Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Morality Play

Warning: This entry contains material of an adult nature. You know, things like mentioning body parts and recreational activities that Americans like to pretend don't exist.

So Spitzer, the governor of the great state of New York, is the latest to get caught in an act he publicly acted against, in this case soliciting a prostitute. Like Larry Craig before him, "victim" of having a wide stance, he trots out his wife in a press conference, although I suppose that at some level he is to be admired for not putting us through any 60 Minutes interview where he claims he was doing research or some other bullsh*t answer. Not that this excuses his hypocrisy, only that it saves us from him being in the media spotlight any longer than necessary.

What I really don't get, however, is why prostitution is even a crime.

To my knowledge, the only culture that has done anything close to an effective job of stamping out prostitution (and that's assuming they ever had their heart in it in the first place) are fundamentalist Islamic cultures. There's a role model for you. People who are willing to kill women for the crime of being gang raped. And from what I hear from friends who were stationed in Saudi Arabia, that doesn't stop prostitution, at least by women, it just moves it over to young boys.

Let's take the argument from two directions. First, the futility of trying to modify the genetic imperative (we will assume that prostitution demand is driven by men for this argument, although obviously there are women who hire sexual partners). Second, the social costs of criminalizing prostitution. Not surprisingly this latter argument is very similar to why the War On Some Drugs fails miserably, although that has more to do with the continued financial success of the Legal Drugs over the Not-So-Legal drugs. But that's a different entry.

Regardless of your world view, it should be pretty clear to everyone that men want to have orgasms. I suspect there is a rather good argument to be made that evangelical Christianity owes much of it's success to this fact - it provides a framework to channel sexual energy into the fervor of worship and a pretty big stick to whop you upside the head if you don't. Porn aimed at men is a huge business, generating over $10 billion a year. Yes, that's a b in front of illion. Clearly, there is a demand. I'm not sure what the rate of marital infidelity is, but I suspect it is well over 50%, probably closer to something like 75 or 80% were you to get honest numbers.

This is not to say that women aren't interested in sex, or that they are doing something wrong if these are truly the numbers. Instead, I believe that there is a fundamental disconnect between biology and the concept of monogamy for life. While choosing a quote from a science fiction book is probably not the most scholarly of sources, I have not seen as concise or as accurate an argument against long-term monogamy anywhere else. Here's the passage, from Jack McDevitt's Polaris:

"So what happened to your marriage, Dr. Boland? If you don't mind my asking."

"I think Jennifer and I got bored. That's inevitable in any long term relationship."

"You don't really believe that?"

"I'm a psychiatrist. I see it all the time."

"I read somewhere that sixty percent of marriages endure. That they stay together."

"They tolerate each other, usually from a sense of duty. To the kids, generally. To their vows. To an inability to inflict pain on someone they think loves them."

"You're pretty pessimistic about the institution."

"I'm a realist. Long-term marriage is a trap that has survived from our beginnings in the forest, when it was the only way to guarantee species survival. That is no longer the case."

"They why has it survived?"

"Because we've invested it with so much mythology. It's the sanctum sanctorum of adolescent giddiness. It is the sentence we impose on our lives because we watch too much romantic drama. And maybe because people are too scared of being alone."

That's the passage, with a few framing sentences left out. For those of you who have been married less than ten years, this is your future. You may or may not survive it with your soul in one piece, but coming from a 20+ year marriage, I will tell you that this is spot on. But enough about me.

It should be obvious to even the casual observer that men want to have as many children as possible. Maybe not actively, but the act of orgasm in *any* form is, I believe, enough for us. It is why men in prison rape other men but do not consider themselves homosexual (there is a certain amount of alpha-male behavior, found throughout any social mammal species, going on there as well, but in most cases there is no orgasm involved). Orgasm is something we *need* to do, at the deepest possible level of our being. We are *made* this way - it is far too universal to be explained by talk of corruption or Satan or dysfunction.

The other component of the equation is boredom. This applies to pretty much any aspect of human life - we experience something often enough, we lose interest. When you drive to work every day, how much of what happens around you do you notice? Probably the radio or another source that changes from day to day (although I am not sure how you could apply that to commercial radio, largely playing 25 year old music). You probably don't notice the route, or that you've turned where you needed to. You do notice things that require your attention such as a car cutting in front of you, or braking suddenly, but those are *new* things. We are wired to react to newness.

