$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.
Of even greater note are the psychological dimensions of virginity. This is especially true in an era when relatively newly developed techniques of contraception have largely decoupled sexuality and reproduction. At one time, even a single act of sexual intercourse involving a non-pregnant, reproductive-age woman entailed some chance of conception. Today, competently employed, a variety of techniques have virtually eliminated the possibility. Regardless her state of mind, Ms. Migliorini's offer carries essentially no risk of unintended pregnancy.
To some, virginity also bears moral connotations. At various times in the past, and even to a degree in the present, some women have expressed a desire to "save themselves" for their eventual marriage partners. Virginity has been variously associated with concepts such as innocence, integrity, and purity. Yet expectations have shifted. For example, when Diana Spencer was preparing to marry Prince Charles, it was rumored that she was required to undergo a medical exam by her future mother-in-law's gynecologist to prove her virginity. No such concerns were raised last year prior to the wedding of Kate Middleton and Prince William.
The morality of sexuality means different things to different people. Some seem to regard sexuality as a largely harmless form of amusement. So long as unwanted pregnancy is prevented, no one gets sick, and all parties consent to the act, its moral significance is on par with a hand shake. At the opposite end of the spectrum, others see human sexuality as a wondrous, perhaps even divine gift, which enables human beings not merely to please themselves and one another but also to give physical expression to their love for one other.
To those who see sex as just one of a number of morally neutral biological activities, there is nothing troubling in the notion that a young woman would choose to share her body with a complete stranger. Whether the sex involves a soulmate or a casual stranger, whether she remains loyal for a lifetime to a single partner or "hooks up" with a different person every day, it is nobody's business but hers. The fact that she might earn a little money, or even a lot of money, for doing so, whether for herself or her favorite charity, is of no moral significance. She is free to share her body however she chooses.
Others see sexual intimacy, at least at its best, as a manifestation of deep psychological and even spiritual union. For them, the selling of sex, regardless of the uses to which the money is put, is necessarily fraught with peril. On this account, making love is less a matter of genital contact than a psychological embrace, perhaps even the intertwining of souls. Aristotle famously likened it to a single soul inhabiting two bodies. Such intimacy is not primarily about the pleasure one human being takes from or gives to another. Instead it represents the bodily expression of a deeper and richer human commitment.
We live in a confused and confusing age. Though shocked and in some ways heartbroken to learn that a young woman would auction away her virginity, many of our contemporaries lack the words and ideas, the moral vocabulary, with which to express their misgivings. For those who harbor them, the temptation to give vent to outrage and condemnation can be great. Yet it would be a greater mark of understanding to resist the impulse to lash out at those you consider misguided, heaping shame upon shame, and instead to attempt to understand, and where possible, engage young people in conversations about what is really at stake in these matters.
The point is not simply whether particular types of sexual conduct are right or wrong. The heart of the matter is what contemporary attitudes toward sexuality reveal about our understanding of what it means to be human, including the kinds of human relationships to which we can aspire. Is our sexuality purely transactional, every encounter a mere quid pro quo? Can it be this way sometimes and not others? Can human beings genuinely love one another? What are the implications for this possibility of love of treating human intimacy as a commercial transaction, in which the deal is sealed by establishing a mutually agreeable price? What if our capacity to love is shaped by our choices, and we always run the risk of developing bad habits?
Misapprehensions in matters sexual can wreak considerable harm, as amply attested by two of the greatest novels of all time, Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina and Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary. In both cases, a superficial understanding of love leads inexorably to a hollow life and despair. Perhaps life without the possibility of love is not worth living. Equating money and sex, or at least money and love, confuses distinct categories. The relevant differences here are not quantitative, measureable in terms of any numbers of sexual encounters or dollars. They are qualitative, invoking the all-important differences between mere pleasure, utility, and real love.