I was standing outside a pub yesterday, quietly sipping a Guinness and waiting for a friend, when a lorry pulled up at the traffic lights in front of me. Emblazoned across the side were two girls: one left very little to the imagination, while the other wore an impractically small football shirt as she straddled a (non-regulation) football. Despite the intention – to raise my awareness as to the effort this particular gentlemen’s club had put into their theming before Euro 2012 – immediately my mind turned to an interview I’d read with the director of the film Elles (Malgorzata Szumowska). Szumowska, defending herself against allegations of glorifying prostitution and luridly selling sex on screen, pointed out that it was a cliché to think all escorts were Eastern European sex slaves or pneumatic American pin-ups. Rather, Elles highlights (among other things) that the sex-industry is larger, and more broadly populated than we lead ourselves to believe.
The wider issue of denial – seen here as the denial that some liberal, intelligent women enter prostitution wilfully – is vital to understanding how societies function, and why they choose to exclude and include certain behaviours – why is Cannabis illegal, but not alcohol? for example. First though we should recognise that personal denial is like a religion in its power and execution; it is the hope of protection (against, for example, emotional hurt) through faith (believing that a boyfriend / girlfriend hasn’t cheated on you when, for example, friends may suggest otherwise). Denial at the societal level is an extension of this desire for protection, as well as validation that as an individual, family, or community, you behave within the moral boundaries of the wider governing groups (e.g. the nation).
Denying that, in the 21st Century, intelligent women sell sex is to come from the opinion that prostitution is wrong or vile, and not only beneath you, but beneath the moral norms that you share with other people in your society. Denial in this instance serves to uphold society’s values, which in turn reflect well on the individual.
There is a widely held misconception – wilful denial in my opinion – that drug users, all drug users, are junkies, rockstars, or both. As a society we wrap all our misgivings about drugs into small groups such as these and push them to the periphery so as to protect the integrity of the whole, and to maintain, in the words of one Mr. Mackey, the belief that ‘drugs are bad, m’kay’. Drugs do cause, or are responsible for, huge problems – personal trauma, the breakdown of families, extensive burden on the health system, low-level and organised crime etc – and these appear to be caused by a small number of people (heavy-drinkers, or drug-addicts), however behind this small number is a mass of people who contribute significantly to these evident problems, and are also almost entirely responsible for perpetuating the myth that drug-taking is the pastime of a few forsaken reprobates.
For clarity it’s important to note that anyone reliant on sleeping pills, or who likes the odd extra glass of wine before bed, should be considered part of this silent majority. The line of illegality is an historical relic poorly drawn, and the almost arbitrary squiggle that it’s become is highlighted, in just two examples, by the cost of alcohol on the NHS and the number of deaths caused by legal highs.
However, the recognition that the use and abuse of substances varies depending on whether that substance is heroin or gin is not a point we can skip round. That the ‘problem’ on a prosaic level is not just how bad one substance is, but how many people take it, is subject to the strength of both your personal denial and self-love. But for the sake of brevity I will concentrate from here on illegal narcotics.
It is my belief that a vast number, if not a majority of young men in London take Class A or B drugs at some point in their lives. Anecdotally this seems to be for a few (if not most) years in their twenties. These aren’t addicts or rockstars, they’re accountants and barmen.
They do so regularly or semi-regularly throughout this snapshot of their lives, and yet they turn up to work, pay their bills, and watch TV like everyone else. They are loving sons, generous boyfriends, and valued colleagues.
They are functional drug-users. And they are everywhere.
If we think back to Elles there is a point where, when asked if she’s happy (by a prostitute she’s interviewing), Juliette Binoche responds, ‘We’re not here to talk about me, I don’t think’.
There is still a terrible and dangerous sex trade, as there is a drugs trade, but as a society we need to be better attuned to the part we play in each, otherwise we will isolate the few and condition ourselves to believe two halves of the same lie.