Sex is no different. That is why pornography is so incredibly popular. In a recent Grey's Anatomy episode (again, here I quote popular culture to make a point, but the point is still valid), a patient insisted on watching porn in his room (hilariously, it involved hot nurses). Turned out that the porn raised his endorphin level such that it blocked out his constant and intense pain. Taking away the porn resulted in his pain levels returning to a point where he required medication. Which would you choose - potentially addictive pain medication like Oxycontin, or porn?

I'll take both, please. ;-)

The point is that men (I do not presume to speak for women here) want Different. New. Which equals exciting. And there is no orgasm without exciting. While I will concede that there is a certain amount of sameness to porn, as there are only so many different ways to put tab A in slot B, at the same time our DNA sees a New Partner with the improved chance of New Conception which, from the perspective of DNA, means propagation and therefore immortality.

It is the Conception part that I believe women take issue with. Because no one wants to raise someone else's child unless there are other issues involved (infertility, a desire to avoid the wear and tear of childbearing, wanting to improve a child's lot in life). Women seem to want stability, which is to say protection, and it's clear that the older they get the less chance they have of attracting a mate because said mate is, after all, looking for Conception. Were I to have sex with another woman, even though I've been clipped, my wife's DNA screams, "You will get her pregnant, and then I get the choice of you supporting her child (which lowers my ability to provide stability), or us raising the child (which means I get to do more work with no benefit to myself), or he leaves me for her (massive loss of stability).

The end result, sadly, is an insistence on monogamy and boredom for both parties. The truth, sadly, is that you would be very hard pressed to find a man who only has orgasms in the presence of his wife. And if you are, my guess is that you pray for strength on a regular basis. Even if you believe this is God's Plan and that infidelity is the work of Satan, you have to admit that it sure seems like Satan, who was by all accounts created by God, is vastly more successful in warping God's Plan than God is in implementing it, which speaks poorly for omnipotence. If you want to get truly creative and suggest that all of this is *intentionally* a part of God's Plan, that's where I opt out. I'm really not interested in being a strand of rope in a tug of war for beings that don't seem to mind screwing with my biology for purposes I am completely unable to discern, thank you very much.

So where does prostitution fit into this argument? Simple. It's a job, a way to make money to support oneself. Compare it to any other job where you use part of your physical body, including your mind. The only real difference here is the risk of conception, and I have a strong suspicion that we've got that covered with current technology. The same goes for STDs. There will be some of you who will say that contraception is a Bad Thing, to which I will point you to the previous sentence. From our DNA's perspective, it certainly is. Me, I have no argument with contraception - I underwent surgery to ensure it. By fundamentalist argument, I should never have sex again. To which I suggest that you go f*ck yourself. Seriously. Your religion stops at my waistband, friend. What you do and believe is your business, but if I'm not breaking anyone's arm or picking their pocket, I can do what I wish.

But I digress. Prostitution lets you leverage your physical body in exchange for food, shelter, clothing, whatever. In and of itself it is the same as playing professional football, or dig ditches, or write code, or pretty much any other profession. It is supply and demand. And, to be blunt, not much has stopped it. Even Saudi Arabia, were it to remove religious proscription against it, would see a booming business. It is the second oldest profession for a reason. If you want to be even *more* blunt, one could argue that marriage is a long term prostitution contract when you remove the hearts and flowers.

Now comes the second part of my argument. But Doug, you say, what about all of the bad things that surround prostitution? Drugs, pimps, STDs, broken women, social stigmatization. As if any of those things go away if we eradicate prostitution. However, if you *legalize* prostitution, many of things *do* go away, at least to a greater extent than by keeping it a black market occupation. Nevada tries to have it both ways, but it's still a largely impotent (ha!) exercise because it is painted as a necessary evil - most brothels aren't allowed to operate in the larger cities but out in the boondocks, there are no unions, and many of the women who gravitate to the profession consider it a job of last resort because the social stigma is not removed at all.

So is that social stigma caused by prostitution, or vice versa? Consider the Hummer. Not the sexual act, the vehicle. Ten years ago Hummers were an icon of social status - you could afford one and afford the gas, so it was a sign of success. Today, with oil on the wane and concern about carbon footprints, Hummers are becoming something that demonstrates greed and selfishness. Cigarettes are another product that has undergone tremendous acceptance change in the last 50 years, to the point where they are being legislated out of existence. There is some difference, as both of these products are in some way harmful to those who choose not to use them. Prostitution, properly managed, only threatens monogamy, and I've already argued that that isn't really something that I feel is going to matter, or even be a desirable state in a global sense. It is the environment that dictates whether prostitution is valuable or detrimental.

