We’ve all been there.
You know – when you fancy a bit of rough and tumble, but there’s no-one to rough and tumble with?You can compare it to that late night Ben+Jerrys craving, which drives you out of the house in your pyjamas and flipflops to the corner shop.
(Good luck with that in France – you’ll have to just wait for the boulangerie to open, and make do with a 6am croissant instead.)
Much the same with sex, right?
If Tinder isn’t coming up with the goods, you can head to your local brothel, “massage” parlour (technically speaking, it is a bit of you that needs massaging) or darkened urban woods, and pay someone some money to er, satisfy those needs.
Prostitution: the oldest profession in the world.
But surely, without coercion, cash-for-cuddles is not A Bad Thing?
Well, you tell me.
Firstly, who’s “bad”? (apart from Michael Jackson, c. 1987). And what is bad? Morally bad? Is there difference between selling your body and, say, sitting behind a checkout all day every day? (I can tell you from experience: the latter is also tough love. Especially with customers who present you with two hundred coupons when it comes to paying).
We all have to earn money somehow, and it’s usually done by providing something that someone else is willing to pay for. Is trading sex any different, any more subservient, to scanning other people’s shopping for hours on end?
And bad for whom? Bad for the prostitutes themselves? Not if recent protests in France are anything to go by, with hundreds of sex workers demonstrating in April against a new law penalising clients (a 1,500euro fine, raised to 3,750 euros for reoffenders: that’s an expensive orgasm).Presumably the clients don’t see anything wrong with it, either. 343 men (including some French household names) even signed an open petition, Touche Pas A Ma Pute (“Leave My Whore Alone”) rejecting the government’s meddling in affairs of the heart, ahem, other love muscle.
So, then. Sex: supply and demand, just like any other traded good?
Of course not.
Because you don’t buy sex like you do your tub of chocolate-chip-cookie dough (I think on most nights I’d prefer the latter, anyway).
The hand-wringing (?ho) that accompanies prostitution comes down to morality and human rights, not economics. Generally, we approve of sex if it is voluntary, pleasurable to both parties, and legally conducted (granted, the last condition often depends on religious or moral norms; sex between two men is still a crime in many countries; adultery in Saudia Arabia carries a death sentence in some cases).
So the idea that women (70-80% of sex workers are female) engage in sexual intercourse with men they would never normally want near them, were it not for the money, has us at best clearing our throats and at worst enraged.And even while it is understandable that sex workers would oppose any new law which would puts their livelihoods at risk, it is hard to believe that anyone would willingly aspire to sell sex as a livelihood in the first place. Spot the false quote:
I love my job! I love having to have sex with lots of different men every day, men I’d never otherwise sleep with. Perks include being at constant risk of violence, rape, pregnancy or sexually transmitted disease. Ever since I was little, this is all I ever wanted to do. Dreams can come true!
Put it this way. If prostitution is such a cheerfully chosen route, then why are sex workers mostly migrants or from poorer backgrounds? For example, of the estimated 30-40,000 prostitutes in France, 80% are from Eastern Europe, Africa, China and South America.
Coercion is not then just a question of being forced by someone else. It is also being forced into choosing prostitution over destitution: which doesn’t feel like much of a choice to me. If you lack money, employment, skills, a visa, have a family to feed, or even just yourself to feed: are you still freely choosing to become a sex worker?
It is for this reason the new French law provides funding and support (e.g. temporary visas for migrants) to help sex workers leave prostitution. Although the amount of funding has been criticised as largely insufficient (“sticking plasters” in the words of French Senator Esther Benbassa), the aim is laudable, and follows similar moves elsewhere. France is the 5th EU country to legislation in this way, taking Sweden as its example, where similar laws passed in 1999 are said to have halved street prostitution.
Penalising clients or prostitutes is one response to prostitution; the others are legalisation … or simply pretending it’s not happening. Regulation has the advantage of offering social protection to those officially recognised as sex workers (e.g. pensions, healthcare) or removing illicit conditions which trap sex workers in a life of invisibility and dependency.Governments who opt for the second approach (*crosses street whistling*) may do so because sex is seen as a private (non-state) matter, or too much of a moral conundrum to tackle, or perhaps because the act of buying sex itself is tolerated as a boys-will-be-boys fact of life (on which more anon).
But whichever the preferred response, none receives universal support. The legislation in France was passed after two and half years of vivid parliamentary debate, and many MPs abstained in the final vote. Feminists themselves are divided: selling sex is about the right for a woman to choose what she does with her own body, versus, well, the right for a woman to choose what she does with her own body.
I still don’t know what to think, myself. I instinctively abhor the idea that anyone, for any reason, feels obliged to endure the intimacy (and, frankly, discomfort) of unwanted sex. Even if you are paid, so what; is that anything less than monetized rape?
And yet how can we not respect those who say they can and will continue, since there will always be clients willing to pay?Why is that, actually?
It is simply that Men Have Needs (akin or greater to the Ben+Jerrys cravings) that cannot be self-served or simply contained? Needs different from women, who seem to be able to make it through the night without going curb-crawling?
I wonder what would happen if we started to question that assumption, if we approached prostitution as an indulgence, rather than an inevitability. Would men think twice about paying for sex, if there were a bigger reaction against doing so? Would society think twice about tolerating those “needs” so comprehensively? Would there be a longer-term change in demand (and therefore supply)?
Who knows. The focus of the debate is elsewhere for now: on whether or not – and how – commercial sex, and sex workers, should be regulated. There doesn’t seem to be much room for philosophical ponderings about why it has to happen in the first place: the bottom line is that money can, and will, buy you love.
Or at least, that BJ.
(Ben+Jerrys, of course. What did you think I meant?)