$780,000 is of no moral significance.
An apocryphal story concerning sex and money is variously told of Bernard Shaw, Winston Churchill, and Groucho Marx, among others. At a fancy dinner party, a witty man turns to the attractive woman seated next to him and poses the following question: "Would you sleep with me for a million dollars?" The woman thinks for a few seconds and admits, "Yes, I suppose I would." To which he immediately responds, "And what if I offered you ten dollars?" "What do you take me for?" she demands indignantly. "Madam," he answers, "We have already established what you are. We are now merely negotiating over the price."
The intermingling of sex and commerce garnered considerable atention last week thanks to events reported in the New York Daily News. On October 15, a 20-year-old Brazilian physical education student, Catarina Migliorini, placed her virginity on the auction block on a site called Virgins Wanted. She did so alongside a man named Alex Stepanov, whose auction garnered less attention.
Ten days later, when spirited bidding between multiple contenders ended, Stepanov brought in $3,000. The winner of Migliorini's virginity, meanwhile, was a Japanese businessman who agreed to pay $780,000. The name of the Japanese business man was not revealed, and he offered no explanation for his actions, but Ms. Migliorini characterized her decision as "purely business" while maintaining that she is "still a romantic at heart."
Perspectives on this story are likely to vary widely, but some have expressed outrage that a young man and woman would make such an offer to a group of complete strangers from all over the world. To be fair, Migliorini and Stepanov did stipulate that the encounter would be one-time-only affairs, that the winning bidder must submit to testing for sexually transmitted infections prior to the encounter, and that the use of a condom would be mandatory.
Much of the popular interest in the story can be traced to the magnitude of the winning bid in Migliorini's auction, which amounts to approximately 15 times the U.S. median household income. In other words, the average American household would need to labor for a bit more than 15 years to earn the sum that the winning bidder was prepared to pay for a one-night encounter. Of note, such an amount is roughly in line with the plot of the 1993 film Indecent Proposal in which a millionaire offers a financially strapped young woman one million dollars to sleep with him. She and her husband discuss the proposition and decide that she should accept, which she does.
Whether or not the facts in this most recent exchange of sex for money (or money for sex) have been correctly reported, the story itself provides a valuable opportunity to reexamine the venerable and often misunderstood relationship between commerce and human intimacy. On the one side of this issue are conservative and religious groups condemning the young woman's behavior as a blatant example of prostitution. On the other side are feminists and libertarians arguing that individuals have every right to decide with whom they have sex, and so long as no coercion is involved, such choices are no business of anyone else's.
One immediate and practical question is the legality of what has transpired. Are the actions of Ms. Migliorini and the winning bidder legal? Many nations and U.S. states have laws on the books that prohibit solicitation, the attempt to buy or sell sex. Yet in some of these locales, such laws are unevenly enforced or largely unenforced. And even in places where such laws are enforced, the seller of sex is often more likely than the buyer to be arrested and prosecuted. In this case, Ms. Migliorini and the winning bidder plan to consummate their deal aboard an airplane in flight, completely sidestepping any legal entanglements.
Of greater interest are the human dimensions of the story. For example, what exactly do we mean these days by the term virginity? Broadly speaking the definition seems relatively straightforward: a virgin is someone who has never engaged in sexual intercourse. But sexual intercourse can take multiple forms involving multiple different parts of the body. And while the term virgin can be applied to both sexes, it has traditionally received far more attention with in regard to females, perhaps in part because of the inherent uncertainty of paternity. By and large, maternity is never in doubt, but the identity of a child's father can be.
As this discussion indicates, virginity has biological, psychological, and moral connotations. Biologically, the most obvious sign of a loss of virginity is pregnancy. The presence of an intact hymen has also long been regarded as a form of biological proof, though as any gynecologist knows, such determinations are necessarily uncertain. Simply put, there is no way to verify with certainty that someone is a virgin. Some would stipulate that the sexual encounter that ends virginity must be consensual, but in some cultures even victims of rape are subjected to shaming, which may in some circumstances extends even to "honor killing" of the victim.