In a cynical review of a sensationalistic book, The New York Times featured--front page--the thesis that there is nary a difference between men who must wine and dine women before they fork over sex, and johns who pay for prostitutes. In a discussion that would (or at least should) embarrass a bunch of fraternity boys, the New York Times argues, "Money is the elephant in every bedroom." Toni Bentley's review ("Meet, Pay, Love") of Hos, Hookers, Call Girls, and Rent Boys, a collection of essays written by sex workers, finds nothing problematic about equating sex between romantic partners and sex between clients and prostitutes, asking "Why is sex supposed to be free? It never is." Ms. Bentley complains that "it is still taboo to regard sex and money as inextricably interwoven" and quotes approvingly British artist and author Sebastian Horsley, who asserts, "The difference between sex and money and sex for free...is that sex for money always costs a lot less." (The book itself is concerned only with straight-up money-for-sex transactions and has little to say about role of money in personal, intimate relationships.)
To highlight its point, the paper of record, once the highly regarded grey lady, provided the following case in point: A woman sitting on a stage, a drink in one hand and a cigarette in another, her legs apart. A man is going down on her. She is tapping on his shoulders every minute or so, to collect another twenty dollars for the privilege of continuing. She is grinning all the way to the bank, enjoying herself. There are many other anecdotes that have the same degrading flavor.
The review disregards several obvious compelling facts, even if we ignore the sexist assumption that these days men must wine and dine their partners, only after which will women consent to have sex--which presumably they have no inherent interest in.
First, commercial sex is often not voluntary but coerced. Hundreds of thousands of women each year are lured out of their villages, drugged and sold, and raped and beaten until they agree to become commercial sex workers.
Second, sex workers are greatly exploited; most of their incomes goes to the pimps and bosses, not to the sex workers themselves.
Thirdly, they are prone to sexually transmitted infections, and, fourth, are often involved with drugs and crimes beyond prostitution.
On the other side of this false equivalency, relational sex often is part of a much more encompassing, meaningful relationship. True, some youngsters and a few older types "hook up" for a short, even one-time, encounter. However, by and large in lasting relationships, sex is part of initiating, building, and sustaining bonds of affections, which commercial sex lacks. These bonds are a vital part of what makes a good life.
One need not be an old fashioned moralist to be surprised by the sophomoric nature of the book review The New York Times chose to feature.
Amitai Etzioni is Professor of Sociology at The George Washington University and author of The Spirit of Community and The New Golden Rule. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org://www.gwu.edu/~ccps/index.html