Prostitution is business, when it comes down to essentials, and how we feel about it depends largely on how we feel about business, money, and the ethics of trade. Pornography, prostitution, gay sadomasochism all take place in a global economic context which shapes people's thinking as well as their daily, material lives.
The roots of recent trends in the gay subculture are found in the surrounding mainstream culture. Events in the larger world drive events in all the smaller worlds of ethnic, sexual, religious and political affinity. The shift among out lesbians from a women's movement orientation to an individualist, consumer-oriented definition of self and community is not due to some individual moral failing, nor is it a sign of inadequate leadership or scholarship on the part of earlier organisers. During the eighties (and continuing as I write), the US and other industrialised nations have been swinging to the right, rapidly or gradually as their unique circumstances demand. The tightening global economy is stepping up the pace and pressure for production and marketing, and eroding socialist programs the world over. The income gap between rich and poor has been growing for a decade. The US is no exception.
A major philosophical schism is arising in the industrialised nations; it has been coming for some time, but recently it grows clear and (to many people) threatening. Large numbers of people are questioning the basic values of industrial capitalism; what has awakened them is the degree of environmental damage finally being admitted and publicised the world over, damage which is a direct result of the apparent wealth and success of the over-developed nations. Many people are waking up to the concept of hidden costs attached to everything they wear, play with, and eat.
This awakening threatens corporate interests and (therefore) established political interests more than almost any other citizen action could, short of revolt in the streets. A backlash is inevitable, when the corporate pseudo-states feel themselves sufficiently threatened. It will probably not go so far as John Brunner predicted, with the arrest of anyone suspected of buying health food or belonging to an ecological interest group. But it is here already, and during the Reagan/Bush years it manifested as a strong resurgence of the libertarian or laissez-faire capitalist position, also known as free-marketism, Logical Positivism, etc. Very few Democrats of the new administration are willing to challenge laissez-faire capitalism as a philosophy, so we should not imagine that it will fade away with the change of regime.
Free marketism is based on the old Adam Smith model of economics, in which the invisible hand of competition in a free marketplace will result in maximum prosperity, freedom, and happiness for everyone. The free market is the abiding icon of the American Right, though not all libertarians can safely be classified as rightists (for example, they despise all drug laws).
The mythology of the free marketplace has a strong hold on most of us; it is seldom challenged except by the old American Left. Corporate values are, as never before, American values. Many people identify more strongly with the products they buy than with the church or neighbourhood they belong to. Groups which once identified themselves with a belief or ideology now are more easily identified by their consumption patterns than by their public speech or action. The personal is political has been opportunistically interpreted by petty and grand capitalists to convince wannabe radicals and good-hearted liberals that the best way to express their beliefs is by purchase power. The idea of voting with your dollars has gained currency far outside the circles in which it was first coined.
The free marketeers share certain beliefs with the Libertarians: the public sector and government must be as small as possible, laws as few as possible, taxes as low as possible, and the rights of the individual absolutely the primary social agenda. Their definition of rights tends towards 17th and 18th century Rights of Man theory (which they do not see as a weakness). Any interference by government in the free marketplace is totally unacceptable to them.
This package has its attractions, particularly for American gays and lesbians. Breaking the stranglehold of Church dogma on the morals of public life is attractive to those whom the Churches and States have despised and sometimes put to death. A strong emphasis on the rights of the individual appeals to those who have been harassed, arrested, beaten by police for the mere possession of gay literature. Leave me alone, and let me read and watch whatever I can afford, seems a reasonable demand for America's queers.
Unfortunately, it is also the slogan of corporate America, a corporate America whose most rapidly-growing sector is entertainment and information. The basic ethic of capitalism is that good business is good for everyone; and good business simply means lots of sales .
One of capitalism's great strengths, emphasised by its fans, is its tremendous flexibility; like pornography, it is able to digest and render profitable almost any trend, innovation, or event. Big business has made earnest attempts since the early seventies to subsume the new feminist movement into a defined market sphere. The mainstream media took only a few years to move from open mockery and defamation of the women's movement to glossy advertising directed exclusively at the new woman. One of the most glaring and (to feminists) infuriating examples was the Virginia Slims you've come a long way, baby campaign, but it was merely one of many. (The first incarnation of Ms. magazine eventually died a humiliating death, buried under heaps of ads - including that one.)
Similarly, it has not taken the pornographers long to make their bid for the new market; from the days when Hustler magazine ran Wanted posters of feminist spokeswomen, to the latest mutation of porn for women rhetoric, has been barely ten years. The push to recruit women as consumers for the sex trade reminds me of nothing so much as the immensely expensive Reynolds Co. campaign (circa 1920) to induce American and British women to smoke, after a couple of centuries when it was (in Western lands) thought absolutely unacceptable for women to do so.
But that's capitalism: it is not the seller's business to comment on the nature or worth of the goods; if the customer wants them, the customer is always right. And if the customer doesn't want them, perhaps she can be persuaded to want them. If the buyer has the cash, anything is for sale; we don't make judgments about the nature of the transaction. The ethic of laissez-faire capitalism is, in short, the ethic of pimping, and increasingly the ethic of the entertainment industry. It therefore bears a closer look.