Sex for free

Following on from my earlier post noting (via Andrew Leigh) that Steven Levitt and Sudhir Venkatesh have been researching street prostitution in Chicago, Andrew managed to find a link to a preliminary draft of the paper. You can find it here. Andrew also noted that:

Levitt cited evidence that in the 1930s-50s, a very large share of men had their first sexual experience with a prostitute. With the rise of premarital sex, this is no longer true, so the market that’s left today is much seedier than in the past.

This would seem to imply that early sexual encounters once represented a sizable, or at least influential, portion of demand, which is interesting in itself.

Many modern-day feminists despair at the way that the so called “sexual revolution” has developed and I do wonder where the current arc of embracing sexuality will stabilise.

Here is a recent story from ABC News being shocked (shocked!) to discover that college parties are both racier and boozier than they used to be at some unspecified time in the past. They report (and fret) that girls seem to drink more at themed parties, where they also tend to wear less.

Here is a story about the merging of reality television and the public acceptability of sex for it’s own sake. A Czech brothel is offering it’s services for free in exchange for the clients’ permission to broadcast the event over the internet.

I suspect that the Czech offering is just the latest in a recent push for a form of authenticity or believability in pornography. It seems to go hand-in-hand with an increase in the popularity of amateur porn, which has two broad sub-categories: the professionally arranged and the truly amateur.

Truly amateur pornography, where the participants film or photograph themselves and share the material for free is arguably the ultimate sharing of the self in the web 2.0 paradigm [1]. It is a logical extension of the attention-seeking self-affirmation that we see in people’s embracing of a public side to their sexuality.

Professional outfits that seek out amateurs who are willing to be filmed (possibly for free) and then offer the material in the traditional business model of internet porn (give out teaser snippets for free and charge for the complete set) , seem to be the adult industry’s response to this shifting demand. In a way, the Czech brothel is just a new branch of this genre.

These developments are not without their concerns. Sara Montague – a presenter on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme – is clearly concerned, noting that much of the movement seems grounded in the hope of empowerment and self-confidence, but worrying that this serves indirectly to promote eating disorders among girls and the acceptance of rape among boys.

The main problem that Montague faces is that for most people, embracing public sexuality is non-harmful – not every girl gets an eating disorder and not every boy contemplates forcing himself on a girl – and is undertaken by choice. Montague is, in essence, faced with Douglas Adams’ cow that wants to be eaten. [2]

There is a saying that seeks to advise against supporting or encouraging prostitution: “No little girl ever says that when she grows up, she wants to be a prostitute.” The idea is a variation on Rawls‘ “veil of ignorance” and implicitly argues that the framing of a choice is of vital importance: that given a wider range of options than those she faces, no woman would choose to be a prostitute.

Montague may argue that just as the prostitute is compelled into her profession by a narrowing of her options, people are lead to an acceptance of public sexuality because of social conditioning. In her article she highlights the flood of media imagery seemingly designed to associate female success with sexiness. In other words, Montague is pointing out that Adams’ cow was genetically engineered to want to be eaten and asking if the cow then truly had a free choice. That question, of course, is moot when considering the cow in front of you. Its preferences may have been implanted, but as a conscious entity, you have to respect it’s choices. At most, you can try to stop future cows from being interfered with.

But to make the same argument for public sexualisation is still predicated on the idea that it is inherently a bad thing. I am not in any way trying to belittle the tragedy of eating disorders or defend the horror of rape, but the point is to weigh the benefits against the costs in aggregate. There is a parallel with opening a country up to trade and allowing jobs to be “lost” to, say, China. It is true that some people will lose their jobs and for them, the pain is tremendous; but it is also true that the vast majority of people experience a small improvement in their material lives because of the cheaper products. It is almost always the case that in aggregate, the latter outweighs the former and the social ideal is to open up to trade but have those that benefit compensate those that suffer.

The same, I think, applies to the progress of public sexualisation. By all means work to increase support for those burdened excessively by concerns of body image. By all means increase support to rape victims and ease the ability of the state to bring those guilty to justice. But that doesn’t mean we should fight to stop it altogether if people choose it freely and feel that it helps them, or even if they just enjoy it.

[1] Yes, I hate that word too; but what else should I have said?

[2] In The Restaurant at the End of the Universe (Foyles, Waterstones, Amazon), Adams had his characters encounter a cow in a restaurant that wanted to be eaten, going so far as to recommend particular parts of it’s body.

7 Responses to “Sex for free”


  • The point is not necessarily to determine if society is better in aggregate – you’ve presupposed a particular model of a just society. In fact, since you’ve already mentioned Rawls there’s a ready-made contrast … by saying there should be a greater good in aggregate you are introducing a utilitarian definition of justice.

    Rawls instead supported a standard of, roughly, aggregate good providing no minority falls below a given standard of living in the broadest sense, life, liberty, the pursuit of pork chops and so on. It’s a different utility function to simply aggregating the area under the curve and I think one better suited to our intuitions of justice.

    So even though I disagree aplenty with Montague I don’t find the utilitarian argument particularly convincing. I think it would be easier to claim that, even from an abstracted position, some people would choose a theoretical safe, comfy prostitution job over tedious call centre job. Sounds weird, but hey, freedom’s like that sometimes.

  • I think we’re arguing for the same thing using different words and in slightly different contexts:

    You’re calling, via Rawls, for maximisation of the aggregate, subject to a minimum standard for all.

    I’m calling for maximisation of the aggregate, subject to those that lose being fully (and arguably excessively) compensated by those that benefit.

    The only real difference is that you’re speaking of levels of wellbeing and I’m speaking of changes in wellbeing, so my “minimum standard” is zero net gain/loss to the individual.

    Just as with a Rawlsian view of utilitarianism (where we have the welfare state that theoretically guarantees minimum living standards to all but actually lets some fall through the cracks), no implementation of my call for compensation will be perfect, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t go for it.

  • Well, technically Rawlsian isn’t utilitarian at all – he’s Rawlsian.

    But you’re right that the difference between our positions is slight. I guess I just got the vibe from yourself that it was more “we will have to throw some welfare benefits their way to sell this policy” rather than a philosophical presumption of No Skanky Ho Left Behind.

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