Last Tuesday I linked to an article that really bugged me, but I hadn’t quite put my finger on all the reasons why. It was about a brothel for women that is opening in New Zealand. The author of the article was predicting that the brothel would be a failure because women “have to be paid to have sex with strangers.”
At first I thought what was bothering me about the article was that same old tired trope about women wanting relationships while men just want to get off. There is no way to know for sure what women would or would not want if we lived in a society where women having sex with multiple partners (or any kind of sex) didn’t come with such massive social disapproval. There is no way to know for sure what men would or would not want if we lived in a society that didn’t hold up James Bond as their emblem for promiscuous, manly virility.
Even in our present culture, surveys show that the number of sexual partners that men have and women have aren’t very far off. And in some of the surveys, where the numbers are farther apart, the respondents who reported high numbers admitted to lying. Not to mention all the societies that have had much different ideas about sex. Jesuit missionaries from France were shocked by the sexual freedom that Montagnais-Naskapi Indian women had.*
But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that wasn’t what was really bugging me about the article. What was bugging me was the portrait this woman was painting of who would go to a prostitute and why. She didn’t go so far as to claim that every guy who goes to a prostitute is some emotionally stunted pervert who just wants to get off without having to treat the other party like a human being (as so many people do). But she did infer that the only reason someone would go to a prostitute was because they wanted to have anonymous sex with strangers. And she implied that they prefered that anonymous sex to other options that they had. But what were the other options?
Mike Jones is the gay male escort who outed Ted Haggard. He wrote a book about his life called I Had to Say Something. In it, he describes some of his experiences with clients. He wrote about a client who had diabetes and lost both of his legs, about a client who was ninety and just wanted someone to touch him, about clients who were filled with shame because they lived in a society where their desires – for men, for cross-dressing – were considered vile. In other words, a lot of his clients were people who had serious challenges to having sexual relationships. Surely it isn’t only men that face those challenges. Should they be ashamed? Vilified? Criminalized? Abstinent?
There is something really disturbing to me about someone who refuses to see whole groups of people as human. And that goes for people who may be participating in something that is problematic in a lot of ways. There are serious issues related to the sex industry – trafficking, violence, economic exploitation – but the people who vilify all the Johns and victimize all the sex workers are being just as dehumanizing as they claim the people in the industry are.
Isn’t it possible to understand that human beings have complex reasons for the things that they do? Isn’t it possible to recognize the humanity of people who do things that you may not agree with, while still being honest about how they may be contributing to a problematic system? Can’t we hold two thoughts in our head at the same time?
* From Stephanie Coontz’s Marriage, A History: How Love Conquered Marriage