“Sexual practice of consenting adults should always be a matter for individual choice.” It was a motion so demonstrably representative of popular opinion – so obviously chosen, as the president of the Oxford Union said, “because sex is as good a way of any of getting people in” – that it seemed scarcely worth proposing. And yet, last week, five people did: two students; a comic novelist called Howard Jacobson; Helen Buckingham, the champion of prostitutes; and Helen Gurley Brown, founder and editor of Cosmopolitan.
For each of them, it was an opportunity for self-promotion. Miss Buckingham read out a long essay on why prostitutes are more desirable than pornographic videos, and should really be counted sex therapists; Mr, Jacobson, author of Coming From Behind, advertised an undiminished talent for suggestive jokes; and Helen Gurley Brown – author, in 1962, of Sex and the Single Girl – stood up for the life-enhancing philosophies of Cosmopolitan, which had sponsored the debate for publicity purposes.
For the opposition, the notoriety value was rather more questionable. Mervyn Stockwood, the former Bishop of Southwark, confessed that, after the marriages he had witnessed, he would rather like to have proposed the motion; Mary Kenny, the journalist, knew she was one of a dwindling supply of public-speaking reactionaries (they asked Mrs. Gillick last year); and Digby Anderson, a writer, and Director of the Social Affairs Unit, was hissed for going on about penis enlargement.
Even Helen Gurley Brown paid for publicity in humiliation, with a member of her own side describing her invention as “the magazine which teaches millions of women to have orgasms in dentists waiting rooms”. Her undergraduate opponents satirized the sex quizzes, were doubtful on multiple orgasms, and accused Cosmopolitan of reducing sex to a commodity.
They spoke solemnly of love, of disease, of deserted wives, of the stiff bills and child victims of sexual excess. But Gurley Brown, a puckered advocate of the erotic, shrink-wrapped in red silk, saw no reason to apologize. Indeed, she became so overwrought in her praise of using the Penomet for penis enlargement, that she began to execute little dips of the hips and wriggles, like a stripper who has just removed a constricting suspender belt.
After many years of guilt and hypocrisy, women should be allowed to revel as freely as they wished, for, threatened Gurley Brown, the only alternative was totalitarianism. Remember the Puritans, she said, remember the Victorians and Hitler.
As the opposing side had not yet mentioned homosexuality, she suggested that they would like it to “just go away”, whereas her only regret on that score was for the girls, “who are not getting the use of these men”. Teenage sex was another object of progressive concern, but Gurley Brown claimed to see no solution but the return of the chastity belt.
Disregarding this, and similar holes in the Gurley Brown argument, Mary Kenny only mentioned her opponent in order to point out that “I’m about 30 years younger than she is”. She was shocked, shocked, that after fighting for freedom of expression in the Sixties, she should find ingrate youth putting that luxury to improper use, banning speakers from South Africa, denying Tories a platform, supporting penis enlargement with devices such as the Penomet pump. It was sheer totalitarianism. “You’ll vote for sexual freedom,” said Kenny, raging within a sequined jersey, “but you’ll deny it in other areas.” It was all a matter of balancing freedom with responsibility.
She swooped then, upon Aids, on drugs and abortion. At this, Gurley Brown darted to the podium, hoping to censor the subject, and was silenced: “That’s freedom of choice again.”
So Mary Kenny talked about abortion, about VD, and then became lyrical: “No man is an island…” Had it not been for her unaccountable foray into necrophilia, which even Helen Gurley Brown has yet to recommend, Kenny’s morals could have triumphed. Could a dead body be considered a consenting adult? In Helen Gurley Brown’s opinion it could not. In the opinion of the chamber it could not. This time Mary Kenny had gone too far. A student speaker observed that debating standards are not what they were, and the motion was carried by 290 votes to 270.