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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The Myth of Moral Decline: Catcalling Edition

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[Florence, 1951]

Driving around on Friday, running my last-minute Halloween errands, I caught the tail end ofDrew Mariani’s program on Relevant Radio. Mariani was discussing the now-famous video clip produced by Hollaback New York, in which actress Shoshanna Roberts walks around New York City with a microphone and a GoPro (attached inconspicuously to the backpack of a partner walking in front of her) and simply records the comments, catcalls, and, well, creepy behavior she receives from men—just for walking on the sidewalk.

Here’s how Mariani described it:

“It’s a project to show catcalling and the objectification of women and how men treat women. You know? And you and I both know there’s lot of this that goes on. You know, maybe it doesn’t just happen on the streets of New York. It might happen it your offices. It might happen in your gym or your Y. It may happen where you work out. It might happen in the supermarket.”

First, let me give props to Mariani for his attention to the subject, and to both him and his guest, Catholic chastity speaker Jason Evert, for their (mostly) great handling of the topic. When a caller tried to suggest that Roberts was dressed immodestly, because her shirt was a little a tight and she looks, in the caller’s words, “kind of busty,” Evert said that doesn’t matter, that we’re called to treat every one with dignity because everyone is a child of God.

That was great, even if Evert did throw in his own little comment about women who wear tights.

And it was great to hear the Catholic Right calling out the objectification of women. And Evert and Mariani were right to denounce men who can’t hold a conversation with a woman without fixating on her chest. And Evert was right to point out that the Catholic Church (and Christianity more generally) insists on the inherent dignity of both men and women and thus gives its adherents language (and impetus) to fight back against that type of sexism.

That’s the big story: what follows may be nit-picky on my part.

But… geez.

Guys, do you have to try to fit every damned thing into your narrative of perpetual moral decline?

Immediately after introducing the video, Mariani was asking, “Is this now on a rise? Is it symptomatic of where we are as a culture right now?” And before long, he was connecting the video to the “pornification of the culture, this culture, where porn is affecting more men than you can count and as a result of it, it’s no longer just a man gazing at a woman lustfully, but instead it’s now become vocalized, it’s become animated, it’s become maybe even a little more aggressive.”

Evert got in on that, too, saying that men who stare at a women’s chests while talking to them do it “because they’re so used to spending an hour or two a day sometimes looking at pornography, where eye-contact is the last thing on your mind.”

Unbelievably (but way too predictably), this has been part of the Religious Right’s reaction the Hollaback video: Blame it on porn. Blame it on the Sexual Revolution. Blame it on feminism.

The idea idea is that, rather than reflecting millenia-old traditions that view women as property, or rigid gender divisions that mark the public realm as a man’s space, this phenomenon is a new thing, a breakdown of cultural traditions, a result of our modern, hedonistic, anything-goes, consent-based sexual ethics.

To which I want to say:

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[Mexico City, 1953]

Listen.

Guys.

The objectification of women wasn’t invented with the internet. Want proof? Visit Havana, where almost no one has an internet connection, and watch what happens when a woman walks past a pack of men hanging out on a street corner.

Or, you know what? Read Ana Lydia Vega’s “Letra para salsa y tres soneos por encargo,” which is now thirty-five years old. In the story’s second paragraph, Vega writes:

“Entre el culipandeo, más intenso que un arrebato co­lombiano, más perseverante que Somoza, el Tipo rastrea a la Tipa. Fiel como una procesión de Semana Santa con su rosario de qué buena estás, mamichulin, qué bien te ves, qué ricos te quedan esos pantaloncitos, qué chula está esa hembrota, men, qué canto e silán, tanta carne y yo comiendo hueso…”

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[Sevilla, 1959]

It wasn’t even invented with the birth control pill. Believe it or not, catcalling  has nothing to to do with the Sexual Revolution.  Instead, it comes from a cultural belief that the public realm is men’s space, and that an unaccompanied woman in that realm is, to an extent, making herself public property. That her body is not her own.

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[Barcelona, 1963]

So it’s supremely ironic to watch commentators trying to tie the Hollaback video to modern sexual ethics, which they also characterize as “consent-only.” The point of the catcall or thepiropo (as it’s called in Spanish) is that it starts from the assumption that consent doesn’t matter. The woman is getting it whether she likes it or not. That’s why it’s dehumanizing; that’s why it’s objectifying: not because it has to do with sex, but because it disregards the woman’s choice in the matter.

[Vega underscores this perfectly in her story when the female protagonist, the Tipa, actually agrees to the Tipo’s sexual advances, leaving him dumbfounded and impotent, in both senses of the word.]

In fact, if I were looking for the cultural roots of the catcalling that Roberts experienced walking around the streets of New York, I wouldn’t start with Pornhub or Spankwire, or even Playboy or Penthouse. No, I’d look much further back than that:

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[Rome, 750 B.C.]

The point is, Mariani and Evert are right to see Christianity as a rebuff to men who think they can treat women the way Roberts was treated in that video. But, in this, Christianity has always been counter-cultural. That means that it does no good here to denounce modernity or to look to hazy notions of the past for society-wide moral examples.

And it also means that, in this case, feminists are their allies, not their enemies. And, in at least this one little thing, they’re on the side of the Sexual Revolution.