One of my students wrote an impressive paper recently arguing for the legalization of prostitution. There are certainly some points to be made in favor of this proposition, but my response, in keeping with the themes of my book, was that we should not treat sexual union as a commodity, we should recognize it as a sacred moment—a sacramental act reserved for your best beloved. Here’s why.
When two people have discovered a spiritual bond that draws them into an increasingly intimate relationship, and this joining of the spirit—of the mind and the heart—then becomes a physical relationship as well, the power of the moment defies description. It is ineffable, the word we use to describe our holiest experiences, where words fail us and we discover only the Transcendent. We leave this world for a few brief moments, and live in another dimension altogether.
Of course, every sexual encounter with a loved one cannot be described in this way. Sometimes it’s just nice, sometimes not so nice. But there is a solid, practical reason for thinking of it as primarily a sacred act. If we go to the other extreme, we would consider it a mere appetite, to be quelled whenever the hunger hits. This is what animals in the wild do and our Austrolopithecine ancestors did. It’s in our DNA, especially the male DNA, to continue to walk this path, knuckles dragging on the ground, taking our mates whenever we can, by force if necessary. Some cultures have modified this rape-approach to sexual relations in forced marriage, and through religious strictures that deny women much of a role in decision-making. In doing so they have reduced women to mere receptacles.
Women in many parts of the world are under siege. They always have been. They are fighting back more than ever, demanding an equal place with men, and the men are hitting back. The current imbroglio in India over the film India’s Daughters is just one example of how difficult life can be for one half of the population of the world.
Legalizing prostitution plays into this mentality. Even if women want to become prostitutes, even if we thereby get rid of the pimps in the background buying young girls to groom, and gangs of men trafficking in female bodies, even so, treating sexual union as a service to be paid for categorizes it as a commodity. It makes it more likely that men will continue to view it as something that life owes them, something that can be taken at will if you haven’t got the cash. A commodity is an object, and prostitution is all about the body as object, the female (or sometimes the male) as anatomy, not as a sentient being. The problems of street harassment and rape would not be changed with legalized prostitution, and since it is doubtful that there would be enough women willing to make it a career, there would continue to be pressure to funnel young girls into the profession from unscrupulous dealers and traffickers.
Our biological urges are powerful, but to take a line from the Island of Dr. Moreau, “Are we not men?” In that Jules Verne tale, the doctor transforms various beasts into people, and they are taught to abandon their animalistic urges by repeating a mantra “Are we not men?” as they review the behaviors they must abandon. This is what civilization is all about, but we still have a long way to go until we are “men”—that is, humane human beings. If we taught our children that sexual union was a sacred act, not an entitlement, that self-restraint, respect for your partner, a deep sense of connection at the spiritual level are all part of the path to our higher selves, then all our daughters could breathe easier at night, and we would be on our way to making the world a better place.
I have no illusions. It would be practically impossible to make this change in the world. Even if we did, it would not be a panacea. But it would help, so let’s try.