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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Don’t Throw Out the Kale with the Flavored Foam

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So here’s a new one.

There’s an argument I’m used to hearing from the smarter set on the Religious Right, which goes something like this: the underlying idea of modernity is unfettered choice, the ability to be whoever and whatever you want to be. Nature, tradition: these things have no standing in modern ethics. Instead, the individual will rules the day. It’s the argument behind the argument in the Catholic Right’s writings on gay marriage, or contraception, or transgenderism, or any other element of sexual modernity that gives them the willies.

It’s the central tenet of Robert Reilly’s Making Gay Okay (which, yes, I’m still reviewing; thanks again for your patience!), and it’s the premise Damon Linker swallows in a recent series of posts about “sexual libertarianism” that have just about driven me up a wall.

I’m not used to seeing that argument, or at even echoes of it, in the New Yorker. Recently, the magazine did a food issue and, in it, food critic John Lanchester wrote a call for foodies to, well, turn down. Turn down the faddishness, turn down the hype, turn down all the noise and flash that surrounds contemporary food culture. The piece was titled, “Shut Up and Eat: A Foodie Repents.

Lanchester starts out by writing of how his mom left the religious life and threw herself into cooking as means of self-invention. “It was part,” he writes, “of being someone different from the person she had been.” Raised on a farm in rural Ireland, after leaving the convent and marrying, Lanchester’s mother started hosting dinner and cocktails parties. She served “fancy foreign dishes” that she learned to cook the way a cosmopolitan New Yorker might learn Portuguese or Hindi.  Lanchester says that this is the way all of us cook now, and he contrasts it to traditional cooking: “If you live and cook the same way your grandmother did, you’ll probably never open a cookbook.”

Lanchester drives the point home:

Once upon a time, food was about where you came from. Now, for many of us, it is about where we want to go—about who we want to be, how we choose to live. Food has always been expressive of identity, but today those identities are more flexible and fluid; they change over time, and respond to different pressures. Some aspects of this are ridiculous: the pickle craze, the báhn-mi boom, the ramps revolution, compulsory kale. Is northern Thai still hot? Has offal gone away yet? Is Copenhagen over? The intersection of food and fashion is silly, just as the intersection of fashion and anything else is silly. Underlying it, however, is the sense of food as an expression of an identity that’s defined, in some crucial sense, by conscious choice. For most people throughout history, that wasn’t true. The apparent silliness and superficiality of food fashions and trends touches on something deep: our ability to choose who we want to be.

You hear what I’m hearing there? Compare that to this Pope Benedict quote on modernity, from Reilly’s book:

The idea that ‘nature’ has something to say is no longer admissible; man is to have the liberty to remodel himself at will. He is to be free from all of the prior givens of his essence. He makes of himself what he wants, and only in this way is he really ‘free’ and liberated.

Of course, Reilly then applies that idea to his argument against gay marriage.

Just as the argument doesn’t resonate with me when applied to sex, it doesn’t work for me when we’re talking about food culture, either. I don’t live in the world Lanchester describes, and neither do most of the people I know. I mean, yes, we watch cooking TV, and yes, some of us brag on Facebook when we eat at a great restaurant. Yes, we cook dishes our great-grandmothers couldn’t have pronounced. But I feel like I live in a world where most people cherish the recipes that come to them from their families, and where most people love the food traditions of their homes, where most people know that a simple meal with friends beats the performance of a great meal at a trendy restaurant. I know that just about any out-of-town visitor to Austin gets treated not to Uchi or Qui, but to a barbecue and/or Tex-Mex joint. It seems to me that food is still very much about where we’re from.

Maybe I’m wrong.

Or maybe it’s a question of perspective. As a food critic, Lanchester has a different relationship to the food world than I do. He lives in the middle of it and can’t turn it off. I know, for instance, that I feel differently about society when I’m walking through Houston’s Galleria than I do when I’m hanging around my kitchen, talking to family and friends. If I were perpetually trapped in the Galleria, I’d probably have a dourer opinion of culture than I do.

But even though I disagree with him, I like the way Lanchester writes.

After all, the Galleria exists, and so does the silly seriousness that Lanchester thinks has taken over the way we eat. Both are fair targets for criticism, as long as we all agree that there’s a right way to go about it. Like, for example, we can criticize faddishness while still recognizing that the objects of those fads aren’t always bad; we can celebrate specific innovations without endorsing an ethic of innovation-at-all-costs.

