Bruce Lawson’s personal site

On prostitution

Mariya tweeted a link to an article on why young women in rural China become mistresses of older men, which reminded me of living next door to a paid mistress in Thailand, and she prompted me to blog about it. So here goes. Names are changed, by the way.

When I moved to Thailand in 1996 to help set up a school, I took a 3 month rent on a small room in a new hotel near my work. On my floor there was only one other resident, a very well-dressed, attractive woman in her mid-20s. We soon became friends, leaving our doors open and popping in and out of each other’s rooms to chat, gossip, eat, drink beer and smoke.

Lek didn’t seem to work, but attended college every day to learn how to cook, went out most nights and, frankly, seemed to have more disposable income than I had. This was surprising for two reasons; firstly, most Westerners employed in Bangkok with work permits earned three or four times what the locals earned. Secondly, while there were many Thai kids with rich parents, they tended to be fair-skinned, whereas Lek was dark-skinned and from the impoverished Southern provinces of Thailand where a long-running terrorism campaign to secede from Thailand and join muslim Malaysia had damaged the area.

I asked her about it, and she told me straight: she had an older, Western boyfriend called Mike who was posted to work in Thailand in some big engineering project. Mike was married, but his wife was back in England with their kids. Mike paid for the apartment, her college course and took care of her living expenses. In return, she was his mistress. She was to be available for sex, going out to parties or weekends away. The sole stipulation was that she was not to have sex with anyone else (a wise move; in the late 90s, HIV was rife in Thailand). She didn’t love Mike, although she liked him – she viewed it purely as a business relationship. Mike, however, did get jealous of me (until we lied and told him I’m gay); I found lots of Westerners who had mistresses or picked up prostitutes deluded themselves that they were emotionally involved rather than simply buying a service.

Before I’d met Lek, I had always assumed that prostitution was a sordid business of trafficked or abused women being forced into it by a pimp. It had never occurred to me that it could be voluntary. I asked Lek if she felt exploited. “Absolutely not”, she answered. She explained that she had a sister, a year younger, still living in the home village “in the jungle” (as she put it). Her sister had four children by a man who beat her when he was drunk, and who forced her to wear a veil. “I have a nice apartment, I’m getting an education. Mike is a good guy who treats me well, we go to parties where I meet lots of people, I’ve learned English and have friends from all over the world. This is freedom – don’t pity me.”

Who was I to argue?

It made me wonder, though, why we still get so squeamish about sex. If someone works with their bodies to entertain by dancing, or gymnastics, or sports, we don’t pity them. Neither do we condescend to other people who look after others’ physical needs for money – we don’t pity a person who cooks food or others, or cuts their hair, or massages their aches, or looks after their teeth. So why do we look down on people who voluntarily offer sexual services?

5 Responses to “ On prostitution ”

Comment by Matt Wilcox

“So why do we look down on people who voluntarily offer sexual services?”

I don’t think that many people do, at least not many of my peers. I certainly see no problem with an adult doing anything they like, for any reason they like, as long as it’s voluntary and they’re happy about it – and that it doesn’t harm other people. And to clarify my definition – offence is not harm, offence is a choice made by the offended.

I’d assume that people who do react in that way either:

* Do so on religious grounding
* Are under the impression that prostitution is a ‘desperate measure’ and the prostitute got to it through poor life choices.

Personally, I think if you’re looking down on someone for any reason, it’s because you’re lacking in empathy and you’re being a judgemental dick.

Comment by Michael.

And what’s with using the term “selling [your|her|his|their|my] body”? When a masseur sells a massage, they aren’t selling their body. When a hair dresser cuts and styles someone hair, they aren’t selling their body.

Selling companionship and perhaps sex is not in any way selling your body.

Society is odd. First you have to get a job, otherwise you’re a layabout, a bum, or a dole bludger. But, if you get a job doing something that there is demand for, that requires little prior knowledge, and that potentially pays well, you’re looked down upon.

I saw a good post the other day, that provided one potential reason:

Sex workers are the antithesis of the capitalist model – they have no need for capital and can exist in a pre-capitalist way, earning enough to reproduce themselves and the tools of their trade without ever involving capital.

Comment by CompassAnon

5. lust

Lust can be avoided with a strong mind. A strong relationship to provide support.

In marriage, everything is possible when communication is open. We must invest in open communication and express willingness and desire to make peace with the other person.

Hidden feelings of lust or desire for another inhibit open communication. This gives way to lying, cheating, and other weaknesses that destroy oneself and the possibility of any healthy relationships.

At first there may be guilt, pity, and obligation to their partner and later there is blame towards her body or behavior.

Open communication demands integrity. And integrity is also required for one’s self-esteem. For any healthy relationship, there must be integrity.

Nothing can heal anger but compassion. When one’s mind is clear (of lust, anger, or other secrets), his mind can be open to compassion towards his partner, to be receptive to her pain. Compassionate listening prevents anger from arising.

In marriage, a man and wife share their feelings with one another with honest, deep communication. When they hide feelings and keep secrets, the relationship becomes harmed and spiritual depth cannot be reached.

Otherwise, the things said will be irritating; the details of her mundane problems will not be cared for as the signals of lust or anger which are then turned and converted to blame her.

Thou shalt not covet.

Comment by Alexander F

There’s a great paper that asks similar questions and argues that this type of prejudice is not justified by any rational standard:
http://jme.bmj.com/content/early/2012/08/27/medethics-2011-100367.full.pdf

My take on the issue – it’s the old story of sacred vs profane. Sex is sacred (if the community is more religious this is usually a strongly held and widely shared belief), but it gets more complicated – sex is also a taboo topic in most societies (not much room for discourse here, and therefore for reasoning and questioning existing beliefs), monogamy is a social norm almost everywhere, and there is also the belief that love should always be equal to sex and vice versa.

But the whole topic is much much more complex, to solve the puzzle you’ll need psychologists and anthropologists to understand people’s beliefs, sociologists to investigate properly, and at the end you’ll only have a highly probable set of reasons for the prejudice for one specific society, that may not be applicable anywhere else.

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