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Caveat emptor

india Updated: Sep 15, 2007 23:17 IST

I’m writing this from a lonely, air-conditioned hotel room in Chennai. Just a few moments ago, a gentleman with a tray of coffee had entered the room. It is rather late at night, and coffee, I figured, has a better chance of keeping me awake than the latest Naipaul book or any television channel.

The liveried gent had placed the coffee tray on the table and lingered. Perhaps he wanted to air his opinion on the contentious Ram Setu that has divided opinion in the country north of South India. Or maybe, he wanted to sit down and talk to me about what he thought of the British government’s plans of making it illegal for men to buy sex. It was hard to tell why he lingered. So I smiled, thanked him and gave him an honorarium for his free service and closed the door behind him.

Plopping back on the two-postered bed, staring at the ceremonial ceiling fan and then at the bad reproduction of the portrait of a lady by a turn-of-the-century Austrian artist on the wall, I turned my thoughts away from Lord Ram being propositioned by Surpanakha, Ravana’s sister (Indrajit’s aunt), and focused instead on Britain’s latest knobbly plans to outlaw the economic exchange of consensual carnal activity.

Now, I might not be the man who’s written the column above me, but I know enough of supply-demand economics to know that it takes two to rustle up an Argentinian dance routine. It turns out that the British law intends to prosecute men for buying sex, instead of the ‘normal’ practice of rounding up the usual suspects: the women selling sex. The logic seems to be that only by criminalising clients will women working in brothels and on the streets be helped. The operative word here, of course, is ‘help’.

The standard argument all over the world, GB Road included, has been that a majority of sex workers (am I a word worker?) have been forced into prostitution. While the jury is still out on that one, despite trafficking playing a large part in this unorganised sector industry, cold rational thinking tells me that if you drive away customers, any business will collapse. It may be terribly noble to publish pictures of men hiding their faces as they are trundled into police vans – instead of publishing pictures of women hiding their faces as they are trundled into police vans. But how does it ‘help’ people who earn their living by selling sex for cash?

Britain’s come a long way, baby, since Harris’ List of Covent Garden Ladies, or Man’s Pleasure’s Kalendar was first published in 1767. It now wants to replicate the example of Sweden – where buying sex has been illegal, but selling sex has been perfectly kosher, for the last eight years. Apparently, the country responsible for the cult classic, How to Make a Baby, (which played to packed houses in one Calcutta cinema in the 80s), has managed to slash the number of brothels in that cold country significantly.

And that’s the thing about ‘liberal’ countries. They probably feel as icky about prostitution as we do. And yet, there’s political correctness that holds them back. So what do they (plan to) do? Talk about trafficking being the problem. Or even better, crack down on the men whom the ladies want to do business with while understanding the ‘necessities’ of the ladies in question.

In Martin Scorsese’s great moral epic, Taxi Driver, the anti-hero Travis Bickle wants to rescue a young prostitute from the clutches of prostitution. This he goes about by killing the men – the pimp and clients – and anyone in the way. It turns out that the girl doesn’t want to be ‘saved’, which confuses the noble, unhinged Bickle to the core. Methinks we will see some similar confusion in the land of whom Harris’ List described as Miss Smith of Duke’s Court in Bow Street (“A well made lass, something under the middle-size, with dark brown hair and a good complexion”).

Meanwhile my moral dilemma: do I tip the liveried gent when he comes to pick up the coffee tray in the morning?