Sex for Sale – Prostitution, Cuddle Cafés and Commodity Culture
It’s the oldest trade in the world. It capitalises on one of our basest, most universal urges. But does that justify its existence?
For me, prostitution presents a troubling paradox. On the one hand, the concept of sex as a transaction isn’t actually all that repulsive. We’re all familiar by now with the idea of emotionless sex – “less” being the operative part of that word.
Unless you’re a sociopath, feelings probably enter into the equation somewhere, even if it’s just mild post-load-blowing gratitude. But, hardly a newsflash, sex doesn’t always have to be one of those “two-become-one”, fireworks overhead, doves flying out of somewhere inconceivable, moments.
Sometimes, sex is less a meeting of the souls, more a penis meets friction sort of affair. And to say that sex can’t be about button pushing for women as well as men, would be to ignore the existence of vibrators…or, for that matter, the clitoris.
We’ve all had one-night stands. And we definitely weren’t all sitting by the phone for the next week waiting for the other person to call. We went out, we fancied some sex, we picked an acceptable partner, sex happened, job done. Money might not strictly have changed hands, but drinks were probably bought and compensatory small-talk minutes were probably dispensed. Tell me how that’s not a transaction?
By way of slightly different illustration, after a long slog at work I’ve caught myself thinking I’d give my eye tooth (whatever that is) or, better yet, my hypothetical firstborn child for a good neck and shoulder massage. The concept isn’t all that different.
…or is it?
The problem is twofold. Firstly, as with any activity that is restricted or outlawed, the black market trading and handling is uncontrolled, nefarious and gang-related.
Secondly, this particular trade requires the involvement of another person’s body, in quite a more drastic way than any other similar service which, when you combine this with the first problem, paints a vile, sometimes unspeakable picture of slavery, drugs, rape (yes you can still be raped if you have sex for a living, don’t be dense) and other forms of abuse.
And though I’ve managed to be relatively gender-neutral so far, the fact is that men are still a prostitute’s main customer, meaning the overwhelming majority of prostitutes are women. Young women, often ripped away from their families and taken to countries that are foreign to them. Which makes them largely defenceless against older, stronger and meaner male pimps.
Herein lies the conundrum
As I have said, probably over-iteratively, coming to terms with the idea of sex as a physical process for pleasure or release isn’t too difficult. And neither, really, is the notion of wanting to pay for it if you can’t be bothered with the dull getting-to-know-you chat or endless £12 cocktails.
Prostitution has been around since forever, and you can count on it, I’d argue more than basically anything else, to be around for a good few forevers to come. But no one can quite seem to make up their minds about how to control and regulate it. Currently, it is outlawed almost everywhere in the world and is responsible for some of the most mindblowingly awful crimes against humanity.
So what do we do?
Let’s have a look at some of the different global approaches…
The French have recently all but adopted the Nordic model of persecuting the consumer. The bill has won the support of French MPs, but is yet to pass the Senate. When, and if, it does, it will make prostitution itself technically legal, but the act of seeking out and paying for a prostitute’s services illegal.
This is considered to be a move towards protecting the women (for the most part) involved in the sex trade. Many have considered that the outlawing of prostitution, by default, criminalises the prostitute her/himself. As such, sex workers are more vulnerable to attack and they are less able to seek help when things go wrong.
This change in the law is designed to protect the supplier and punish, instead, those responsible for the demand.
David Cameron has recently felt pressure to adopt this approach.
France didn’t come up with this model. It is a method that has been championed by Sweden since 1998, a country which has reported a 50% drop in prostitution since the change in law.
Unfortunately, though, this figure is misleading. If this approach is designed to protect the prostitute – debatable, as sex work remains stigmatised – its success has, for a long time, been in dispute. As Charlotte Ashton of the BBC reported some years ago, while on-the-streets sex might have diminished, this doesn’t give a clear picture of what’s going on behind closed doors.
Demand doesn’t actually decrease when you persecute the customers, it just makes them more nervous and the whole process a bit more sketchy. So the transactions still happen, they’ve just gone behind closed doors, where the police can’t intervene. Instead of protecting the prostitutes, the now even more clandestine dealings might actually be increasing their risk, by forcing them into places where no one will know what is happening and augmenting the chances of things going awry.
Trust the Germans to test a more radical theory. In 2001, Germany’s Social Democrats and Greens attempted to “raise the legal and social status of prostitutes“ by, effectively, decriminalising the whole thing. What’s more, they began to offer sex workers access to health insurance, pensions and other benefits.
