Unsuccessfully Grokking Prostitution

Dear Reader DuWayne asked what I think about prostitution. By way of answer, here's a re-run of an entry on that issue from May 2006. Two years later, I am no wiser.

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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Martin wrote:
"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 - ..."

The supermarket job is a LOT more money than acting in porn movies. Moderately famous porn actors typically make less than $30,000 a year, I have heard.

I normally like your writing, but I have so many issues with this article. Two words - cultural bias.

This post is dripping with cultural "attitude". First of all, what on earth is the "World Soccer Championship"? Are you talking about the World Cup (in 2010), or the European Championships? I know it seems petty, but it perfectly illustrates the problem this whole article has, that it gives of an attitude of "my culture is the only one that matters".

You say, for example "most prostitutes have a history of childhood sexual abuse". Where are the references? Is this true, or is this just something you read in a newspaper??

"We might perhaps tentatively say that prostitution is a symptom of a psychological problem in both buyer and seller". Surely turning to prostitution could logically be a healthy approach to take. It was shown just recently that men on average tend to have a greater sex driver over a longer-term relationship than women. Even if the guy loves his wife, he may feel a burning, evolutionarily-driven need to satiate his desire for sex that could result in him making unreasonably demands of his wife, creating tension in their relationship, or having a romantic affair. In that sort of circumstance, paying for meaningless sex with a reputable prostitute is the most rational thing to do - you're not emotionally betraying your wife, and you're satisfying a desire that is part of what makes you human.

You say "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". Or, just maybe, he doesn't want an emotional attachment. I can't help but feel that your projecting yourself onto this character.

There's also this huge assumption that all prostitutes are damages or needy or abused. Now, of course there are problems with prostitution - sex slavery, child abuse, drugs and so on, but can you not accept the possibility that there are plenty of well-paid, well-protected women in reputable establishments that are quite happy to do this for a few years to pay for that medical degree or whatever?

I normally enjoy your writing, but I think this is poorly thought through, and I think you've let your own American-isolationist, anti-prostitution cultural bias show through. You're a scientist, get some perspective!

Other than all that though, great blog!

I'm not into spectator sports, so I can't tell you what soccer championship was played in Germany in 2006.

Sweden has 9 million inhabitants. It would be pretty hard to argue that our culture is the only one that matters. Even though it is of course true.

Two years later, I don't remember the reference for a history of childhood sexual abuse among prostitutes either.

I gather that a man can can quite easily find attachment-free, attraction-based sex without any money changing hands. Provided, of course, that he looks OK and has some modicum of charm.

As the above entry attempted to lay out, I have conflicting opinions about prostitution.

I don't understand then why you've reposted something from two years ago, saying "I'm none the wiser", while not attempting to do any further research on it!

For example you say "I gather that a man can can quite easily find attachment-free, attraction-based sex without any money changing hands. Provided, of course, that he looks OK and has some modicum of charm".

Well, I direct you to a very recent post on the Freakonomics blog, interviewing a call girl for her views on the Spitzer affair:

"Q. What percentage of your clients are married?

A. Almost all of my clients are married. I would say easily over 90 percent. I'm not trying to justify this business, but these are men looking for companionship. They are generally not men that couldn't have an affair [if they wanted to, but men who want this tryst with no stings attached. They're men who want to keep their lives at home intact."

It seems that with a bit of googling you could have come up with something a lot stronger, and maybe challenged some of your assumptions about the issue.

"Two years later, I don't remember the reference for a history of childhood sexual abuse among prostitutes either"

But why didn't you include it at the time you wrote it?

It disturbs me to see someone on Scienceblogs stating unreferenced facts, when rightly or wrongly you're seen as an authority in the science-blogging world. Surely you have a responsibility to be a lot more careful than this?

The comment made about the Spitzer case (and about Hugh Grant a few years back) was that "desirable" (wealthy, powerful, good looking) men (and women) don't pay hookers for sex, they pay them to go home afterward. We are social-networking creatures. Imagine the stress of being that valuable a node.

Then there are the other end of the spectrum - those clients who are never going to get laid any other way, or who think they aren't. I knew someone who worked at the VA hospital with quadriplegics and amputees. The nurses knew when the veterans checks had come in because the hookers would follow shortly.

