Culture in Mind

Mental health, culture, and ethnicity

Sex and the Stigma of Money

The buying and selling of sex

This post first appeared on my policy blog: http://ProvokingPolicy.blogspot.com on November 20, 2011.

Whoredom and Free Sex

Call a woman a whore and you have declared verbal warfare.

Underlying this aggression is the notion that sex, because it is so valuable, should be given freely and that money contaminates the mutual exchange of physical intimacy.

I have taken a few economics classes recently and despite the discipline's ability to confound intuition and everyday logic, this concept of 'free is better' still escapes my young economic mind. My mathematical mind can't seem to conjure up the right equation either.

It is said that money can't buy you love (though some may disagree) but why should it not buy you sex? Legally.

It appears to be more socially acceptable (though more by young adults than us older folk) to get drunk and have sex with some recently met acquaintance than it is to soberly and intently have sex where money changes hands. (And for the purposes of this piece I will focus on women getting paid by men).

The question for me is: If sex is so valuable, why can't women charge for it?

Patriarchal Ancestry

The answer lies in patriarchy. Should women be free to sell their bodies as they wish then the 'sexual value' of women goes down. What is not valuable in freedom has no value in control. Rape becomes less of a weapon because there is no man to incite to anger, no woman to shame. The woman will always hurt when violated but when the free sexual expression of women becomes hers to do with as she wishes, then the shame and stigma of sex—in all its forms—decreases.

In the USA there is a stigma attached to sex (thus all the talk about our uteri and what we can do with it when). We would much rather talk about money. (In Europe talking about money is as taboo as talking about sex in the USA.) There is a puritan undercurrent (Ok, far from undercurrent but a big tsunami :-) that says that abstinence before marriage really is the ideal. And for a woman, a 'big number' of partners prior to marriage makes her less valuable. Just as it was in medieval times.

As for the white dress at marriage (and even quinceaneros) I cannot even begin to get started without busting my carotid artery. All I can say is that when 'tradition' becomes the excuse to participate in one's own oppression then… As for the giving away from father to husband, well... I digress…sort of.

What I Am NOT Talking About

Be clear that this is not about sexual exploitation of minors (age of consent being a topic for another day), nor am I talking about the trafficking of women (though it is highly entangled with this notion of women's sexuality being owned by men). I have worked as a social worker with pregnant and parenting teenage girls. I have worked with teenaged girls who were pimps (rare) and I have known pimps and whores. I am not naive about the power dynamics, the violence or the exploitation. The diatribe that is this post is about free will.

I am not naive enough to think that all women who would exchange sex for money have the privilege of the woman in the opening chapter of Superfreakonomics—where her 'straight' career as a professional led her to do the math and realize that sex for money was an excellent career choice if not for the social stigma attached. That and its emphasis on youth led her to study economics. But her fading glory is no more an issue than that of the sucked, tucked and plumped actress or aging model. Her issue was the 'legitimacy' of what she did. The kind of thing you don't talk about in 'polite company'.

Why Be a Whore?

Here are a few reasons why women become prostitutes:

It pays well. Women still earn less than men (though closing the gap as they get more educated, have fewer children and more men go missing from tertiary education).

The hours are flexible. Her time is her own. Yes, she can go to PTA meetings. Just because she gets money for sex doesn't mean she doesn't have a 'normal' life too.

Autonomy. Her time is her own. As is her money. Despite what most people believe from watching too many police vice shows, most whores do not have pimps. And most brothels are run by women. Heidi Fleiss, the Mayflower Madam and the houses of 'ill repute' frequented by many a politician caught in flagrante delicto literally and metaphorically.

It puts women in the power position (and many others :-) )

It is edgy (it still will be when legal) and gives a rush

Because some women really like sex and are good at giving sexual pleasure.

Because they can. Some women may find it challenging to contemplate sexual intercourse without a long-term relationship (and whores make much of their living from long-term regulars). But it's not for anyone to judge what it must be like for her (Discovery Channel has numerous shows on jobs most people would hate to do), it is simply for her to have the right to make her living as she pleases.

It is the latter which is at issue because right now a woman can choose to make her living as a whore but she will be flouting the law. So she not only risks reputation (which bankers and politicians and doers of many dirty jobs seem fairly willing to do) but she risks arrest, which has negative long- and short-term impacts on her life and those around her. The scarlet letter is more likely to be on Twitter or on Facebook than attached to her dress. The movie 'Easy A' made fun of just how easily an adolescent's reputation can get ruined in high school even if she's doing it for free or not doing it at all. But its not so funny if you are that girl. 

So Why Make Prostitution Legal?

It recognizes a woman's right to do what she wishes with her own body. Article 23 of the UN Declaration of Human Rights states that "Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favorable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment". There really needs to be no more reason than this but there are…

Stop the hypocrisy. Any major city has printed ads in the back of their free weeklies for 'escorts'. Really? In those outfits and with those names? Really? No one's having sex, just conversation and companionship… Right.

Regulation minimizes exploitation and reduces crime. (See Article 23 in #1 above). We have a whole body of institutions that regulate other forms of employment for the same reason. Regulation would give women rights and protection, increase the likelihood of condom use, and decrease violence and rape because she would have the protection of law and stigma would be less likely to discredit the validity of her voice. Leaving prostitution in the shadows makes it a place where criminals can hide.

Regulation equals taxation (and perhaps licensure) and increased income for the state.

Legalization would give legitimacy if not social standing, but that would come. Times change. Values change. People get over themselves. 

I have no moral judgement about prostitution because I see it as a woman's right to do with her own body as she wishes. As for the men who visit prostitutes? He's got money. He wants sex. He pays. As one man told me once in Jamaica about building a house for his mistress: You gotta pay to play. Most men get that from the time they are 13 and asking a girl out for their first date.

I am not a fountain of information on the legalization of the sale of sex but if marijuana can get legitimacy then the only thing standing in the way of the legalization of the sex trade is the patriarchal remnants and religious abhorrence to all things jointly female and sexually related. There is also the puritanical objection to hedonistic pleasures. And if that's all that's in the way, it's going to be a long fight.

MORE INFORMATION

For the real life story of one of those 'call girls' who was really doing it to pay for her PhD (yes, for real) see the original blog of the woman on whom the books and TV shows are made, see the website of Belle du Jour: probably the most famous whore of the 21st century to date.

For more information about the issue of legalizing prostitution, visit the website of the International Union of Sex Workers.

For the complete UN Declaration of Human Rights, click HERE.

Ruth C. White, Ph.D., M.S.W., and M.P.H., is the author of Bipolar 101 and is an associate clinical professor at the School of Social Work at the University of Southern California. 

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