Who Pays for Your Sex Life?
(Billboard: I’m only dating cool guys! – graffiti: murder your pimp)
Is state-financed sex work possible? This question has been recently debated in Australia when on the Australian Defence Force website an article (since removed because of protest) was published arguing that sex during deployment releases stress and makes it easier for soldiers to cope with difficult circumstances of war and violence. And since the Australian Defence Force is financed by taxpayers’ money, what the author of this controversial paper calls “consensual sex” is expected to be financed by Australian taxpayers. The protest led by wives of the deployed ADF members stopped this process of redefining sex as an entitlement for the privileged citizens selected by the state, but some European Union citizens were not that successful in their efforts to resist these new tendencies. It is not as if they were not protesting. Simply the European Union funding together with an ineffective national legal system provides the opportunity for shady entrepreneurs to commodify women’s bodies using taxpayers’ money.
The sugar-daddy financial scheme, which involves rich, married, elderly men buying young, beautiful and single women for their entertainment, is a necessary result of social inequalities. This business model of commodifying women’s bodies was first set up in the US. The new element of this model is that due to the structure of the US higher education system this financial scheme is also used by mostly female university students to pay for their student loans, and the money earned this way becomes a normalized income maximization strategy. This scheme, as a result of impoverishing the welfare state and a decrease of public funding in the higher education, has now reached the European Union. It not only uses loopholes in legal regulations, but also a “freedom of choice” discourse narrating the decision of women as their “choice” to serve the emotional and bodily needs of elderly but rich men.
Hungary has become famous over recent years by producing “unorthodox” solutions for well-known political problems. Of course commodification of women’s bodies cannot be an exception either. While in France and Belgium these sugar-daddy sites are facing legal action initiated by government officials, in Hungary the situation is very different. Budapest has been labeled as the “Bangkok of Europe”, as following 1989 neoliberalisation created all preconditions for a flourishing sex trade: loose regulation, corruptible officials, unregulated labor market, and economically vulnerable women. The ideology for this commodification was based, besides other media products, on highly popular films such as “Pretty Woman” (1990) which sold the Hollywood dream that selling sex is just like any other profession and ‘real love’ is an option between a client and provider, including marriage. This sex business has been flourishing for decades in Hungary with one key element being a part of this informal social contract. Namely the whole process should remain invisible for the ‘normal and honorable’ citizens camouflaging that customers of the sex industry are exactly coming from this so-called respectable social group. How impoverishment and structural inequality supply not only the care industry in richer part of Europe, but the brothels of Zürich or Amsterdam with women from Eastern Europe, is well-documented contributing to the cheap access to bodies of certain women by certain men.
What is new in the ‘unorthodox’ Hungarian political culture and crossed that consensual red line of invisibility, was the recent public billboard campaign in Hungary, especially around universities and sponsored advertisements on Facebook. These advertisements were publicly mocking women who are still working instead of serving rich men where they could earn much more. The social situation of women is indeed grim in Hungary, women are structurally disadvantaged as they are in terms of political, economic and cultural life. According to the European Gender Equality Index by the Vilnius-based Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE), Hungary has the second lowest score just before Greece. However, this billboard campaign possesses new and ‘unorthodox‘ elements. First, the founders of this website were supported as a promising start-up by 14 million euros of European Union money distributed by the Hungarian state agencies. Second, the fact that one of the founders is the CEO of the Hungarian oil and gas company, MOL, which started a new business in Romania where, not surprisingly, the Sugar-Daddy-Website also launched, attracting young, ethnic Hungarian women with a flimsy promise of an easy and good life as ‘sugar babies’. Third, the reaction was a joint protest of different political actors in a deeply divided country. Not only did feminist activists protest but also conservative ones, members of the Hungarian branch of the transnational anti-choice organization CitizenGo.org which has collected 20,000 signatures in support of banning the site. Furthermore, articles about the responsibility of intellectuals were published, asking uncomfortable questions concerning collaboration and resistance. Unlike the wives of deployed Australian servicemen who successfully protested against the option of state-financed sex work, their Hungarian counterparts, who were protesting against the painful reality of state-financed commodification of women’s bodies, were less successful. The liberal politician, Nóra Hajdu (Együtt Party), submitted a charge to the Media Authority which rejected it as they had not found any evidence that this relationship between a sugar daddy and sugar baby would be at all of a sexual nature.
The relevance of asking the question Who pays for your sex life? does not only introduce how a polypore state operates. This state runs mirrored institutions which are seemingly functional, but in practice dysfunctional as far as protecting the rights of citizens and values are concerned. It also participates in the redistribution of wealth like European Union funding and access to wealth with commodifying women’s bodies as resource based on unquestionable political loyalty to the regime. This is not exclusively a Hungarian or Eastern European phenomenon. The tendency is more obvious in Eastern Europe, as social inequalities together with loose regulations make women more vulnerable to and deprived of any traditional means or structures of resistance. The game, rigged as EU funding, is tailored to pro-government oligarchs, while the legal system is in an alibi-like mode of operation. The Australian wives of the deployed soldiers protested in the name of maternal feminism that state-financed sex is threatening values that are crucial for maintaining the social fabric of society: loyalty, intimacy and bodies are not resources to be consumed or sold. Every community is an emotional one which is united by emotions defining how its members are connected to each other. If this relationship is regarded as a simple financial transaction then those who are rich are in a better position than those who are poor.
Tony Judt in his 2009 article on the future of social democracy wrote that fear is what is needed to rethink the future of progressive values, as nobody forecasted that the free world of the 1920s would end in such a terrible way. That is why the conclusion of this blog post is that what is needed is to deeply experience the fear we have in witnessing this development that is happening in Australia or in Hungary independently, because the roots of the phenomenon are the same. The destruction of our political community as we know it, as it occurred during the Second World War, is the real danger. Just think about how sexual slaves were called “comfort women” by the Japanese Imperial Army and how a system of brothels was run by the Wehrmacht. It is not a coincidence that Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, which was published in 1985, has since been widely discussed only recently. It is obvious that social imagination is currently being rethought, but how and by whom? The first step is to recognize that the question Who pays for your sex life? really matters.