I'm not sure the 'history of sexual abuse' theory plays out, though if a john with a firm background in psych 101 wants to probe into her background, no doubt his date for the evening is smart enough to come up with what is expected. More likely (and from the few working girls I've actually talked to), they were raised in a transaction-based environment, where there is no unconditional anything, much less love. That doesn't imply force or abuse, though it's still pretty sad.

Can't speak to the drug (or runaway) problem, except as perhaps a marker of desperation.

Not only cultural preconceptions but categorization errors here. Treating prostitution as one category really obscures the issues. A huge amount of prostitution in this world might better be characterized as sex-worker slavery. This is where the prostitute (mostly women) has been kidnapped or otherwise coerced and is controlled by violence and sometimes drugs. Surely, no person with a shred of humanity has any "mixed feelings" about this. A very small minority of the world's prostitutes are free-agent high priced call girls or boys, just one step removed for gold-diggers who trade slightly less explicitly on their sexual appeal. I take it in the article you're talking about this small minority of "prostitutes".

So, when asking whether people should be free to trade sex for money, one has to consider that legalizing prostitution may facilitate sex-slavery, as the Netherlands appears to have realized recently. Nicholas Kristoff wrote a recent insightful column where he essentially proposed that this issue outweighs all the other considerations about legalization of prostitution, and in the real world he may be right. If one were able to wave a magic wand and redefine prostitution as only voluntary exchanges of sex for money, it does become murky. For one thing, you have to draw legal lines over how explicit the exchange is. What about buying someone a nice dinner and a present, in return for having sex with her or him? What about a relationship where one person is the provider of money and the other's role is to be a "trophy" spouse? Another thing, you have to criminalize consensual behavior by adults that does not hurt anyone else but themselves (assuming suitable precautions are taken for health purposes).

The alternative take from Kristoff's is that full legalization of prostitution would permit authorities to intervene more effectively against sex slavery by making the whole thing more open. Unfortunately, this does not seem to have been the case in the Netherlands. Also, given the degrading aspects of selling one's body (an issue that of course applies whether explicitly for money or for other trade) do we really want to encourage this kind of transaction? On the other hand, people do all sorts of other degrading things for money, and is servicing someone else's sexual needs ultimately any worse than for example cleaning toilets?

By Albion Tourgee (not verified) on 15 Mar 2008 #permalink

Martin, I don't claim the kind of authority for this blog that you seem to be expecting. Here, I'm an essayist on scientific and other issues, writing for fun.

Also, don't be fooled by the acronym after my surname: my education and published scholarly work is almost entirely in the field of Scandy archaeology.

Albion's comment is spot on.

Prostitution is many, many things in many different cultures. On the one hand, the U.S., U.K. an Europe have a major problem with sex-slavery. In terms of legalization I can see arguments either way... it would make most sense to me if it were taxed, and the money invested in an agency responsible for dealing properly with sexual health and exploitation. Given that slavery is already a problem, surely the only way to tackle it is to work with the industry?

And yes, it's shades of gray, which is why I think the author is being quite offensive to prostitutes when he suggests that they are all "damaged" in some way. Different people have different value systems. Personally, I'd much rather be a well-paid toy for rich women than box for money clean toilets, sweep streets, pick up rubbish or whatever. And the qualitative or quantitative difference between prostitution and, say, acting, or marrying rich can be quite small at times.

Martin R said: "I'm an essayist on scientific and other issues, writing for fun."

But that's a little debatable. I mean, you paid by Seed Magazine, and you're a high profile blogger with a big audience. Both to my mind mean that you have a certain degree of professional/journalistic responsibility, or am I missing the point of the ScienceBlogs project completely?

I'm surprised at how you guys look upon cleaners of toilets and floors. I think their work is important and respectable. It would take astronomical sums of money to make me sell my body if I could clean toilets at the going wage instead.

Martin, thank you for the compliment. I got the readership I have by writing things like the above entry. The point of the Sb project is subject to daily reinterpretation. I never willingly deceive my readers when it comes to science, but as to my reliability on non-archaeological issues, your mileage may vary. I'm always willing to learn from my readers.

