Worse Than Prostitution?

A new dating Web site is trying to commodify first dates. What if it succeeds?

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On WhatsYourPrice.com, a controversial new dating site, the typical user is a man who cruises profiles, selects a woman, and bids on a date. Say he offers $100. She can accept, decline, or make a counteroffer. Critics say that this is "indistinguishable from prostitution." The company's founder begs to differ. Some escorts are obviously going to use the platform. But it seems to me that its core business isn't prostitution.

And that we might be better off if it were.

In order to see why, it helps to reflect on what's new in "the oldest profession." 1) The Internet makes buying sex easier than ever before. 2) The sex industry, like so many markets, is becoming more stratified. The working class makes due with streetwalkers. The middle-class finds their call girls on whatever Web site replaced Craigslist. The upper-middle-class has discreet escort services. And there is a luxury market in high-priced escorts for the rich. 3) The highest end of the market isn't merely where one finds the best looking women, or the ones most adept at sex. It promises an extra service: a real human relationship, or at least the best imitation that money can buy. Working class johns seek companionship from prostitutes too. But "the girlfriend experience" is arguably different in kind. Or perhaps it is just an extreme difference in degree.

Should these trends concern us? Do escort agencies like New York Confidential and the bottle service culture described here pose a threat to American culture? An affirmative argument might be that economic inequality is a part of every free society, but that if the social contract is to survive, a certain amount of social equality must remain. It's one thing if a rich guy gets to drive a nicer car, live in a bigger apartment, and take women to first dates in nicer restaurants - maybe a less wealthy guy is better looking, or funnier, or more charismatic, or a better lover, or his interests more closely match those of the women he tends to pursue. If, however, sex with attractive women becomes a straight up commodity, turning mostly on money, the rich guy wins every time. And that's the sort of system that the folks at the bottom will rationally revolt against.

America probably doesn't have to worry about that kind of backlash. Prostitution has been with us a long time. It's never been anywhere close to the primary way that people obtain sex or companionship. We're not typically jealous of people who pay for sex. And the market for prostitution is equalizing in some ways. Ugly, socially awkward people can get laid much more easily, for example.

So if WhatsYourPrice.com were merely another player in the ages old prostitution game, there wouldn't be anything to worry about. Instead they're trying to create a financial market for first dates. They'll most likely fail. Every new Internet dating site faces long odds against success, never mind changing the culture. But imagine that they do succeed - that their business model proves successful enough to attract imitators, and that fifteen years from now paying for Internet dates is common. Dating is the primary way that people seek sex and companionship. If the people behind WhatsYourPrice.com get their way, obtaining those things is going to hinge on money a lot more than it does now. It is difficult to imagine any single change in American culture that would be more destructive of social equality, or that would do more to change how we value each other.

Here's a brief New York magazine description of the NYC sex industry:

Today, with highly ad hoc estimates of the New York "sex worker" population hovering, depending on whom you ask, anywhere from 5,000 to 25,000, horny men looking for a more convivial lunch hour don't have to cruise midtown bars or call a number scribbled on a piece of paper. All that's needed is a high-speed connection to any of the many "escort malls," such as the highly click-able CityVibe or Eros.

The typical site includes a photo or two, a sparse bio, a schedule of when the escort is available, and a price ("donation") list. There is also the standard disclaimer, detailing how any money exchanged "is simply for time only and companionship" and that anything else "is a matter of personal preference between two or more consenting adults." For, as everyone in the escort business is quick to say, selling "companionship" is not against the law.

The irony is that commodifying companionship is arguably more destructive to human dignity and society than is selling sex, even if you're someone who takes a dim view of traditional prostitution. Some people seem to be worried that WhatsYourPrice.com is a scam to profit off escorts.

I'm more worried that it isn't.

Image credit: WhatsYourPrice.com