Friday, March 14, 2008

Megan: I don't concede the point

Talking about the Eliot Spitzer case, Megan McArdle at The Atlantic Monthly writes:
[C]an we all concede that at least part of the reason that women do not want to be prostitutes is that there is a severe social stigma attached to women who are promiscuous, and particularly to women who rent their promiscuity to men -- a stigma far, far greater than that which attaches to their clients?
(Via Memeorandum.) McArdle then references (without linking) Kerry Howley's argument for the de-stigmatization of promiscuity.

McArdle's argument separates reason from reality. In reality, there is a severe stigma attached to men who patronize prostitutes, which was a big part of the reason Spitzer was so secretive about his whorehopping adventures.

The stigma against patronizing prostitutes is very strong among men, since when a guy has to pay for sex, this implies that he can't attract partners otherwise. Maybe McArdle is part of a different social scene, but I don't know any men who would admit -- must less boast -- of having engaged the services of a prostitute.

However, to the extent that prostitutes are more stigmatized than their clients, it is most likely because the prostitute tends to engage in vice routinely and on a long-term basis, while their clients' involvement is occasional or episodic in nature.

Even conceding that the prostitute, per se, is more stigmatized than the client does not mean (as Howley argues) that patriarchal sexism is to blame for the difference. Consider the case of the male prostitute. Despite the Hollywood fantasy of American Gigolo, in fact nearly male prostitutes serve the homosexual desires of a male clientele. Is "rent boy" the sort of career that a guy would brag about? I don't think so.

Megan has stumbled into these errors by accepting Kerry's unstated premise that promiscuity has no objective demerits, and that stigmatizing promiscuity is therefore irrational. In reality, however, promiscuity creates all sorts of social problems. Even if the consistent practice of "safe sex" could eliminate the medical issues associated with promiscuity -- and that is a hypothetical stipulation -- there are yet other social factors to consider.

What both Megan and Kerry (and many other women) find objectionable is the fact that while promiscuous women are routinely stigmatized as "sluts," there are contexts within which promiscuous men are celebrated as "studs," "players," et cetera. I suppose it would be possible to deconstruct this status differential, as the academics might say, but I don't know that such a deconstruction will really end the argument.

Whatever the origins of the stronger bias against female promiscuity, it is far from obvious to me that the appropriate remedy is to destigmatize promiscuity altogether. Given the negative social impact of promiscuity, shouldn't Megan, Kerry and other women direct their efforts toward increasing the stigma on male promiscuity?

Look, ladies: Next time a guy cheats on you, just dump him and start spreading the word that he's a man-slut, a two-timing tramp who's probably gotten himself infected with loathsome diseases by now, and that any girl who goes out with him now is just buying herself a one-way ticket to Syphilis City.

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