She was not ashamed to take him, she made herself naked and welcomed his eagerness; as he lay on her murmuring love she taught him the woman’s art. For six days and seven nights they lay together, for Enkidu had forgotten his home in the hills; but when he was satisfied he went back to the wild beasts. Then, when the gazelle saw him, they bolted away; when the wild creatures saw him they fled. Enkidu would have followed, but his body was bound as though with a cord, his knees gave way when he started to run, his swiftness was gone. And now the wild creatures had all fled away; Enkidu was grown weak, for wisdom was in him, and the thoughts of a man were in his heart. – The Epic of Gilgamesh (Tablet I)
While I understand why many activists and allies argue decriminalization from human rights, libertarian or harm reduction viewpoints, and indeed use these arguments myself because they are all valid ones, it’s sad that almost nobody wants to acknowledge another, equally important factor: human society needs whores every bit as much as it needs farmers, soldiers, physicians and builders, and far more than it needs preachers, academic feminists, politicians and 90% of the other control freaks who work so assiduously at rousing the rabble against us. Our ancient ancestors understood this; it’s not accidental that in the Epic of Gilgamesh, the temple harlot Shamhat is the one who tames the wild man Enkidu, turning him from a beast to a man. But in the 5000 years since that powerful myth was first pressed into clay, Man’s world has forgotten its debt to us and has generally succumbed to the hubris of believing it no longer needs us; even in areas where our trade is legalized or decriminalized there is the self-important pretense that we are merely being tolerated as a magnanimous landlord might allow stray cats to eke out a marginal living on his property.
The change was very gradual; it wasn’t until about half the time between the writing of Gilgamesh and that of this essay had elapsed that someone first conceived of the idea of bringing the civilizing power of whores under the control of the state. As discussed in one of my earliest columns, the Athenian politician Solon passed laws to reduce the relatively high status of Greek wives, and attempted to undermine the power of both independent prostitutes and the cult of Aphrodite by establishing cheap state-run brothels staffed by Asian slave girls; the failure of his attempt is a demonstration of the futility of proposals by certain historically-ignorant academics to establish a similar system with machines in place of slaves. The Romans, Japanese, Catholic Church and other powers of the next two millennia did not even attempt to replicate Solon’s scheme, but rather contented themselves with taxing, regulating and socially isolating whores in order to establish patriarchal dominance while still allowing us to perform our vital social function: giving men, whose demand (as Paglia put it) “always exceeds the female supply,” an outlet for that surplus libido.
Wise whores all know what feminists, preachers, politicians and pundits vociferously deny: our trade saves far more marriages than it endangers, by allowing men the sexual variety they crave without endangering the social, emotional and economic arrangements of marriage. In fact, I would even say that it was the emergence of commercial prostitution in the first millennium BCE which made widespread monogamy feasible; I predict that an historical study would reveal that few if any cultures abandoned polygamy before hookers were widespread in that society. Nor are wives the only women whose safety and happiness are protected by harlots; prior to the late 19th century everyone from saints to kings understood that whores allow male passions which might lead to rape or other unsavory sexual behaviors to be siphoned off harmlessly in a manner which helps support some women while simultaneously preventing harm to others. A 2004 study by Kirby Cundiff showed that the rates of rape and other sex crimes decrease in societies where prostitution is decriminalized or otherwise tolerated, and Swedish statistics document a sharp rise in rape after the implementation of their much-vaunted client criminalization model.
In some parts of the world, prostitution is already widely viewed as a job like any other, and most non-totalitarian governments recognize the need for our trade despite a refusal to publicly acknowledge it; even the United States pointedly ignores the existence of escort services and massage parlors except for periodic raids designed to “keep us in our place” and to please the stupider elements of the Great Unwashed. Some very limited groups (such as the more educated and/or wise among both sex workers and clients, the majority of sex therapists and the more enlightened among advocates for the disabled) already recognize the vital role whores play in human society, and I can envision a future (depicted in the story I published one year ago today) where even most governments understand it at least as well as they did for most of history. But for now, I’ll have to content myself with urging activists and allies to stop ceding ground to prohibitionists by pretending that prostitution is an evil to be tolerated rather than a good to be celebrated.