January 31, 2004

A Newer Look at the Oldest Profession

NOTICE: Due to the sensitive nature of this topic, we have placed our reaction to Dean Esmay's essay on the oldest profession* in the "continue reading" box, or whatever one calls it. As regular Rant readers know, we very rarely do this, but we feel we have an obligation to at least try and keep the kids out of the loop on this one.

Hence, we would ask our young readers to either A) skip this entry or B) depart the site presently, and go read something suitable for youngsters. That includes you too, Jimmy. Run along, son! Yes, we are quite serious ... now look, just trust us for once, will you?! Amscray!

All right then.

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WE SUPPOSE WE SHOULD start off by saying our interest in this topic is purely academic. This declaration will come as no surprise to regular Rant readers, who can guess that among our reasons for avoiding this vice is the fact that it just wouldn't do. That's not to trivialize our other reasons, which are religious and hygenic in nature, but certainly the social stigma attached to the oldest profession is enough to keep us very, very far away from it. These reasons also explain why we have only visited -- ah -- a burlesque house a few times in our life, and only then at the instigation of our friends.

We can honestly say that few of Mr Esmay's essays have prompted such mixed emotions in us. Usually, we either agree or disagree with him flat out. In this case, though, we are all over the map. We found we agree with him on some points, sharply disagree on others, and waver at a third set. So to fully explain our own thinking on the matter, we will excerpt from Mr Esmay's work accordingly (the italics) and respond (in plain text).

Mr Esmay, who leads off with a fitting quote from a character in a Robert Heinlein novel, writes as follows:

But I believe that, whatever superficial truth there may be to those words, on the most fundamental levels they are utterly wrong. For, while prostitution may be an inevitability, there is very little in this world that is more sick or awful.

I suppose my Libertarian-minded correspondants will be scandalized for my having said so. Ditto my atheist friends. Yet, as a non-theistic naturalist, I stand by it: there is very little more degrading to the human soul than prostitution. To refer to it as "a profession" demeans humanity even more ...

The gender-feminists (or, as Tanya would call them, the "feminists") are, as usual, utterly full of it. Prostitution is not about "exploitation of women." Indeed, in most ways, that is the exact opposite of the truth. Leaving aside the role of the pimp or madam, we should be adult enough to acknowledge a fundamental truth:

If anyone is being exploited in the whore/john relationship, it is the john.

A whore is a predator. She feeds upon her john's loneliness, insecurity, and need. Meanwhile, by paying her, he trivializes her humanity.

I do not condemn women who fall into prostitution. At all. Nor do I hold in contempt men who use their services. In all the years of my life, I have done many things I am shamed by, and I do not consider myself above other human beings. In fact, the whole notion that I am "better" than most other people is rather repulsive to me.

But prostitution is a sick, and sickening, relationship. No matter how you look at it, and no matter what veneer that you may put upon it, it cannot do anything but degrade those who take part in it.

Yes, even for the high-class, highly-paid variants. Or the watered-down versions of it that you find in strip clubs.

We should say that we agree wholeheartedly with Mr Esmay's main point, in regards to the deleterious effects which prostitution has on all concerned. It may have existed since time immemorial, but there is no denying that it is both a particularly base corruption of the conjugal act and a mockery of how relationships between men and women are supposed to work. While we have no personal knowledge of such things, we would submit that the practice breeds unhealthy tendencies in men and an undesirable hardness and callousness in women. Add in those whom Dante memorably described as "pimps, troublemakers and all such-like scum" to the equation, and the situation gets even more dire. Hence, we consider quite valid the authorities' efforts to suppress this vice.

However, we should make clear the vice of which we are speaking; and even in the oldest profession, there are degrees of difference. If we are discussing what was once called whiteslavery, then we would fully agree with Mr Esmay that there are few things more sick or awful in this world. If we are discussing simple prostitution, then the moral turpitude of the act is lessened. How much turpitude exists is an argument for debate; but depending on the circumstances, it could range from relatively heavy (e.g., when a prostitute takes extreme advantage of her mark) to moderate or light (e.g. the act is done, and that's that).

That said, we do disagree with Mr Esmay's contention that the oldest profession has nothing to do with exploitation of women. That may be the case for a small percentage of the streetwalkers out there, but we would suggest that by and large, there is rather a lot of exploitation going on. For instance, if a woman heroin addict turns to selling herself so that she can get a fix, that's exploitation -- on the part of her supplier and her customer. If a woman sells herself to support her shiftless husband or boyfriend, that's exploitation -- on the idler's and the customer's part. That's just the facts as we see them.

We do see Mr Esmay's point in referring to a streetwalker as a predator. Such relationships -- in which the woman adeptly cleans out her hapless mark -- do exist, and occasionally see light in the press. Still, we don't think that these can be construed as indicative of the overall situation. We would submit that for the most part, the relationships are quite exploitative -- and it is not the woman who is doing the exploiting.

Now for some points where we do agree with Mr Esmay.