I don't look upon them badly, that's the whole point. Their work can be considered important and respectable. Your suggestion that the work of a prostitute is not important or respectable is based entirely on your opinion and cultural bias. If prostitutes aren't important, why is there such a massive demand for their services?

What I'm actually saying is that cleaning toilets may be a little unpleasant, but it's valuable to everybody around.

Getting fucked by a bunch of johns daily, on the other hand, seems so unpleasant that nobody should have to endure it, and it is of no value to anyone except the individual john.

Sweden has 9 million inhabitants. It would be pretty hard to argue that our culture is the only one that matters. Even though it is of course true.

Yes, of course it is true, but it might be easier to argue if there were 291 million more Swedes. Keep that "American-isolationist ... cultural bias" coming, Dr Martin, on all things archeological, including German incest, dagmammas höna, prostitution and the one-winged American political system.

And if you would just tell me, please: when was the last time you saw a "Sweden, Love It or Leave It" bumper sticker?

By Daniel Murphy (not verified) on 15 Mar 2008 #permalink

Thanks Daniel. There have been attempts by our tiny extreme right to display stickers reading "The last Swede to leave, bring the flag". But they tend to be torn down by myself or some other wog lover.

Prostituting oneself is obviously a personal decision, whether it's influenced by a drug habit, financial need or some sort of overwhelming desire to demean oneself. I don't look at it from the ho's point of view, but from an instinctual social perspective: any man who needs to pay for sex is a loser. You are not entitled to sex, no matter how high your sex drive is. Have some respect for your wife and get some self control. Have these people never heard of masturbation? The argument of the high sex drive is so lame. Get over your patriarchal self already.

Sarah said: "Get over your patriarchal self already."
Don't try and play the "patriarchal" card with me, you know nothing about me aside from my comments in this forum, none of which have been in any way "patriarchal", had you bothered to read them properly.

Firstly, who said I was just talking about men paying women for sex? This an assumption *you* made. In fact, the article I linked to earlier in these comments pointed out that men were moving into prostitution too.

Also, Don't try to paint me as sexist by putting words in my mouth. I did not say that men were "entitled" to sex. What I said/implied was that in some cases prostitution may have in fact saved marriages. If that's against your particular belief system then that's your problem - I'm just trying to get to the bottom of the actual facts, without bias one way or the other, and pointing out that all prostitution is not necessarily the same. Not only that, but I've also been arguing against the suggestion that all women who sell sex are "damaged", by pointing out that some may see it as a rational choice, and that we shouldn't rush to judge women, like you seem to want to.

Martin R said: "Getting fucked by a bunch of johns daily, on the other hand, seems so unpleasant that nobody should have to endure it"

And yet, some people *choose* to. And just saying "well, they must be broken or mentally ill" is falling back on a convenient explanation without actually examining all the facts. Maybe it's right - and in many cases it probably is - and maybe it's wrong, but it's just a sweeping assumption you're applying.

The outrage about people selling their bodies when alive is tantamount to the outrage of the desecration of dead bodies. It's just flesh. What's so decent about selling your time and mind 40 hours a week to something you don't approve of, compared to selling your body 2 hours a week for the same amount of money?

"Clearly, these pugilists are coerced into participating in violence. Let's outlaw boxing audiences."

While I agree that the issue of sex slavery and human trafficking is deplorable, is it any less deplorable for young men to be trafficked with the expectation of spending years in hard physical labor in restaurants, construction, or sweatshops to pay off their traffickers? This happens as well, and is an issue of internationalism and class.

In fact, I think most of the difficulties here are difficulties of internationalism and especially income/class. I do not think that a person -male or female- who seeks to offer sexual services and companionship at a rate of more than $1000/hour- with complete veto power over any given client or requested act- is being exploited and needs our increasingly scarce social resources to go toward protecting them. This is the case in the Spitzer matter. Should this type of thing be illegal? Or should this be legalized and heavily taxed?

Also, I think anyone would agree that someone underaged, addicted, or mentally ill, or in a situation where they are coerced to offer sex for sale by physical abuse, emotional abuse, or hunger/desperate financial need should of course be protected and assisted.