And it's clearly more valuable all the time, at least if controlled. If every woman who is a prostitute is required to use birth control, a requirement not much different from requiring truck drivers to perform unimpaired when behind the wheel, they actually perform a rather valuable service to humanity as we approach eight billion people on the planet in our lifetimes. China already limits couples to one child each, having seen what happens when you let humanity breed like rabbits. Wouldn't it be better if we could just channel the rampant (and uncontrollable) need for orgasm into a place where it doesn't result in more babies? Because unless you think that a population of more than 10 billion people is *good* for the planet, presumably because it will trigger Armageddon, we're rapidly approaching a point where we won't be able to feed ourselves. It's math. We will need to learn to find ways not to procreate or face massive famine, species die-off, climate change, all sorts of things that look pretty bad for the way things are right now. And I, for one, am pretty happy with the way *my* life is going, thank you very much. If you'd like to trigger the End Times, we have a problem, you and I.

If you want a really good argument for why prostitution should be legal, you have no further to look than Prohibition. Legislation of morality, combined with actual enforcement (and in most jurisdictions, prostitution is enforced selectively to placate the area in which it is operating, mostly because it's illegality spawns more illegality) causes a lot more problems than it solves. And, as everyday experience suggests, it's not being eradicated at all. It's just underground, where the women involved can be treated like chattel. Pimps beat them up, drugs are encouraged to take their money and keep them in the business. Can it get *worse*?

And if you think that social mores won't change, spend a few nights watching the excellent AMC series "Mad Men" about advertising executives in 1960. If you think that the marginalization of African Americans and objectification of women hasn't changed much (and, let's be honest, in some parts of the US it hasn't), and that said change hasn't been for the better, then you're not really someone I can have a rational conversation with.

Do I think that legalization of prostitution would really be a good thing? If it's done like Nevada has done it, with marginal concern for the women involved and keeping it stigmatized, then it would *still* be an improvement over the current situation. Were it to come out of the closet and legalized as it's done in the Netherlands, that's several more steps forward, although the retention of red light districts still keeps it stigmatized to some extent, mostly to keep the more moralistic elements of society happy. To be honest, the complete legalization and attitude change required to make prostitutes as valued in society as, say, truck drivers, will require a more basic shift in attitudes, one that will need us to rethink what monogamy really requires. This is not to say that monogamy as currently idealized actually *works* that way, in fact I think that in practice it won't change much at all. It is the *attitude* toward monogamy that would require change, and that is always the most difficult change of all.

Did Spitzer blow it by doing enough business with prostitutes to rate being Client 9? Given his push to make the profession illegal, then I'd say he fails the test of hypocrisy, and that is a far worse sin than paying someone to have sex with him. The damage he did to his wife and children is far worse because there was an expectation that he would not engage in such activities. In no sense do I wish to suggest that people should not make such promises if they wish to. Marriage is, as far as I can tell, a completely voluntary activity, although we are encouraged to do it at the precise point when perhaps we are least able to make an informed decision. But to prohibit it to the general population? It's absurd, it's damaging, and it's completely ineffective.

I've saved the most damning statement for last - How would I feel about my daughter becoming a prostitute?

That is an excellent question. Today, I'd be unhappy about it. If we were living in a much different world, I'd probably still be unhappy about it, albeit less worried about her safety and health. In the end, she's an adult and has to make those choices for herself, and in the end I would still love her and do what I could to support her and *that* is what is most important. If there is one thing I've learned about becoming a parent, even one that became one a little later than usual in the process, it is that people are going to do what they are going to do. That's about as good an argument for legalization and legitimization as I can make.


Anonymous said...

In The Netherlands, prostitution is not only legal in the "red light" districts, it's just that the shop windows are there. Brothels can be found anywhere and a prostitute can legally come to your house or hotel to perform the service.

Confining certain aspects of economic activity to certain geographical areas like "red light" districts is similar to restricting heavy industrial activity, car dealerships or big-box stores for that matter to certain parts of town where it can be better handle the side effects of the activity.

As for Spitzer trying to eradicate prostitution, it is my understanding he was breaking up "travel agencies" that offered trips to Asia to meet willing women. I think he was not trying to eradicate prostitution but rather the coercive nature of those enterprises.


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