Thirty years ago, a taxi driver in Mexico City taught me, though I cannot remember the exact context in which he did so, some lines from Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, the learned Mexican nun of the 17th century, a sage and poetess famous not only in Mexico but in Europe. I have never forgotten them because they sum up succinctly many a moral dilemma (trying to decide whom to blame is a moral dilemma):
Hombres necios que acusáis
a la mujer sin razón,
sin ver que sois la ocasión
de lo mismo que culpáis….
¿O cuál es más de culpar,
aunque cualquiera mal haga:
la que peca por la paga
o el que paga por pecar?
(“Silly men who accuse women without reason, without seeing that you are the cause of that which you blame them for…. O which is more to blame, whatever the harm done: she who sins for pay, or he who pays to sin?”)
Well, France has just decided, through its National Assembly, that demand is morally more reprehensible than supply, at least where prostitution is concerned. It has passed a law, similar to those passed in a few other countries such as Sweden, criminalizing the patronage of prostitutes. Patrons will be fined and sent to an education course on the harms of prostitution. The supply side will not be criminalized, however, because the suppliers—those who in right-thinking publications such as the world’s leading medical journals are now called sex workers—are considered victims.
Reading about the new law took me back to my happy days living in a provincial English city, in an area into which, every night, a pimp, or a pimp’s employee, would bring in a bevy of drug-addicted prostitutes in a bus, who would then stand on the street corner and wait for clients. (If prostitutes are sex workers, what are pimps in the new language? Sex work human resources managers?)
The girls—if I am allowed to call them such, since they seemed mainly in their 30s and 40s—were patronized mainly by traveling-salesmen types. They, the girls, were much the worse for drugs: They looked like creatures out of a drawing by George Grosz. They were desperate, and it seemed to me that their clients must have been pretty desperate too.
The local council responded to the situation by sending out a large white van to hand out free condoms to the girls. The van was something like a ten-ton vehicle, and it did the rounds of the city each night. Obviously, a lot of condoms were needed, though I think the council also handed out sandwiches.
My neighbors, good bourgeois all, were not at all happy with the situation. In truth, it was not very pleasant to pick the used condoms from the rosebushes in the morning. In fact, it was enough to make you wish for the rapid spread of AIDS. One of my neighbors, a former university teacher of biochemistry, to whom I now pay great tribute, was a redoubtable foe of prostitution, at least in its local manifestations; she formed a group that went out every night photographing and taking down the registration numbers of the curb-crawling cars.
This had so severely an inhibitory effect upon business that the sex work human resources manager came in his car to threaten the local vigilante group (aged, on average, about 70). He flashed a gun at them, but my redoubtable neighbor told him to not be so silly and to put that thing away. As the good book says, a soft answer turneth away wrath, and in this case it certainly turned away the sex work human resources manager.
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