Martin R., I suspect that the prostitutes in Sweden who are businesswomen paying taxes see many fewer than sixty clients per week and have ongoing relationships with many of them, perhaps relationships extending for years. I don't know the going rate in Sweden, but from the Spitzer coverage in the States, the "typical" rate for an not-on-the-street sex worker appears to be around $250/hr. That level of reimbursement certainly doesn't demand a sixty hour work week. I suspect most of the sex workers in Sweden are probably pretty healthy and functional individuals who enjoy both what they do and like making that much money without needing an advanced degree.

There is a column written by Mistress Matisse, a current dominatrix and former escort, in the Seattle newspaper "The Stranger." She discusses her experiences as a high end escort (although I don't think as "high end" as Spitzer's "Kristen"). It's worth a google to perhaps dispel some stereotypes about who chooses to do sex work and who chooses to see a sex worker.

As a New Yorker, I say, Bring on the hoowas

By King Solomon (not verified) on 15 Mar 2008 #permalink

Martin R -

Wow, I hadn't noticed you responded with a whole new (old) post.

I think we're dealing with a personality difference. I happen to be in a monogamous relationship with my partner and the mother of my two kids (just had the second in December), so I don't get around any more. But I used to. A lot. I actually really enjoyed sex with strangers. Not that I had a problem having sex with friends, believe me, I enjoyed that too. But there was definitely something special, also rather naughty, about having Teh Sex with a stranger (always with the condoms, always (accepting my current partner). That's just one of my fetishes. One that I happily live without these days, but one that was big, years ago.

At the time, I would have really gotten a kick out of getting paid for sex. To me, the greatest thing about the sex, is pleasing my partner. I don't have an interest in teh really beautiful people, average to dorky is fine with me, as long as I can really provide a really incredible sexual experience. The whole notion of getting paid for it, wasn't about the money, I didn't need it at the time. It was all about the ego and a hefty dose of narcissism.

My personal experience with prostitutes is rather an odd sampling, which fails to reflect the general reality of prostitution. I knew a lot of male prostitutes, who danced at a gay strip club I danced in for a short time. The only other prostitutes I have any more experience with (other than seeing them in passing, when I walk to the corner store at night), are women who worked with a friend I grew up with. They all work in a legal brothel in Nevada.

I will admit that it well could be the result of being an tiny enclave of freedom, in a much larger country where it is illegal. But I tend to think that if it is legal and strictly regulated, a lot of the worse is going to be drastically reduced.

I know that in the portions of Nevada where it is legal, there are also very strict regulations. Not just health regulations, such as using condoms and regular vd testing. Brothels are legally required to have a certain level of security, based on how many people are working in an establishment. All rooms are required to be equipped with panic buttons. At least some of them go a lot further than the law requires on all fronts, because of liability issues. Some actually have audio surveillance, on top of the panic buttons. Some will actually run stings on their employees, to make sure they are complying with condom and other safety rules.

The women that I met there were just people making a lot more fucking, than they would at most anything else. My friend (the girl I lost my virginity to, oh so many years passed) is in some ways, a lot like I was (and in some ways still am). She is a narcissist. She really likes the sex and likes the feeling of power she gets, getting paid for her company, by relatively wealthy men - and paid well.

The boys I knew from the club, OTOH, tended to follow the pattern of exploitation and/or other, related crappy situations. Granted, there were a couple who seemed pretty genuinely enthusiastic (their pay reflected it too) but mostly they were porned out junkies (of a variety of substances). I would presume that several of them had a really crappy life, some were probably abused, sexually, physically and/or verbally.

I would imagine that for the most prostitutes, it really ends up little different than any other job, monotonous and boring.

Sarah C -

I don't look at it from the ho's point of view, but from an instinctual social perspective: any man who needs to pay for sex is a loser.

You know, there are a lot of men who fit that bill to a tee. But that is far from the whole of those who frequent prostitutes. A lot of folks would rather pay for the sex because they have no interest in a regular partner and little interest or even time to play the game. One of my oldest friends is a legal whore at a very high end house in Nevada. The men who come to her are not losers. Most are pretty average looking, but all of them are wealthy business men (and the odd business women). Most of them just don't have the time and energy to put into relationships, being rather married to work.

Get over your patriarchal self already.

Did you seriously just say that? Seriously?

I find it terribly amusing that you use the exact same puritanical, bullshit arguments that the actual patriarchy (in the U.S. the religious right) make about prostitution. Exactly the same.