We talked about a concept Bass had introduced me to, polyamory. She said, “The old open marriage has given way to this.” Polyamory is something of that fantasy I and other men I know harbor, of a community of free-loving people in multiple relationships. Not just dyads, or couples, but triads, or a woman with two “primaries,” a whole community of friends with benefits. “With practice, we can develop an intimacy based on warmth and mutual respect, much freer than desperation, neediness, or the blind insanity of falling in love,” Dossie Easton and Catherine A. Liszt, two former hippies, write in The Ethical Slut.
My most liberated male friend has expressed a similar view. He finds my confession of sexual torment backward. “It breaks my fucking heart to hear you talk that way. That any person has to talk about where their sexuality has led them in a shameful manner, in relation to other people. That a person’s sexuality has led them to hurt, and I don’t mean physically, another person— that breaks my heart.”
If we simply got rid of a vow of sexual exclusivity and the piety around “faithfulness,” which is a religiously inscribed misnomer for sexual exclusivity anyway, we have no idea what the family would look like in 100 years, he says. Okay, most people would be sexually exclusive and married. But there would be a party going on at the other end of town, in a community of people of high sexual desire who understood that about one another and didn’t feel jealousy or possessiveness.
I like the idea of going to that end of town, but I also wonder how much time it would take. Would my new relationships get complicated? Bass said, “One of the tenets of polyamory is that it is honest and consensual: This is something that’s out with your primary partner. How many people are willing to do that? It takes a lot of work. Because it’s about relationships, not about sex.”
Then she brought me downstairs to a seminar on images of prostitution. The institute takes a very nonjudgmental view of prostitution officially, but the visiting researcher on hand was negative about it. Sven-Axel Mansson had spent many years studying prostitutes in Sweden and argued that the desire of men for prostitutes had nothing to do with sexual “needs.” Rather, the drive is socially ordained: because men need to project their own sexual feelings onto a “dirty whore,” or because powerful men like Spitzer want to give up power for an hour or two.
The talk made me feel ashamed of my own fantasies. I had brought with me a printout of bloggings by Debauchette, a high-priced courtesan. Said to look something like a young but more bookish Demi Moore, Debauchette has obviously made a lucrative career of serving and tantalizing rich men, sometimes flying to Paris for threesomes in a sex club, thereby making Eliot Spitzer with his Amtrak-to-Washington fiddle seem unambitious. Debauchette described herself as a “highly sexual woman with a highly compartmentalized life,” and that fit right into my fantasy of the sort of demimonde that modern men and women might establish in respectable society. “He put it out there that he wanted a real relationship, something emotionally monogamous but sexually open, the sort of relationship I love best,” she wrote, and I only wondered if it was real. A commenter said he had gone into the Parisian sex club where Debauchette had been having a threesome, on a different night, and found the strobe room mostly devoid of women.
Erick Janssen is Kinsey’s lead researcher, and after the lecture, he took Mansson on. Prostitution, he said, “has to do with differences in sexual desire between men and women in general. I hate to stereotype anyone by gender. Unfortunately, there’s so much data to support the fact that, overall, men have a higher level of desire. Say if you look at masturbation frequency. If there’s a desire and no outlet, you’re going to find ways.”
Mansson seemed unconvinced. Later in his office he told me about what a dismal life prostitutes lead. “What I saw was actually misery. I saw the effect of this life specifically on women. The dark side of the forest. The negativity of being exploited, of being under the reign of the pimp. So as a result of that, I decided to launch a social-outreach program for people to exit prostitution.”
I asked Mansson about the implicit argument in Debauchette’s writings that prostitution can be legalized, dignified.
“I have a hard time from the research I’ve been doing to valorize this as a social institution … [But] I have met women who said that. Women who really think that they enjoy being prostitutes, being ‘sex workers,’ as they say. They would say, ‘I feel in command, I have determination over my life situation in a way I’ve never had it before. I’m loved by my customers.’ But these are the exceptions. They are not the main.” Had these women been given a choice, they would have chosen other things. “Because even among these women, you would find there it has a high cost. Problems with intimacy and sexuality after they quit their career. They dissociate their feelings in order to survive … The problem has been to make it whole again.”