Monday, May 08, 2006

Unsuccessfully Grokking Prostitution

News reports from the German brothel industry pending the World Soccer Championship have set me a-thinking about prostitution. It's one of those tricky issues where I find it hard to make up my mind.

Is prostitution a problem? If so, who are the victims? Who are the perpetrators? What are the ethical aspects of prostitution? Quite apart from ideals, what is the best practical stance for society to take regarding prostitution? Are there important differences between prostitution and participation in pornography? Should we allow people to do whatever they like with their bodies as long as they aren't harming themselves physically? Are there physically harmless acts that nobody can perform without harming their minds? Or that nobody in their right mind wants to perform?

To me, prostitution is a deeply alien thing. One of the main points of sex for me is the mutual affirmation involved: "I want you and you want me, yippee, let's get it on". Not "I want you and you need cash, spread 'em". But then, I'm reasonably pretty and outgoing, so I've been lucky with women. Imagine the horror of having a strong sex drive, a repulsive exterior and a shy personality. I can see that it might feel better to get it on and pay for it than not to get it on at all.

Apparently the people who either buy or sell sex are a minority among the population. And I gather that most prostitutes have a history of childhood sexual abuse. So we might perhaps tentatively say that prostitution is a symptom of a psychological problem in both buyer and seller. I mean, what kind of self-image does a john have? Either he deludes himself that he's actually buying love, or he gets off on thinking himself able to "dominate" the prostitute, or he believes that the only way he can get someone to go to bed with him is by paying them.

I'd be absolutely shattered if someone I care about began to buy or sell sex. I'd see it as a big problem that I'd have to help do something about. But then again, I know a charming and popular guy who used to be a sailor when he was young, and he makes no secret of the fact that he would buy sex regularly when on shore leave. And I know another guy who runs a bar in the Far East, and he is explicitly aware that the bar girls used to cater to his needs (before his marriage) only in order to be able to use his place to pick up business. "I've got no looks and no charm, I'd never have a chance with gorgeous girls like these back home in Sweden." Again, it might feel better to get it on and pay for it than not to get it on at all.

Take a young junkie, supporting himself and his habit by turning tricks, occasionally getting beaten by johns or his pimp, inexorably wearing himself down. What's his biggest problem – drugs or prostitution? What's the hen and what's the egg? If society manages to get him de-toxed, will he also quit selling himself? If society gets him a real job, will he de-tox of his own accord so he can keep the job? Or should we decide that junkie prostitutes no longer have free will in any meaningful sense and that we must take care of them forcibly to keep them from dying on our doorsteps?

Or take a former member of the Romanian national gymnastics team. If her choice is between working a checkout counter at a supermarket six days a week, or recording ten mullets-and-Doppelpenetration movies a year and making considerably more money – should we pity her if she chooses the latter? Or maybe the question is, should we think in terms of choice, of free will, at all? Because most pretty Romanian supermarket clerks for some reason don't move into porn.

In Sweden, it's illegal to buy sex or facilitate a sex-money-transaction. It's legal to sell sex, recognising that prostitutes are, by-and-large, victims with quite enough problems that they really don't need police harassment and criminal punishment as well. In Germany, just a short ferry ride across the Baltic, buying and selling sex is legal, pimping is not. Quite a number of prostitutes are legitimate businesspeople and pay taxes. Legitimate businesspeople having sex with sixty paying strangers a week. I really find that demeaning.

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12 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's like shawls and muslims all over again. I'd like to advocate a banning but I know it's never going to work
Vitnir

09 May, 2006 15:13  
Blogger Martin said...

Yeah, I just can't seem to get my head around it. Liberalism only goes so far when we're dealing with people whose capacity for free rational choice has been compromised. We must solidarise, but we can't take away people's freedom.

09 May, 2006 15:18  
Blogger Martha said...

It's a complex and thorny issue. Prostitution gives me the creeps, and just intuitively feels wrong, like there's a distinct power imbalance at play. And yet, there is no question that other people feel very differently about it than I do. Is it possible that some women, who are psychologically healthy, do find something they enjoy about selling sex? I really don't know. And what about those who buy it? For some reason that feels even worse to me. I suppose if you can keep your sexuality absolutely removed from your emotional life, such transactions could be positive. But I can't do it, and I don't think most people can without some terrible damage to themselves. It's one of those issues where, in a perfect world you might be able to make the business clean and equitable, but in the real world it almost never is.

10 May, 2006 19:38  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Which is worse: Selling your body or selling your soul?

10 May, 2006 19:47  
Blogger Dead Hippie said...

During my senior year in college I remember running across an antiquated book from the 70's in the stacks of the library dedicated to "Sexual Rights."

One chapter specifically dealt with the sexual rights of "The Ugly"...

The authors argued that gettin' laid was an implicit human right and a "just" society would set up some kind of social service agency that would allow the undesirable to get their ashes hauled at state expense...

Of course their proposal would entail sexual surrogates---which is basically another form of prostitution (with a greater emphasis on "touching" and "empowerment)...

From what I can tell, the initiative never went anywhere but I've always wondered what would have happened if this program were implemented...

(I just wish I could remember the title of the book!)...

11 May, 2006 06:00  
Blogger Martin said...

Martha: I'm glad that I'm not the only one who can't really figure this out.

There's a lot of not very emotional sex going on (one-night-stands, fuck buddies, gay cottaging) where the participants are nevertheless quite happy about it. But these people are doing it out of mutual desire and each of them has some kind of sense that "I am desirable". If a prostitute approached me with a come-on, I'd be like "No way! I'm a hottie: if anyone's getting paid here then it should damn well be me!".

But it's not about being a hottie. It's about self-respect.

11 May, 2006 09:35  
Blogger Martin said...

Anon: I don't know what selling your soul means. Acting against your deepest convictions? Well, I'd certainly prefer working for the arms trade to selling my ass. But I'd prefer selling my ass to working as a torturer or an executioner.

11 May, 2006 09:37  
Blogger Martin said...

D. Hippie: the issue of sexual rights for the ugly and disabled is alive and kicking. There are disabled activists who campaign for a state allowance to visit prostitutes. I seem to remember this is actually implemented in the Netherlands. It always seems to involved disabled men.

I don't know about this either. But, if being ugly and shy and not getting it on is a horror, imagine being ugly and shy and not getting it on -- and having no hands to reach your own genitals with.

11 May, 2006 09:44  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Maybe you are thinking of Denmark Martin? My point of view is that sex isn't a human right and that disabled people have to do what everyone else have to do, find someone who likes you. I can't for my life understand that paying for sex would ever be a surrogate for real love and emotions and I don't think people who pay are realy longing for love and emotions anyway.
Vitnir

11 May, 2006 10:04  
Blogger Martin said...

Vitnir, I think you're more right than perhaps you realise. Ugly and disabled johns are probably in many cases not paying for sex as a surrogate of tender love. I reckon they probably simply want to get off.

As I said, there's a huge amount of non-romantic bonking going on without anybody getting paid, and the bonkees generally seem to find this worthwhile despite the absence of deep tender commitment.

11 May, 2006 10:13  
Blogger Dead Hippie said...

Martin:

11 May, 2006 17:34  
Blogger Martin said...

Yes, honey?

11 May, 2006 18:57  

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