Prostitutes are treated as real people, they can be protected legally and those looking for sex don’t have to be seedy and clandestine about it. Everyone’s a winner…..right?
It turns out, when you start legalising pay-for-sex culture, you begin to find out just how astronomical the demand really is….
The sex trade, in Germany, has taken off like a Bugatti Veyron with a 1000hp 16 cylinder, 4 turbo engine (yes, I am of the The Fast and the Furious generation). According to a report published last year, there are now over 3,000 red light districts in the country and while some municipalities have been a bit stricter, others, such as the notoriously avant-garde Berlin, have up to 500 bordellos.
The Economist has, rather conservatively, dubbed Germany a “giant Teutonic brothel“, while one tourist, who visits the country three times annually for the sole purpose of making use of the country’s relaxed laws, describes it as being like the Aldi of sex.
All of this is kind of weird and speaks volumes about a lot of people’s lazy apathy towards making real connections, but if the sex workers are protected, then surely it’s also kind of okay.
As Der Spiegel controversially demonstrated in May 2013, legalising it doesn’t actually do very much at all to stem the violence, human trafficking, and abuse of simple human rights. In fact, it’s quite possibly made them much worse.
I won’t go into all the grotty details, Der Spiegel does a good enough job of that, have a read, it’s interesting. But suffice it to say that many of the most foul aspects of human nature and negligence can be summed up in the invention of the €100 all-you-can-eat sex buffet. Under which banner, the customer pays a fixed fee, a price that competition has forced down to an unacceptably low level, and is then at liberty to have sex as many times as he pleases with his chosen prostitute. Miserly and blindly missing the point, as ever, people have taken to popping performance enhancement drugs so that they can really get their money’s worth which, to be as brutally explicit as I think the occasion demands, has left women torn and irreversibly broken.
Operation “raise the legal and social status of prostitutes” = miserable fail.
Moving away from the horrible stuff for a minute, I want to take you across the world, briefly, to Japan. We aren’t going to talk about prostitution, as such, but about some of the other, related, things that have fallen prey to modern consumerism.
Granted, Japan has a fairly bizarre approach to sex and relationships at the best of times. It’s a wonderful country, but inarguably repressed, forcing a lot of girl-boy interaction underground. If, like me, you’re a fan of Ryan Duffy’s short documentaries for Vice magazine, then you might have seen THIS one. Not only does he uncover all the weird and slightly unbelievable fetish activity that you can pay for, but he stumbles across a fascinating little thing called a ‘Cuddle Café’.
In which there is, literally, a menu listing all the types of cuddle you can pay for. Note to reader, it costs more for a cuddle with eye contact, but don’t worry, it’s perfectly cool to fall asleep with your head in a stranger’s lap.
As amusing as this is, especially watching American Duffy “very reluctantly” have his hair petted by a girl in a babygrow, it says something quite unavoidably sad about the state of our potential future. If sex and every other human interaction becomes transactional, it might fit with our increasingly busy lifestyles, but does it leave real intimacy floating somewhere in its wake? And what does that say for our continued ability to connect and empathise. Might we actually then breed a generation of the sociopaths I dismissed earlier on in this article?
Well honestly, there really isn’t one. If no government the world over has been able to find a solution, I’m sure as hell not about to offer mine. But, other than the fact we need to keep fighting the violence, rape and human trafficking involved in the trade, two things strike me as important points to leave you with.
So many of the problems that the prostitution world deals with seem to stem from the usual angel-demon / virgin-whore dichotomy that has been plaguing women for centuries. There is some weird psychological disconnect whereby we (and I say “we” loosely because it is usually men..though there are women who are guilty of it) both crave, demand and accept sex as a service, but abhor the prostitute that makes this possible. We created them, but we loathe them at the same time. Go f***ing figure. I imagine that much, not all, but a lot of the trouble that prostitutes deal with might be alleviated if we were somehow able to re-brand the prostitute as something marvellous – as a provider of pleasure, a nurse of orgasms.
That being said, if Japan and Berlin are anything to go by, we also need to find a way to measure our spending, so to speak. To be more frugal with our sexual shopping sprees. Just because it is easier to pay for it, doesn’t mean we should give up putting in the required effort for mutually enjoyable sex with a peer. The consequences, if we don’t, are pretty dire…
WORDS: NATASHA BIRD
Featured Image: Ray Larabie
Phone, prostitute, spaceman: Indi Samarajiva
Short time girl, Phnom Penh: Blemished Paradise
The Girls of Moorhouse: NCSphotograhy