Columns: The Differences That Aren’t

Image by Dream Designs, courtesy of

Image by Dream Designs, courtesy of

We think we know what we’re doin’
We don’t pull the strings
It’s all in the past now
Money changes everything.
  –  Tom Gray

When I first published “What’s the Difference?” on The Agitator, a number of readers took exception to my premise that, absent the possibility of conception, sex is no different from any other human activity.  They made the very valid point that sex is an extremely strong drive, as strong as hunger, and that makes it different from other human activities that aren’t attached to such strong drives.  Others pointed  out (again, quite correctly) that sex is often associated with powerful emotions, and that sexual activity has powerful neurological effects and releases hormones which promote bonding.  If I were a less honest person I might pretend that I was trying to elicit those responses in order to make my point, but the truth is that I wasn’t; however, I should have included them in the essay in the first place, because they really do make my point.

Prostitution is, when all the mystery, romanticism (positive and negative) and emotional hoo-ha is removed, a simple business transaction:  Party A (the seller) has something she is willing to sell, while party B (the buyer) has money he’s willing to spend.  Each values what the other has, so an exchange is made and, assuming neither tries to cheat the other, everyone is happy.  So what happens during the transaction?  Party A gives party B sex (a completely legal action), while Party B gives Party A money (also a completely legal action).  Yet somehow, we pretend that the juxtaposition of these two events makes them both wrong, which is arrant nonsense.  Arguments about the emotional and/or hormonal effects of sex are irrelevant, because it is completely legal to give sex to strangers for nothing, or in exchange for food and entertainment, or in exchange for some favor, or even in exchange for cold, hard cash as long as the transactions don’t happen together.  If we lived in a theocracy which banned all extramarital sex, a ban on prostitution would at least be consistent…but we don’t.  Furthermore, extramarital love affairs – which violate legal contracts and arguably endanger children – are also legal; in other words sexual arrangements in which those hormones are demonstrably in effect are legal, but those in which they are not are prohibited.  This is like legalizing the act of driving by a person who is clearly inebriated, while criminalizing it for people who are demonstrably sober, yet have an open container of liquor in the car.

Furthermore, we don’t ban other activities with powerful neurological effects unless a taboo substance is involved; one of the comments mentioned that the “bonding hormone” oxytocin is released during sex, and that’s absolutely true…but it’s also released in nursing, yet wet-nursing is legal.  So (in many countries) is surrogate motherhood, despite the indisputable fact that pregnancy generates far more powerful emotions in the typical woman than sex does (N.B.: in Australia, prostitution is generally legal but surrogate motherhood is not.  So much for consistency in paternalistic laws.)  And though people of both sexes (but especially women) sometimes develop very strong attachments for children under their care, we don’t ban day care centers, nannies and schools.  As for the sex drive being as strong as hunger, isn’t that an argument for prostitution rather than against it?  If something is vital to health and happiness, what kind of sadistic monster would try to stop someone from gaining access to that thing in any fair and non-forcible way he can?  We rightly prohibit both rape and theft even if they arise from strong urges, yet criminalize the purchase of even badly-needed sex while celebrating the sale of food, even if the latter is consumed purely for enjoyment and has no nutritional value whatsoever.

But what about those brain studies?  I’m in favor of total drug decriminalization, but playing devil’s advocate for a moment:  surely, if sex affects the brain in the same way heroin does we’re certainly justified in regulating it in the same way, aren’t we?  Well, no.  Dr. Marty Klein explains:

…when so-called sex addicts are involved in sex (for example, when watching pornography), the part of their brain that lights up (the mesolimbic pathway) is the same part that lights up when a heroin addict has injected heroin.  Compelling proof of sex addiction?  Not even close.  That’s the same part of the brain that lights up when we see a sunset, the Golden Gate Bridge, the perfect donut, a gorgeous touchdown pass, or our grandchild’s smile.  Our brain, our blood, and our hormones always react to pleasure—including sexual pleasure.  The last 150,000 years of evolution at least accomplished that much with us poor humans…[anti-sex activists are only concerned] about how people become addicted to their own body chemicals when those chemicals are related to sex rather than, say, a walk through the park or a production of King Lear

In other words, while I might be taken to task for saying that sex is no different from any other human activity, I think most reasonable people will agree that sex is no different from lots of other activities that most people aren’t so uptight about, and that it’s pure mysticism to argue that the mere addition of a symbol of exchange (rather than the thing itself) can magically turn a moral action into an immoral one.

(This essay previously appeared in The Agitator on July 31st, 2012; it has been slightly modified for flaws I noticed later, to include newer links and to fit the Cliterati format.)

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