We must say we were pleased to see that he referred to "fall(ing) into" prostitution; we think this an accurate reflection of the act's moral consequences, despite our popular culture's attempts to make it seem fine, dandy and wonderful. We can assure you it is a constant source of amazement for us that people involved in the "sex industry" openly proclaim there is nothing wrong with what they're doing. True, they actually believe that; but one would think they would find it smarter to keep quiet, and let things continue without any public scrutiny.

That said, we also agree with his non-judgmental tenor; he has done better than we have in this regard. In terms of the women, we agree whole-heartedly with Mr Esmay; we could not condemn a woman who had taken this route. Try to convince her that other pursuits would be healthier, yes; condemn and vilify, no. We recall what Dr Lewis had to say on this:

Finally, though I have had to speak at some length about sex, I want to make it as clear as I possibly can that the centre of Christian morality is not here. If anyone thinks that Christians regard unchastity as the supreme vice, he is quite wrong. The sins of the flesh are bad, but they are the least bad of all sins. All the worst pleasures are purely spiritual: the pleasure of putting other people in the wrong, of bossing and patronising and spoiling sport, and back-biting: the pleasures of power, of hatred. For there are two things inside me, competing with the human self which I must try to become. They are the Animal self, and the Diabolical self. The Diabolical self is the worse of the two. That is why a cold, self-righteous prig who goes regularly to church may be far nearer to hell than a prostitute. But, of course, it is better to be neither.**

But you see, where we fall into the trap is dealing with the men. While we -- like everyone -- have plenty of jokers to hide, we still find ourselves a bit contemptuous of these pathetic souls. We do not use the word as a pejorative: we think that most folks who patronize streetwalkers generally have pretty sad lives. There may be those for whom it is merely about lust, or a power trip -- "I want that and I shall have it" -- but for the rest, we think one would be on target in saying they don't have much going for them. For us, the challenge is being focused on the sad angle, to get them help if they need it; as opposed to our reflexive action, which is to deride them for their weakness. That, you see, is our Diabolic self rising to the forefront.

In any event, after a short discussion of the entirely male side to all this, Mr Esmay continues on:

But still, ultimately, you are dealing with a profession where one preys upon another person's loneliness. It is not, and never will be, a simple matter of a biological rubbing together of moving parts in exchange for pay.

And what is the life of your average whore? A cluster of venereal diseases that eventually end your life. If you're female, perhaps a half-dozen or more abortions, unless you decide not to have one--in which case your career ends a few months before the baby arrives. Or you raise the child in the most dyfunctional of environments.

In any case, if you are a whore, you prey upon other people's most deeply-felt needs and insecurities--and you do it for money. If you hire a prostitute, you are paying for something you wish you didn't have to pay for at all.

While there may be a tiny percentage of women who are cut out for such a life, I suspect that, in the vast scheme of things, it can only end in misery and regret.

In terms of reasons as to why the oldest profession should continue to be suppressed, the two in that second paragraph are the most important.

First, we'll deal with the social disease aspect.

In our day, we have known a couple of acquaintances who have had the misfortune to contract one of these nasty things -- and that was just due to the normal promiscuous environment one finds at a university these days. We can assure you this sucked something fierce for these unfortunates. However, there was no direct societal burden, as these people had private health insurance to assume the costs of their indiscretion. (Although, we must say, we'd be annoyed if they were in the same risk pool as we were).

In many of these cases, however, there is a direct societal burden -- not only in terms of the human cost to these unfortunates and those close to them; but also the economic cost to Government, and hence, society as a whole. And since these things are easily spread, one infected person can spread their ailment to dozens, if not more, people. As such, the problem multiplies.

The potential impact on children -- the natural end result of the procreative act -- is also particularly alarming. Our sociologists have done a good job at pinpointing the risk factors for delinquency and criminality among youth, and certainly the aberrant home life that such children would experience would put them at risk of falling into that pit. That's unfortunate not only because such children could end up burdening the rest of society, but because of the incredible reservoir of human potential going for naught. Of course, if the child's life is ended in the womb, then that potential has gone for naught; but long-time Rant readers know our thoughts on that.

One final point: we have read with interest the responses of the many, many commenters who have let Mr Esmay know what they think. Several of them are quite thoughtful; and interestingly, one even comes from a self-professed former prostitute. That latter writer was not alone in arguing that it was simply a fee-for-service arrangement; and another writer even went so far as to defend the institution.

However, such a rationale only works if one lives in a world where the conjugal act is morally and temporally equivalent to buying a widget. When cast in the cold light of how things actually work, it falls apart like a vampire caught outdoors at noontime.

For as much as one might want, one can't separate out the moral side, or nonchalantly apply simplistic economics to this aspect of human existence. We have quipped before that the oldest profession represents the one aspect of human life where the "zero-sum game" theory actually holds sway. But in all seriousness, whether one looks at things on a moral, spiritual or economic level, we can say without reservation that all the players in this game will always suffer loss.

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* We have no doubt that Mr Esmay will be annoyed with us for using the term "the oldest profession" throughout, as he makes the right-thinking point that it is not a profession. However, as a euphemism, it works.

** See Dr Lewis's "Mere Christianity" (Ch. 5, Sexual Morality, p. 87)

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at January 31, 2004 01:53 AM | TrackBack