Sex, money, and the refusal of historical knowledge

My last post explored a baffling feature of our twenty-first-century world. Here we are deep into an era of hyper-free-market-ism, with all sorts of unexpected items coming up for sale; we’ve already brought capitalist entrepeneurship to our battlefields, and thoughtful writers are pushing for an open market in body parts like kidneys. And then, we’re also in a mostly post-puritan era, having mainstreamed various sex practices that horrified our parents, plus some they never even imagined.

So you’d think a free-market, anything-goes society like ours would look tolerantly on the sale of sex– yet in the zone where the market meets the sexualized body, it’s actually an age of crack-downs and high-intensity moral crusading. Countries that used to permit prostitution have reversed course and are working to stomp it out. Big philanthropic organizations whip up fears of sex trafficking, and their billboards pop up in towns across North America. Articles denounce old movies like “Pretty Woman” for glamorizing prostitution— in fact Google auto-completes the phrase before you’ve finished typing, and it generates 8,600 results.

Apparently the world has changed pretty significantly since 1990, when “Pretty Woman” was a box-office smash.

A situation like this (you might think) pretty much screams for the application of historical knowledge. After all, since the 1970s historians have produced a ton of terrific research on sex work itself and on all sorts of adjacent topics. We historians also think a lot about moments when values and practices undergo rapid change, as they seem to be doing these days.

But you wouldn’t know any of this from browsing the contemporary news about sex work; in fact you’d never guess historians ever got within ten-foot-pole reach of such topics. Most journalists don’t bother adding picturesque historical examples to their stories about the contemporary scene, and they apparently NEVER ask historians for any larger perspectives.

In other words, it’s another case that shows just how determined our society is not to learn from history. And by “our society,” I mostly don’t mean the evangelical yahoo sector, for whom history’s just a distraction; what counts for them are God’s eternal injunctions and probititions. No, the significant refusals come from the liberal-minded, humanistically-educated sorts who shape our policy discourses. Many of these folks must have studied some history in college– surely some were even history majors?– but you wouldn’t know it from the way they talk.

As an extreme example, consider the Harvard-educated New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, who’s been a key player in the recent anti-sex-trafficking movement. Kristof likes on-the-scenes journalistic interventions, and he’s visited about 150 countries (he pretty much exemplifies the modern idea that keeping busy trumps thinking and reading about things). In the course of these jaunts, he’s rescued young prostitutes in Cambodia and India, by paying off brothel keepers, and he’s accompanied police raids on brothels in Thailand. The results have appeared not only in his Times columns and blog, but also in a documentary movie, and they’ve made him an international celebrity. Another prominent jouralist describes him as “the Indiana Jones of our generation of journalists.”

Of course these exploits have also included occasional pratfalls. Kristof was an enthusiastic booster for a “former prostitute” whose story proved fake, and he’s been shown to have used poor judgment in some other cases. Perhaps as a result, his Wikipedia page currently (September 27, 2015) makes no reference to his sex-trafficking stories.

But maybe pratfalls and mistakes are inevitable in investigations like these. What’s much weirder is the historical shadow that follows Kristof’s efforts. Because at least in his prostitution articles, Kristof reenacts almost almost flawlessly a famous nineteenth-century journalistic scoop. The historian Judith Walkowitz shows us the nineteenth-century original in her wonderful book City of Dreadful Delight, which examines sex and gender practices in late Victorian London. She devotes a couple of chapters to the reporter W. T. Stead, who braved the dangers of London slums, uncovered their vast networks of sex trafficking and child prostitution, and triumphantly rescued  one girl for 5 £.

At least that was his story, as he published it in the newspaper he edited. In fact (as Walkowitz’s patient research shows), just about every element in the story had been massaged, trimmed, and rebuilt so as to fit into prefabricated literary boxes. Many of those boxes came from nineteenth-century melodrama, whose stock characters reappear in Stead’s account: there’s an innocent girl under threat, an impoverished family that’s too weak to defend her, depraved, scheming rich men. And then there’s the journalist himself, as lone hero outsider fighting an evil system– partly by saving a specific girl, partly by shining journalistic light on the world’s dark corners.

Nowadays journalists travel farther to reach the world’s dark corners, but otherwise how different are Kristof’s stories? The brightly-colored characters, the plot line, and the dénouement are the same; just like Stead, Kristof even specifies the dollar amounts he shelled out in his rescue operations– it’s the kind of detail that added zing to a story in 1885 and still does today.

You might say, so what? Kristof’s not a scholar, and he’s not obliged to footnote what previous authorities said about his subject. Isn’t he performing a valuable service by drawing attention to evils and suffering? Why make a big deal about his recycled narratives?

The answer is, because it’s just stupid to base our understanding of the world and the people in it on the simplest categories of nineteenth-century fiction. Sex work may or may not be a bad thing, which may or may not deserve repression.  But it’s something real people undertake, responding to their real circumstances and actively choosing among their real, not-so-great options. Recycling nineteenth-century narratives in the twenty-first century guarantees we won’t even see those realities, let alone understand them or respond sensibly.

Historians like Walkowitz can help us see these realities in our own world– but only if the power players start listening.