The Stigma of Prostitution
The fall of the (former) Governor of New York, Eliot Spitzer, was a glorious windfall for comedians, political pundits, and connoisseurs of schadenfreude. But lost amid the jeering laughter (and disappointed tears), the competing tendentious agendas, and the grave scholastic commentary was an opportunity for us to collectively ask: what’s wrong with us?
Perhaps we need a moment of thoughtful consideration about why we Americans accept prostitution in virtually every area of adult life, except when it involves a woman’s vagina.
This space has previously suggested that anyone in the abortion debate who claims to be pro-choice, especially on grounds that a woman (and not a bunch of rich and predominantly white old men) ought to have final say over what she does with her body, must logically also support the legalization of prostitution. Curious: few feminists have joined the fight.
For Americans bred on Calvinist traditions, it’s much easier to joke about the Governor’s debacle (“Why did he hire the whore? Because she’s a swallower, not a Spitzer”) and decry his hypocrisy (He ran political campaigns on a crusading Mr. Clean agenda) than to examine the even larger hypocrisy of making prostitution an illegal act. Let us segregate the issue from its baggage, eliminating the aggravating and mitigating circumstances. Let us talk about prostitution without including the separate issues of marital infidelity — which my city’s own Mayor and favorite basketball player, along with a jillion other people, have enjoyed repeatedly without having to resign their jobs — and saying one thing and doing another, a behavior that politicians, even alleged leaders and role models such as Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and John McCain, have raised to a kind of black art. Let us simply look at the transaction.
If selling sexual service, or, more precisely, the use of oneself for another’s benefit, is how we commonly understand prostitution, then I can say with the kind of certainty typically found in talk radio hosts and Most Reverend Bishops that I am a whore, you are a whore, and probably almost everyone we know is or has been a whore. Whoring is how one gets by. We do things with our lives that, were it not for the money we are given, we wouldn’t do voluntarily. We rent out not only our bodies but our minds and our emotions. We invest all of ourselves — or at least some of ourselves, if we’re not too serious — in pecuniary pursuits, abjuring that which we really want to do with our limited time on Earth for that which pays our bills and helps us acquire the goods and status that seem to give our existence some meaning and worth, however transient. I’m not referring to the squalid, dirty and dangerous vocations endured by coal miners, garbage haulers and fish cleaners. I’m talking about tax lawyers and dentists, mortgage brokers and restaurant managers, childcare supervisors and policemen; journalists; jingle singers; gemologists. Soccer stars. Trophy wives.
In the case of the trophy wife (and many wives who aren’t necessarily trophies) the main differences in their prostitution and the kind practiced in a brothel or by a streetwalker is that the married woman’s is more lucrative, performed exclusively (in theory), and perfectly legal. We may snigger at the gorgeous young lady who enters into holy matrimony with a man much older and fatter and uglier than she, but so long as he possesses a suitable dowry (or the means to an American passport or Green Card) we forgive the whoring. Her motives may be suspect, but, after all, it’s her body, her life, and she may choose what she wishes to do with it. Just as it is nobody’s business but the willing bride’s who she sleeps with and why, it is also nobody’s business with whom the unwed woman chooses to sleep — and why, or how much, she is paid. Nonetheless, we rush to “protect” those who want to increase their earning power one client at a time instead of one client forever.
As numerous locales outside the United States have proven, legalized prostitution has demonstrable, measurable benefits. In parts of Mexico, much of Europe, and other putatively civilized republics, sex workers enjoy legal and medical protections, and society enjoys the spending power of the tax Euros they generate. Even though my city, Los Angeles, is filled with brothels — literally hundreds of them, which advertise themselves as various homeopathic clinics and massage parlors — we seem to feel better about ourselves if we view these thriving businesses as criminal rather than respectable.
Practically speaking, there’s not much difference between a massage parlor that offers happy endings and a spa that offers happy massages. The brothel is ostensibly a place to relax, to have some fleeting pleasure, to, um, blow off some steam. The spa is the same, except with more expensive scented candles, better recessed lighting, and write-ups in Elle. That the shiatsu masseur (usually) doesn’t bring his grateful clients to orgasm makes the pleasure he imparts with his body — mostly his hands, which he rents for the hour — not only legal but worthy of discussion in polite company. And if the trip to Canyon Ranch was intensely pleasurable, a physically delicious interlude with a well-compensated stranger? Well, that’s OK, you see. Because nothing involved penises or clitorises.
In these increasingly violent and inequitable times, our government and our law enforcement authorities, have one or two things more important to worry about than women (and some men) renting themselves for the sexual pleasure of others. And we, the citizens who decry prostitution at one moment and practice it ourselves in the interim, have far better things to do with our fleeting lives than concocting victimless crimes to make ourselves feel morally superior.