Put differently, we don’t need to throw out the kale with the flavored foam.

Looking back at my list of essays that stuck with me in 2014, they all show an ability to critique parts of the modern world without forcing those critiques onto subjects that won’t bear them.

Lanchester has the same ability. He doesn’t caricature foodies (too much); instead, he gives his own mother as an example of someone who used food as a form of self-invention. Nor does he reify the past. He acknowledges the good things that the “foodie revolution” has brought us: “There is no downside to this,” he writes of food developments of the past twenty years. “We’re cooking and eating much better than we used to, and that’s great.”

And Lanchester recognizes that change is a constant, and not something necessarily to be avoided at all costs. That’s one lesson of his narrative: the spaghetti bolognese recipe he says he says he’s making that night represents family for him where once it represented reinvention for his mother. He writes: “My kids will love it; they always do. Cooking it will remind me of my mother; it always does.”

Again, I disagree with the guy on a main point. But I love this piece. Conversely, I agree with a lot of what the Catholic Right says—even that ridiculous interview between Cardinal Burke and the “New Emangelization” website contained a good point about the consumer mentality and overscheduled childhoods. But because Catholic Right authors too often can’t resist villainizing their opponents, over-generalizing and over-simplifying, and throwing out the good with the bad, their writings become damn near unreadable. The good points get lost.

Defending Marriage Chapter 1: On Doricles, Perdita, and Some Wedding Music

Note: This is part of a series on Anthony Esolen’s Defending Marriage: Twelve Arguments for Sanity.This series is meant to be read along with my reviews of Robert Reilly’s Making Gay Okay. You can read my introduction to both series here, and a preview here.

Now we’re (finally) getting into Esolen’s text. The book is divided not into chapters, but into twelve “arguments” against gay marriage, most of which take off from a reading of some classic piece of literature or art.

Esolen begins his first argument, “We Must Not Give the Sexual Revolution the Force of Irrevocable Law,” by recounting a scene from Shakespeare’s The Winter’s TaleIn it, the king Polixenes, who has heard that his son Doricles is in love with the shepherdess Perdita, disguises himself to spy on the couple as they dance at a rustic festival. Though the king expects to discover that Perdita is unworthy, that she’s conniving the prince or that the prince’s “love” for her is either lust or foolishness, instead he sees the couple dancing and is utterly charmed by their innocence. His cynicism melts away.

Esolen is trying to show us that we’ve lost that cultural innocence, which he contrasts to the (fact-challenged) scene from Woodstock that we discussed in our last post. He blames this loss on, of course, the Sexual Revolution, and argues that gay marriage is the logical conclusion and irrevocable seal of that revolution. And to illustrate his point further, he gives us one more contrast, this time between a young woman in a hospital room awaiting an abortion and, again, his parents marriage, this time giving us a moving account of his father’s last moments.

——

Before I get into the meat of my contention with this chapter, a few quick points:

1. These aren’t really arguments.

Part of my struggle in responding to these “arguments” is that they’re not really arguments  at all. They lack structure and coherence and, (as we’ve already noted) Esolen actively disdains evidence. Instead these twelve “arguments” are meditations, essays, in the sense that the word essay comes from the french verb to try. These are twelve attempts, tries, to find an argument. So they meander.

That’s not necessarily bad. In fact, this type of essay often makes for my favorite reading. But it mixes poorly with Esolen’s certitude—as I’ve written, every sentence he writes feels like it’s meant to be proclaimed while pounding on a table. Is it possible to meander emphatically? To wander around full speed ahead? Because that’s what’s happening in this book.

That’s a problem when Esolen’s writes about something on which he clearly has no idea, like the causes of homosexuality. But it’s almost as bad when Esolen focuses on his areas of expertise, like literature. Because he writes so fast and furious, so emphaticallythat he makes all kinds of careless statements that don’t hold up to even a moment of thinking.

2. Shakespeare say what?

To wit: here are a couple of minor points that really need to be addressed.

Esolen writes, “The works of Shakespeare are filled with bawdy humor, yet he always holds up for our admiration the virtue of purity, and he never leaves unpunished sins against marriage and the family, whether they occur before or after the wedding.”

