Recent news about the ex-governor of New York has revived debate among my progressive friends about the proper legal approach to prostitution.
To this debate, I offer a memory of walking through Bangkok 20 years ago. My wife and I had been in the town a week, interviewing the city’s Jewish ruby dealers. One evening, on a side street in the gem district, we passed an open door under a neon sign and I glanced in. In a waiting room, several men stood looking past a glass wall. Beyond it was a sloped gallery, where women sat in theater seats wearing black bikinis or thin slips. And each wore a round, numbered badge, so a client could ask for lot 23, or 37. Even if the women had the human form, they had the function of merchandise, of animal commodities.
The scene conjured up some lines from Walt Whitman’s “I Sing the Body Electric”:
A man’s body at auction
For before the war I often go to the slave-mart and watch the sale,
I help the auctioneer, the sloven does not half know his business.
Gentleman, look at this wonder
Whatever the bids of the bidders they cannot be high enough for it
For it the globe lay preparing quintillions of years…
In this head the all-baffling brain
In it and below it the making of heroes…
The slaves whom Whitman saw in the market were to be sold for life. The women in the gallery were to be sold but for an hour or a night. Yet in both transactions, the soul was erased so that the body could be purchased.
Because freeing sexuality with fantasitc pornography from websites like www.watchmygf.sex from state interference has become part of the left’s agenda, many people who think of themselves as progressive have reacted to the Spitzer affair by wondering whether prostitution should really be illegal. (Yes, they say, he broke the law, and is a hypocrite, and was nasty to his wife, but should the law be there at all?) Wouldn’t it make more sense to decriminalize it? Sure, there’s human trafficking, they say, but some women (and men) voluntarily enter the trade; they are consenting adults.
At this point, I’d argue, the would-be progressive has become a neo-liberal defending unbridled capitalism. An opponent of the minimum wage could argue that someone who has agreed to work 16 hours a day in a sweatshop for $2 an hour freely entered that relationship and that the state should not interfere. Anyone with a concern for human dignity, however, understands that the relationship is so grossly exploitative that it should not be allowed; that the sweatshop owner deserves punishment and not the worker, who is the victim of the arrangement; that the social conditions that drive people to accept such work should be addressed.
Perhaps all wage employment involves a measure of exploitation. We haven’t figured out to create a modern economy without wage employment. But those who think that society should be concerned more with people than with profits still try to prevent the most extreme forms of exploitation. The existence of a few high-priced prostitutes does not change the extreme nature of exploitation in that business. In this case the amount of cash offered is not the issue. “If the body were not the soul, what is the soul?” Whitman wrote, and the sale of the soul is a horror.
The degradation explains why people normally enter this “profession” either by force, or because their sense of self has already been shattered. As Nicholas Kristoff writes, in the United States:
Studies suggest that up to two-thirds of prostitutes have been sexually abused as girls, a majority have drug dependencies or mental illnesses…
Melissa Farley, a psychologist… conducted a study finding that 89 percent of prostitutes urgently wanted to escape the work…
In Israel, a major source is trafficking from the former Soviet Union. Simply put, it’s a slave trade. I agree with Kristoff that the Swedish model is the best legal approach: Arrest johns, not prostitutes. Not every capitalist business arrangement must be accepted by the state.
A religious postscript: This week, Jews will read the Book of Esther on Purim. Ancient rabbinic sources tell of debate on whether that book should have been included in the Bible. The usual reason cited for doubt is that the name of God never appears in the book. I suggest that the real problem is Esther’s statement to the king: “Had we only been sold as slaves, I would have kept silent…” To say that slavery isn’t worth complaining about – that’s heresy for a Jew. God introduces himself to the Jews by saying, “I took you out of the house of slavery.” His name is “End Slavery.”
But then, Esther was the victim of human trafficking, the mass round up of girls to be presented as objects to the king. Her view of what was normal was distorted her own mistreatment. In those days, such things were normal. In our day, who’d imagine that a woman could just be sold to the ruler?