There is widespread hostility against sex work even when it only involves mature adults, with traditionalists and feminists joining hands to condemn women who “sell their body,” and worse: evil male customers who support the nasty business. Sex work always and necessarily exploits women; they cry all the way to the bank. However, some sex workers choose their career willingly, and vehemently resent being “rescued” against their will. While most people – both sex workers and prohibitionists – oppose “underage” sex work, an examination of the reasons is instructive.
One reason sex work is outlawed is because many people think if sex work becomes decriminalized it is a form of blanket approval of explicitly exchanging sex for money. But it is important to distinguish between some situations in which exchanging sex for money is unobjectionable, and other situations in which exchanging sex for money may reasonably be disapproved of.
When children are very young and uninhibited they enjoy spontaneous sex play without any need for economic incentives. Genital play is motivated solely by curiosity and the desire for pleasure: sex play is its own reward. But under some conditions an asymmetrical desire develops between individuals so an offer of an additional non-sexual incentive naturally arises.
Some individuals are considered more attractive than others, so when given a choice very attractive individuals prefer each other rather than less attractive individuals. An extreme example is a deformed or diversely able (handicapped) person who would like to have sex with someone who has no such deformity. An offer of money or other incentive is perfectly understandable in this case, and so is accepting that offer perfectly understandable.
The person who accepts payment in such a case is renting certain body parts and precious time just like any other employee or independent contractor. The most important difference between sex work and other kinds of work is which body parts are being rented. A sex worker doesn’t “sell her body” anymore than a secretary does, although accusing a sex worker with the phrase “selling her body” has more rhetorical impact.
Sex play often becomes sex work because many children in Western countries are indoctrinated to become fearful or hostile to sexuality, and such fear or hostility is expressed and transmitted to others eventually. Although euphemistically referred to as “inhibition,” a more accurate term is mental castration
Some medical professionals in the past recommended burning a little girl’s clitoris with acid to reduce her interest and capacity for pleasure, and in some Third World countries even today women cut off a little girl’s clitoris. The modern medical ritual of circumcision was originally a form of symbolic castration.
For most growing girls the very thought of sex becomes unpleasant or even painful, so cash or other incentives become necessary. There is some evidence that introducing financial incentives reduces children’s precious internal motivation to learn, so it’s possible that introducing or encouraging financial incentives for sex may likewise interfere with children’s physical enjoyment of genital contact and thereby harm children’s development of healthy sexual function. Ideally, children should have models of sexually functional adults who enjoy sex for its own sake, rather than models of sexually dysfunctional adults who always require payment for sexual contact.
When sexuality is being discovered in early childhood it is something very exciting, but if that desire is satisfied the novelty eventually wears off. The age at which any particular child becomes less curious about sex play may vary greatly depending on the individual, immediate family, or wider environment. There may even be genetic differences between individuals in the desirability of physical sensations; some people may be more “thick-skinned” than other people.
Whatever the reason, two five-year-olds are the same age, but one may be less enthusiastic about sex play than the other, as opposed to other types of play. The more enthusiastic child who is creative can offer something in exchange for sex play, and depending on the other child’s degree of interest, the latter may accept the offer or hold out for more value in the exchange. Sexual bargaining is not evil or destructive; it stems from a sense of justice. When individuals have different degrees of interest, bargaining is a natural form of compromise.
Another common scenario in early childhood is that some individual children are considered more desirable as a playmate in general, so the less popular child is more likely to consent to sex play or offer sex play even if not desired in itself. This scenario is especially likely when there are other children competing for the popular child’s attention. There may be negotiation and bidding for the popular child’s attention, including offers of sex play. As some children get older they accept this discrepancy in individual value as a fact of social life, and after an adolescent period of posturing (Who me, exchange money for sex?) eventually see nothing strange about offering sex for some other value, or accepting something non-sexual in exchange for sex.
Still another common reason for sex work is that some adults may find professional sex workers exotic or otherwise attractive and hence be occasionally willing to pay for sex regardless of the availability of attractive “free” sex partners. Due to a girl’s susceptibility to clitoral erectile dysfunction the majority of women in the West today are sexually dysfunctional. They are unable to experience clitoral erection, and they reach orgasm infrequently and with difficulty. They must settle for “enjoying the closeness,” and faking orgasm So women more often need an additional incentive to participate in sex and hence are the most frequent sellers rather than buyers of intimate company.
Traditional marriage has an obvious commercial aspect, even though modern Western culture attempts to hide the commercial aspect through romantic narratives of endless love or the “mutual benefits” of marriage. Explicitly exchanging sexual services for money is publicly condemned, but the institution of marriage itself has long been viewed as a business affair. Sexual services are traditionally viewed as a form of family resource or wealth that should be carefully managed by wise parents rather than squandered by inexperienced youngsters. Hence parents of daughters attempt to capitalize on the male’s lesser dysfunction (“stronger desire for sex”) compared to the average mentally castrated female, by demanding payment for sexual services – the “bride price.”
I believe that the discrepancy between male and female desire is minor if both individuals are sexually functional. Human females commonly make a greater effort than males to groom themselves, dress up, manicure, pedicure, to appear attractive. Although the man may be the one who eventually verbalizes the proposition, in effect the woman has orchestrated and initiated the sex in many cases.
