The Economist Number-Crunches On Online Sex Trade
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The Economist Number-Crunches On Online Sex Trade

Why The Economist’s cover story on sex trade caters to clichés.

By Vikram Johri

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In its cover story of the August 9 issue, The Economist takes off on the “sex business”, and how the internet is transforming it. Titled “More bang for your buck”, the story proceeds to provide the rates prostitutes charge, based on location, body type, and so on.

There are charts that, for example, explain that a black prostitute makes, on average, $260 an hour in New York, nearly equal to what a white one makes in Atlanta. Another chart details rates based on build, hair colour, hair length and bust size. A chart called “Specific Services” has heads like “Two women”, “Ejaculate in mouth”, “S&M”, and so on.

It is a very business-minded article, like most Economist pieces. Indeed, if this were not the Economist we were talking about, one would be hard-pressed to overlook an unseemly prurience. Indian readers who are used to gratuitous sex surveys routinely making newsmagazine covers would likely warm to the dry, distant tone. There is a cleanliness to the writing that is refreshing, since it does not get into the morality of the trade. No judgements are made, only facts provided. There is such a precision to the discussion that one is obliged to consider why it might not be perfectly reasonable to sell sex to make some money on the side.

At one level, this sort of openness calls for celebration. The response to the Duke University porn star, a student who took to porn to cover school fees, echoes the context of the piece. If sex can be looked upon as just another commodity without ladling it with grave matters of ethics and propriety, it speaks to a new age of broad-mindedness that can only be welcomed. Right? I am not sure.

In spite of these arguments – and they are good arguments – the piece makes one barf. We need to ask ourselves if we, creatures of a decidedly mercenary age, are comfortable with the idea of sex as a commodity. The piece distils received wisdom on what sells. Exactingly, it brings out details that tell us not just about prostitution but what is considered attractive. “Very long” hair commands a premium over “chin length” hair. A bust size of D and above is most highly priced. Blondes are in greater demand than brunettes.

This sort of commodification of women, leading to them being looked upon as dolls that can be injected, scalpelled, chiselled and thus improved upon, is, to put it mildly, distasteful.

This is but one subset of the broader commodification of sex the piece so insouciantly plumbs. I don’t mean to lecture, but surely, there is something to be said for the sanctity of intimate space shared by two people? In our faithless times, where science provides those neat arrows that lead one argument to the next based on reasoning alone, we must ask ourselves if we are willing to retain something of what it means to be human. Forget the stigma, prostitution, by making sex only a stepping stone to pleasure, deadens the soul. It has to. Aren’t we wired like that?

The zeitgeist that the piece explores is white, upper-class West. (It makes clear the differentiated rates prostitutes charge based on ethnicity.) There is little discussion of sex trafficking that is a growing menace in the developing world or child pornography, which, like it or not, belongs to the same clinical, sex-for-sex’s-sake universe that is unabashedly celebrated in the piece.

There is more. The piece talks about kinky sexual practices such as sadism and masochism (just spanking: $20-40; heavy S&M: $40-plus) without going into the background of these practices, and how they may harm their participants.

It mentions nothing about the power struggle inherent in a trade where a woman sells her body to make money, thereby opening herself to various kinds of harm in order to please her client. How that pleasing traverses and what psychological harm can visit its practitioner is not discussed. (Given the educated, sophisticated milieu the piece sets itself in, a clip of the threesome scene involving Patrick Bateman from American Psycho would have been in order.)

Even if we leave aside the larger debate on the appropriateness of the piece, look into the details, such as the language employed, and things become depressingly clearer. Journalists, of necessity, must ensure that what they write is readable; that headlines are catchy; that the end rounds off to the beginning saucily. This urge can play havoc with reporting a story whose content may not be as thrilling as the language of the writer. The headline itself of The Economist piece plays problematically with the meaning of “bang”. Yes, “bang” is a common term for sexual intercourse but there is no denying that its other meanings bestow it a certain misogynist violence. When one imagines a group of men talking about banging, the sight screams anything but courtesy.

Even the last line of the piece: “The internet has disrupted many industries. The oldest one is no exception” plays upon the contrast between “new” and “old”. One can imagine the writer patting himself with glee that they came up with such a choice turn of phrase. Words can do that. With their beauty and rhythm they can lull users into distancing themselves from what they seek to capture. This celebration of language in a piece that fails to look at the larger ramifications of its subject matter is no less than tragic.

Finally, the piece does not mention male prostitutes. This is problematic not because a particular demographic is ignored. (There are no statistics but anecdotal evidence suggests male prostitutes cater majorly to male clients.) It is worrisome because it plays into the same stereotypes about women that the writers at The Economist should want to dissociate from. To the extent that there is nothing immoral in selling sex, a discussion of both sexes would have lent a certain balance to the piece which it otherwise lacks. But there are deeper issues related to sex and prostitution that the piece fails to explore, it hides behind a façade of gentility that leaves the reader wondering if it is his baser instincts or merely his stupidity that is being pandered to.

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