.

The challenge for modern Scotland is how to create safety and social justice within a tolerant, shame-free culture where people can be confident in their own sexuality. I can’t imagine that this consultation on paid-for nudity will catch the public imagination. But it may say something about how broad-minded or buttoned-up Scotland really is, and the results could be revealing.