Shakespeare never leaves unpunished premarital or extramarital sex? Off the top of my head, Bottom spends the night in Titania’s bower in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and I don’t see how either one is punished for that. And Rosalind, from As You Like It, suggests that Oliver and Celia are “incontinent” before their wedding. Esolen will quote As You Like It later in the book, so he’s probably aware of that.

And that comes a page or two after Esolen writes this:

If it were a modern playwright and not Shakespeare directing this scene from The Winter’s Tale, we would be treated with stale jests about how Doricles is attempting to get the girl Perdita into bed, or how Perdita, like the cunning husband-huntress in My Big Fat Greek Wedding, is playing her cards right, leading the boy on little by little until she finally hooks him with a ferocious night of fornication.

Huh? Like Shakespeare never makes cynical jokes about boys trying to get girls into bed? And like Shakespeare never jokes about cunning spouse-hunters? What else is Petruccio in The Taming of the Shrew? In his first scene in that play, he says he has come “to wive it wealthily in Padua,” and he doesn’t care if she be “as foul as was Florentius’ love, / as old as Sibyl, and as curst and shrewd / as Socrates’ Xanthippe or worse.”

In fairness, though, Petruccio doesn’t “hook” Kate with a night of fornication. He just carries her off against her will. So point for sixteenth-century sexual morality, I guess.

Also, that’s not what happens at all in My Big Fat Greek Wedding. But, once again, forget it—he’s rolling.

[I have a feeling I’m going to wear out this clip before this series is over.]

——

Okay, on to my point. And, as promised, a story.

This is isn’t really Doricles & Perdita’s chapter. Instead, Esolen takes our focus off of the couple at the center of the scene, and points us to the outsider observing them. “In fact,” he writes, “what makes this particular scene so powerful is precisely the tension between what the spying king wants to believe—that his son is a deceitful fool and the girl a conniving hussy—and what the playwright actually presents to us, a scene of incomparable youth and beauty, radiating forth from the goodness and innocence of the boy and girl in love.”

That tension is what Esolen wants us to see in throughout his book: the contrast of the cynical, “jealous” father and the beautiful, wholesome young couple. “The jaundiced man,” he writes, “sees the whole world through the sour yellow of his own disposition.”

Though Shakespeare’s king eventually recognizes the beauty of the moment, Esolen argues that this recognition is beyond us moderns. The sexual revolution, he says, “has scorched us all,” made us all into that jealous man, unable to see the beauty in Shakespeare’s scene.

Does that strike you as odd? It does me. I’ve never had trouble seeing the beauty in that scene, or scenes like it. It sings to me as surely as it sings to Esolen.

But then, maybe that’s because there’s nothing in the scene to make me jealous. I found someone as lovely and good as Perdita, and I can look at our wedding pictures and see that radiance. It warms me, sure, but I don’t feel scorched.

So, fine. He’s not writing about me. But then who does Esolen want to put in the king’s place?

Let’s keep reading:

The first reaction of the lust-corrupted to something like the dance of Doricles and Perdita is wistful longing for something lost, for the virtue that he sees, but no longer possesses. Next comes a disconcerting incomprehension—what can this be? Next comes belittlement, a deliberate attempt to tear the good thing down, to reveal what is ‘really’ beneath, a reality that is as sordid and base as the imagination of the would-be exposer. Last comes sheer boredom. It doesn’t take long to reach that final state. It didn’t take long after the sexual revolution. What good was marriage?

Oh. That’s who hates Doricles and Perdita. The lust-corrupted.

And who are the lust-corrupted?

Well, there’s Satan, whom he later describes in a scene from Paradise Lost “leering” at Adam and Eve from the bushes, “attracted to what he sees despite himself, and hating it all the more because it is innocent, and it is love.”

Then, of course, there are gay people.

Esolen repeatedly depicts gay people as jealous observers of straight life. In Chapter 8, he’ll tell us that gays envy heterosexual children, who are “crossing the very gulf that the homosexuals have not managed to cross, and sometimes not dared to cross.” In Chapter 10, he’ll tell us gay people are trying to “visit a crisis of identity upon every child in our society.” Why? Because “the intention of many homosexual activists, whose revenge upon the children who were once cruel or indifferent to them is to afflict other children with doubts, to make them endure the questions they themselves endured.”

In Esolen’s telling, gays are always the envious guests at the good feast or the wedding. Always seething on the sideline, like Satan in the bushes.

