Monday, October 30, 2006

Trick or Treating

Over the weekend I attended the Great Salt Lake Book Festival and heard Elizabeth Clement speak, a history professor at the University of Utah and author of a new book titled, Love for Sale: Courting, Treating, and Prostitution in New York City, 1900-1945. In this book she explores how courtship first developed and left a lot of questions in my own mind about what that might mean for my politics. Early in the twentieth century prostitution was incredibly widespread in urban American culture. Most men were consumers of prostitution on a regular basis, as in once or twice a month. Yet, as different cheap entertainments started to become available such as the movies and burlesques, and as working class girls started getting out into the world a little more, a new trend began to develop called "treating." With treating, girls would pick up a guy they met at a dance hall or just on the street, they would go to dinner and a movie for which the man would pay, and then, at the end of the night, the girl might fool around with him in return.

"Treating" girls were very keen on distinguishing themselves from prostitutes of course, never accepting money for sex outright and believing they remained morally above prostitutes because they could still grow up and settle down with a husband some day. However, as this activity rose in popularity, prostitution experienced a dramatic decline and became a much less prevalent part of American culture. Further, by the 1950's at least 50% of women were engaging in premarital sex, even if these women rarely talked to each other about it and even if at least some of this premarital sex was happening with only one man who the woman at least intended to marry. The practice of "treating" layed some important groundwork for this shift and opened up a gray area between prostitution and chaste virginity. Further, as you may have already noticed, "treating" sounds an awful lot like that peculiar custom of our own day, "dating." Embedded underneath the squeaky clean, mainstream practice of dating are at least some distinct echoes of prostitution.

Which raises the question in my own mind, as a sometimes-heterosexual radical feminist who opposes prostitution and sees it as a replication of many of the worst aspects of patriarchy, how do I think about something like dating? A.K.A. am I just a total fucking hypocrite after all? Good question Reader. Now, I do understand there are some differences between dating and prostitution. Presumably with dating you go out with the same fellow several times, presumably you sort of kind of like this fellow, presumably there might be something you could term an "emotional bond" there.

And I also realize that since the sexual revolution did such a grand old job of liberating us women, our sexuality is no longer just a commodity for exchange. It's about our own pleasure, our own choices, our own needs damnit! Or at least we sure like to think so. And maybe I'm being a little old-fashioned in the first place bandying about a word like "dating" which is like sooooo outdated. I'm informed that those of my generation prefer "hanging out" and "hooking up" and that we're all liberated enough nowadays that we can even have sex without dating or love or anything with NO PROBLEMO WHATSOEVER. But I also think that sexual obligation remains a big part of whatever the hell you want to call dating. Many women still use sex to get men to like them and many still use sex to achieve economic or financial gain. And many men still feel that if they pay for your dinner, they oughta get sex in return. Indeed, many men seem to feel that they should get sex in return for, you know, existing.

But back to the point, is this kind of sexual exchange ever anything but anti-feminist or at least non-feminist? Is it ever anything but a betrayal of ourselves as women, a survival tactic that we employ to deal with the ever present burden of patriarchy? Where do us holier than thou heterosexual feminists get off thinking that the kinds of sexual exchange we engage in are any different from those that prostitutes or porn stars or strippers engage in out of economic necessity? How do we Other these women to make ourselves feel better and how do we lie to ourselves about what sex means to us and how we use it? In the end, I'm against women being forced into situations where they must trade their bodies to live whatever the circumstances may be, whether you're a prostitute trying to pay the rent or you're Mollie Sue trying to be nice so your man will like you. The spectrum may not be as wide here as we would like to believe and I think it's important that we're honest with ourselves and we stop pulling any punches when it comes to recognizing and revolting against patriarchy in all it's forms.

9 Comments:

Blogger T. Comfyshoes said...

I agree with you totally, "dating" as it's normally practised within patriarchy is seriously icky.

As a mostly heterosexual feminist, my solution is to go dutch. Or something like, you get dinner, I'll get the movie. Because ideally, both of us are after the same thing on a date - an enjoyable time, a chance to get to know someone and develop a friendship and maybe something more - and so we should both be investing the same in it.

A guy who isn't comfortable with me paying my own way isn't one I want to be with anyway.

9:44 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Prostitution = exchange money or other valuable for sex. (I think marriage is closer to this than dating.) Dating = taking someone out to get to know them better seeking possible love/sex relationship in future (maybe right off). Good manners means dating should be dutch or turn taking on paying for expenses- if she is richer, maybe she buys dinners out and he cooks dinners at his place- but demanding/taking sex for a meal or whatever is date rape not dating. I was born 1960's, Northern urban, and all my dating episodes have been 'fair' on expenses and with sex if any as below.

Miss Manners said, a 'good girl' never sells it, but she just might give it away when overcome with passion. If taking her to Paris inspires her to such passion, well, she's still a good girl.

I was always very careful to avoid behaving like a prostitute so I was careful to give it away never trade it.

2:52 PM  
Anonymous Sam said...

Thought-provoking essay, thanks.

My youth is filled with echanges of the sort you're speaking, and I was not only aware of the trade-offs but bragged about them. In my pre-feminist days I lived in a dog eat dog world and was determined to be the alpha bitch, which translated in my underdeveloped mind to thinking I'd gotten one over on men because they were giving me expensive gifts and all I had to do was pretend to like them more than I did and let them use me sexually. That lie was as comfy as a burlap blanket but it was better than facing the bitter winds of truth with nothing on.

It's because I've learned to see the seamless fabric connecting my compromises with men to the compromises prostitutes have to make that I'm drawn to do anti-pornstitution activism. So long as sex is something women "have" that men "get", we women are all standing in the same shitty line waiting for the scraps men toss us and fighting each other for them. It's just that some women, mostly white and wealthy, are at the front of the line and some others, mostly black and poor, are at the back.

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Blogger Red Rollerskate said...

Totally interesting post. I gotta get that book!

7:28 PM  
Anonymous y-chromasome poster again said...

Dating isn't about getting to know someone. You get to know someone by seeing how they behave with lots of different people in lots of different situations. People lie about themselves when their friends aren't around. D

I never liked dating for the money and power aspect: The man asks the woman out, the man kisses the woman, the man initiates sex, and all the woman does is say yes or no and hope that the man will listen. Man spends money, woman "feels special" (but actually commodified, if she stays single she is "on the shelf" etc.) Man active, woman passive. I always felt more comfortable with the roles reversed and money taken out of the equation.

8:59 AM  
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6:46 AM  
Anonymous Julius said...

We wouldn't need dating if women put out more easily and more often. Thankfully, these days, they have started to do so.

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