In a tabloided media world, few things hit harder than a sex scandal. Mistresses, gay escorts, faux-lesbian bondage clubs and high-class call girls rock and sometimes sink political careers. Men in power apologize to constituents, often flanked by their dutiful wives, while pundits wag fingers over the increasing moral decay of our prostitute populated nation.
But is moral depravity endemic to cultures accepting prostitution?
Not at all.
Attitudes towards prostitution (like attitudes towards all sexual variations) swing with the changing tides of culture. Sometimes tolerated, sometimes weaved centrally into social fabric, prostitution has always existed in some form.
The forms prostitution takes reflect the social structures of the society in which they exist. In contemporary culture high-priced escorts sit atop the hierarchy relatively untouched by the law, while women working on the streets (particularly women of color) bear an inordinate burden of arrests. Ancient Greeks had their own structure with hetairai (courtesans, much like modern day escorts) and concubines for privileged male citizens. The Roman Empire had a similar structure, though prostitution was less accepted in Roman culture than in Greek.
In our culture that condemns and outlaws prostitution, the level of public ire raised by dalliances between men of power and prostitutes depends on the type of prostitute. White, educated women found through private escort services (such as the women hired by David Vitter through the DC Madame) generate a relatively low level of interest (unless the prostitute involved goes public, as in the case with Eliot Spitzer) while male escorts or women working in the street cause moral outrage and media calamity. (For more on social sexual hierarchies, read Gayle Rubin’s seminal essay “Thinking Sex”).
Social privilege in the sex-for-hire industry mirrors the social structure of privilege. Media glamorizes the heterosexual encounters between white, educated women and men of power while denigrating homosexual affairs and relationships with women on the street. When the public reproaches a politician’s sexual indiscretions, the righteous indignation is just as much over the affair as the type of sex sought.
This post is dedicated to my friend Andy W. for his financial contribution towards running this blog. Thanks Andykins!