In our close relatives, monkeys and apes, healthy females are not merely receptive to sex. In what is called proceptivity, females actively solicit copulations with males. Females present themselves in the mating position, as well as licking the male’s face or genitalia. Mature females even solicit sex from juvenile males, and especially juvenile females are very persistent in soliciting sex from mature males. Evidently jealous of each other, juvenile females occasionally harass mature females during copulation, and mature females harass juvenile females during copulation. In our very closest relative, the bonobo, an immature female sometimes climbs between two copulating adults.*
The same female enthusiasm may be seen in very young human children before they are mentally castrated. Little girls are often more enthusiastic than little boys about sex play, and have to settle for each other as playmates when boys are interested in other forms of play. Girls seem less interested in sex when they get older because traditionally there is greater parental effort invested in mentally castrating girls, so their capacity to enjoy sex is reduced or eliminated more effectively than boys, rendering the financial incentive more important or essential for the maturing female. As girls grow up they are traditionally taught to be more “practical” about sex.
While many parents condemn sex work publicly, girls are traditionally brought up to never “give it away” for free rather than in exchange for a lifetime meal ticket. Other girls will call any girl who gives sex away “a slut,” or whoever settles for a small one-time payment will be called a prostitute. The healthy development of a girl’s capacity for sexual pleasure is sacrificed for long-term financial return.
Far from discouraging sex work, parents traditionally teach daughters that economic advantage is the only reason to have sex. Hence the meeting point between traditionalists and radical feminists: both condemn heterosexual sex purely for pleasure. Both also share the illusion that sexual inhibition in childhood is only temporary. Once adulthood is reached, girls can simply turn off their sexual dysfunction and magically become sexually functional.
Another way of looking at clitoral erectile dysfunction is that most women are not sexually dysfunctional – they are just diversely able. But being diversely able is acceptable only when it is inevitable and irremediable. Nobody in their right mind chooses to become diversely able voluntarily. So if clitoral erectile dysfunction can be prevented, why do parents continue to mentally castrate millions of girls generation after generation?
While nobly claiming that the criminalization of sex work protects young girls from being forced or pressured into sex work against their will, tradition ignores an attractive girl’s willing desire and freedom to chose sex work. When it comes to young girls working as prostitutes, we should note that 12-year-olds may be called “children,” but they are very far from 5-year-olds or even 8-year-olds. A pampered 12-year-old growing up in the average American home today is certainly very different from a 12-year-old growing up in a brothel in New Orleans in 1917. In the film “Pretty Baby” the 12-year-old whose virginity is auctioned off to eager men was prepared for her career long before she was actually “deflowered.”
Girls growing up in brothels in other countries even now cannot be compared to an average 12-year-old in the U.S. today. Of course, no 12-year-old should ever be forced to become a sex worker if she doesn’t want to. In other words, she should know she is free to choose not to become a sex worker, without any threat of rejection by her parents or any other negative consequences. Where sex work is legal, laws set an arbitrary age standard (counting birthdays) that is convenient for legal administration and enforcement, but ideally what should matter is not the girl’s chronological age, but her understanding of the consequences of different choices, and her freedom to chose alternatives. Criminalization of sex work at any age restricts a girl’s choices no less than coerced sex work. Prohibitionists and sex traffickers oppose each other, but they are actually on the same moral plane.
The most peculiar part of the story “Pretty Baby” is that many men placed (or still place) such a high value on virginity, compared to the value they placed (or still place) on a more mature and experienced woman. The traditional fascination with virginity might be based on the mistaken assumption that if a physically mature girl has never had genital intercourse before, her vagina hasn’t been stretched and hence is tighter and will provide more pleasure to the male. But in reality the opposite is the case: an inexperienced girl has undeveloped vaginal muscles so her vagina is actually weak and loose.
Repeated genital intercourse is a form of exercise that eventually strengthens the vaginal muscles just like any other striated muscles. Note that I’m talking about a physiologically mature vagina. The immature vagina is too tiny for genital intercourse in any case (it would be easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle), as well as being vulnerable to laceration and infection if penetrated by anything. Some girls are under the illusion that an older male with a mature penis will bring more pleasure to a small and immature virgin vagina. Accurate, balanced and comprehensive sex education from the earliest age would destroy such ridiculous and dangerous myths as the tight virgin vagina, and relegate the primitive fascination with virginity to the dustbin of history.
One important advantage of decriminalizing sex work is that people naturally become bored having sex with only one person over time, so professional sex workers provide a safer alternative than extra-marital affairs. Professionals are not only more careful about unplanned pregnancy and infections, they keep proper emotional distance from clients. Rather than risk a spouse becoming emotionally involved in an extra-marital affair with a neighbor or co-worker, and thereby break up both families, the legal availability of professional sex workers would provide a safe outlet for satisfying a married person’s natural wanderlust. A professional sex worker can’t possibly marry every one of her clients.
There are also documented cases of some law enforcement agents who take advantage of the criminalization of sex work to rape or rob sex workers – including “underage” sex workers. Some psychopaths inside and outside the government think labelling some activity as illegal gives them the license to ignore normal moral conduct and do whatever they want.
We need not advocate a blanket acceptance of exchanging sex for money, but nor should we support a blanket condemnation of sex work under any circumstances – especially if a sexually restrictive atmosphere contributes to the mental castration of millions of growing girls. Condemning any form of explicit sex work leads to the absurdity of firing teachers who are discovered to have been sex workers in the past, or even taking children away from parents who are revealed to be (or have been) sex workers. There are no valid data to show that sex workers (past or present) are likely to be less competent or less responsible parents or teachers. Some sex workers may even make the effort to become more competent childcare providers than other people to compensate for their politically incorrect sexual lives.
How dare anybody submit a child to the tragedy of being separated from a beloved parent or teacher simply because it is considered politically correct to do so? The popular concern over the supposed dangers of explicit sex work in any form, and supposedly widespread “sex trafficking” (relying on wild and unfounded claims and bogus statistics) is hardly worthy of any thinking person’s support.
* Dixon, Alan F. Primate Sexuality: Comparative Studies of the Prosimians, Monkeys, Apes, and Human Beings. (Oxford University Press, 1998).