If You Want To Understand Modern Sexual Ethics, You Have to Talk About Prostitution

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My latest post at the Ploughshares blog focuses on an encounter I had in a Havana taxi with a middle-aged European sex tourist and his jinetera, or bought girlfriend.

It’s a story I’ve thought about telling on this blog several times, because we talk about natural law a lot here. And, sitting in the backseat, watching that fat, fatuous, hairy-eared old man paw the girl next to him, and knowing they would soon be in bed together because he was paying to make it so, one word came to my mind: unnatural.

I think that reaction is pretty normal. When I tell the story to friends, their response usually starts with a shiver of disgust. I think it’s fair to say that prostitution is less socially acceptable today than it has been in the past. There’s evidence, for example, that men are much less likely to pay for sex now than they have been in the past, and Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner have argued that falling demand for bought sex has drastically reduced prostitutes’ earnings over the past century.

We see this in cultural expressions, too: today’s lit world is hardly the same as the one where “Norman Mailer told Updike he should get back in the whorehouse and stop worrying about his prose style.”

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If folks on the religious right are going to stick to the idea that the Sexual Revolution has reduced our sexual ethic to consent, they need to reckon with that shiver. Denny Burk, for example, just responded to Belinda Luscombe’s new Time piece on the dangers of porn by lamenting, “We are at a place in our culture in which sexual morality has been reduced to consent.” Further, he says, it has “delivered to us a generation of men who think of women as objects to be used and abused for their sexual pleasure.”

But the declining demand for prostitution suggests to me that, today, sexual morality has not been reduced to consent. When it involves adults, prostitution is consensual.

Further, the idea that this generation of men (more than previous generations!) thinks of women as objects for use and abuse is a truly bold and hard-to-defend claim. I’d say the reason visiting prostitutes has become less socially acceptable is because it’s harder and harder now to think of women as objects. I know that’s what got me in the colectivo: looking at the guy, I wondered, Why on earth would you have sex with a woman who’s only doing it for the money? Prostitution starts to become unthinkable when you care what the woman thinks.

IMG_0511In other words, when women have a voice in sexual matters, prostitution naturally tends to decline. The same could be said for other conservative freakout-bait, like incest and polygamy. While you may hear advocates for those things using the language of the Sexual Revolution, culturally, those things are less prevalent in modern societies than in traditional ones.

I don’t expect this to convince many on the right, who have invested so much in the narrative of moral decline that they can’t get their minds around any type of good news. If, for you, data showing teenagers are having less sex is a sign that we’re losing our cultural virility, then you can certainly see decreasing prostitution as a symptom of our porn-addled decadence. But I write it anyway, as a reminder that there is another vision of sexual ethics, and that there are other narratives to explain our world.

Plus, I’ll take any excuse to post photos from Cuba. Pico Iyer is right: it’s the easiest place in the world to take pictures.

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