——

If you’ll indulge me, let’s go back my wedding.

I’ve written before that H and I were just kids when we married, and we didn’t really know what we were doing when we planned our wedding. In the pictures from that day, my haircut looks a little silly, and my suit is too boxy. We didn’t have all the style right. Well, I didn’t—my wife looked perfect. Still, though we hadn’t thought enough about marriage and family, its whys or hows, we stumbled our way to doing it right, to making our wedding everything that Esolen says a wedding is supposed to be. That is, we managed to put together a wedding that reflected not us but the people and places that mattered to us: it was a wedding about our families, our friends, our neighbors, and our communities.

My favorite example of this is the music that we chose. We hired a western swing band that we had first seen at the Gypsy Tea Room in Dallas on New Year’s Eve 1998 opening for our favorite alt-country group.

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If you’re not familiar with western swing, it’s a music form developed in the 1930s and 1940s in Texas and Oklahoma, a mix of jazz and country, and you can hear in it the early strains of the first rockabilly music. We knew it would appeal to H’s Texan family and neighbors, and to the musicians and jazz fans in my dad’s family, and to our friends, too, who were making the drive up from Austin. As soon as we started planning our wedding we thought of this band, and we spent more than half of our wedding budget to secure them—which is not to say they were expensive, since we were two broke kids and our overall budget was small.

It was the right choice. In the Land of Marriage, Esolen writes, “People like to go dancing, too, and that is for young and old, and the youngsters look on and shout their approval and clap their hands as grandma and grandpa show them what it really means to trip the light fantastic.” That’s literally what happened at our wedding—just about everyone who was there remembers H’s Grandma and Grandpa, married more than fifty years then, taking the floor before anyone else and showing us all how it’s done.

That’s our family’s best memory of that day, and it’s not about us at all. Which is how it should be. Or rather, a wedding is about the couple only insofar as the couple reflects the people—and the land—that made them who they are they are.

——

In my favorite picture from our wedding, of the moment when I finally got to kiss the bride, what really makes the scene is the reaction on the faces of everyone around us. And the person with the biggest smile in that picture is my wife’s maid of honor. Her sister.

I’ve mentioned my sister-in-law before on this blog—she’s my wife’s best friend, the first person she calls with good or bad news. And while I’ve lost contact with some of the friends from my wedding, few people have played a bigger part in my family’s life than my sister-in-law. She’s opened her house to us over and over again. She was the first person in the room after our daughter was born and she, and her wife, gifted us so many boxes of diapers that we didn’t have to buy any for our daughter’s whole first year.

What does it do to Esolen’s point if the gay person at the wedding isn’t out to destroy anything? If she’s not envious or rotten? What does it do if she’s just as idealistic and good as the couple saying their vows? What if she’s just as capable of self-sacrifice and commitment? What if she’s not seething at the margins of the feast, but right there in the center, leading the celebration?

I think it makes Esolen’s argument beyond wrong: I think it makes it ridiculous.

You know what? Let’s take if further: what does it do to Esolen’s argument if the gay person isn’t at the margin at all, but instead the community is circling around her, celebrating the virtue they see (because it’s plain as day) in her love for her new wife?

My sister-in-law’s wedding happened eleven years after ours, and it was a very different event. In the first place, she couldn’t do it in her home state. So instead of a sunny Texas afternoon, she got married on a crisp night in New York City. Instead of taking place in the backyard where she and my wife played My Little Ponies as girls, it happened in the Campbell Apartment in Grand Central Station. Instead of eating fajitas under an oak tree, we ate in a dining room at the Standard Hotel.

But it was the same: it was two families coming together in the formation of a new family; it was about them and about us, and about the ways they relate to us.

All of this became clear when the all-female mariachi troupe poured into our dining room and surrounded our table. My sister-in-law had hired them as a surprise for her new wife, but they were for all of us, her guests, too. We were two families from border states, Texas and California, and so the music brought an instant familiarity, an instant note of home, and an instant connection across generations and between our previously separate families.

It was what happened with the music at our wedding, and it was an incredible gesture on my sister-in-law’s part. I mean, who’s ever heard of surprise mariachis? But it was also an incredibly meaningful gesture. And the meaning in that gesture is precisely what someone like Esolen, sulking around outside of the feast, is refusing to see.