Old Profession, New TolerationROGER SCRUTON
The state of prostitution, and the harm it causes.
Official toleration is, in this matter as in so many others, the work of people largely protected from its consequences. Our legislators do not live in the areas of cities where prostitution is flagrant; they do not have to deal, in their daily lives, with the network of pimps and racketeers who live from the earnings of their female slaves; they do not have to fear for their daughters, now that the trade can be constantly resupplied from those places in the European hinterland where crime and cruelty are the norm. At the same time, so horrendous are the facts that the liberal conscience has an added reason for ignoring them. It is never pleasant, after all, to deal with the real consequences of human freedom. Prostitution in London, which was once a local industry among “fallen” women, supporting another local industry of philanthropists intent on rescuing them, is now largely run by illegal immigrants from the Balkans. These people do not conform to the standards adopted by the liberal conscience. The girls whom they bring with them are captured or purchased when too young to resist. Attempts to escape are severely punished by beating or torture, and communication with the outside world is expressly forbidden. Only in one particular do these girls conform to the ideal of the “sex worker” as now defined: Their earnings are taxed. That is to say, the pimp takes the lot, handing back what is required, as Marx would put it, “to reproduce their labor power.” If ever there were a case of exploitation, this is it.
It is still a crime in English law to “live off immoral earnings,” though it is anyone’s guess how long this provision will remain, now that the word “immoral,” used in the vicinity of sex, is regarded as anachronistic. In any case, it is hard to punish this crime and harder still to prevent it. Witnesses are reluctant to come forward to accuse those members of the Albanian mafia who dominate the London scene; the girls themselves — often monoglot captives from the mountain villages — risk death should they make contact with the police. The customers are happy with a deal that offers youthful flesh at rock-bottom prices. And attempts to deport illegal immigrants are now more or less futile, with “human rights” lawyers specializing in offering Her Majesty’s protection to Her Majesty’s enemies. The idea that a modern Gladstone could walk the streets of Soho in order to rescue the victims of this trade is laughable. Even supposing there were such a person, able to survive the public mockery of his beliefs, he would not last long in a world where assassination is the normal way with intruders.
The upright and the fallen
Many factors have contributed to our current demoralization. Perhaps the most important is that to which I have already referred: the refusal to believe that there are “immoral earnings.” In a culture in which girls are encouraged to be as promiscuous as boys, it is hard to insist on an absolute distinction between the upright and the fallen woman. Sexual liberation has made disapproval into a private matter, to be expressly kept out of the public domain. And women themselves have every reason to sympathize with the prostitute. Many of them, encouraged along the path of liberation, discover that sex really does have a cost. The men come and go, leaving heartbreak and insecurity in their wake. And if sex has a cost, why not insist on compensation? A woman who gives herself begins to look like a fool, when she gives herself for nothing. Why not sell herself instead? At least she will stand a chance of a fair and honest deal.
But there is more to the matter than that implies. For instance, there is the problem posed by beauty. Female beauty is a powerful social force — more powerful than money, more powerful than physical strength or intellectual acumen. The Trojans were destroyed by the beauty of Helen, Dante redeemed by the beauty of Beatrice, post-war Britain restored by the beauty of the young Queen Elizabeth. Hence we are in awe of female beauty and reluctant to see it as a physical asset, or to allow it to be marketed for its financial worth. Beauty is a symbol of the ideal. It cannot be possessed or consumed, any more than a melody in music can be possessed or consumed by the listener. It is forever unassimilable, a mark of the inherent meaning and purposefulness of human life. In the presence of beauty, therefore, we are inclined to adore, to worship, to sacrifice. For this reason beauty is a powerful stimulus to marriage, and beautiful women who marry do a lasting service to their sex. They cease to be competitors, and at the same time set an example. All women can take hope from them, knowing that, in the light that shines from a face that is both beautiful and devoted, they too may exhibit some reflected glow.
But suppose a beautiful woman takes the other path. There is no limit to the amount of money that a Brigitte Bardot or a Marilyn Monroe could command as a whore, no limit to the havoc she could create on the rare occasions when she would be compelled by financial necessity to cash in her assets. And by behaving in this way she would also degrade the idea of beauty: No woman could easily be set on a pedestal in a world where the fiscal benefits of beauty are fully exploited. And it would be a world full of anger, a world as threatened as Troy was threatened, once Helen was brought within its walls.
Prostitution of the kind that we now witness in Europe, in which children are captured or sold into servitude, is hardly a crime on the victim’s part. She cannot be blamed for a career into which she is forced by violence and intimidation, and from which she can escape only by risking her life. But her condition shows what is wrong with her trade. The one who volunteers for that trade is treating herself exactly as the pimp treats his victim. She is acting at one remove from her body, which has become a thing to be exploited, rather than the thing that she is.
The human body is not a possession; it is — to use the theological term — an incarnation. It is a subject, the focus and source of personal love, and not a mere object to be used. A woman doesn’t own her body, any more than she owns herself. She is inextricably mingled with it, and what is done to her body is done to her. If she sells her body for sex, it is not sex that she is selling. For sex can be sincerely offered only if it is sincerely wanted by the one who offers it. Both prostitute and client are therefore engaged in an elaborate deception, each cheating the other, the one by pretending to sell sex, the other by pretending to buy it. Sex and contempt are adjacent regions in the psyche of the typical client; and a prostitute must willingly accept that she is being spat upon. The transaction that unites her to her partner also divides them, and this cold, hard meeting of strangers in total intimacy constitutes a deep violation of intimacy and all that it means.
Roger Scruton. "Old Profession, New Toleration." National Review (June 19, 2006).
This article reprinted with permission from Roger Scruton and National Review. See Roger Scruton's web site here.
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