by: Tara Ruttenberg
day 2.5: lingering goodbyes
by now it was dinner time, and everyone came downstairs clean and refreshed from the day, overdone perfume blending most dissonantly with the chef's culinary creation of Grabbyhands' catch of the day (aren't you sick of mahi by now?). i rolled napkins around silverware, priding myself in my own mini-rebellion of not wiping off the water spots on the knives before setting them on the table. i am woman, hear me roar. still semi-hungover, no one was interested in drinking, but the now-jolly giant was determined to get his hands on some weed. being the generous guy that he is, the chef hooked it up for the old man, sharing some of his own supply and loading it into the one-hitter. following brief instructions, the giant inhaled as a true giant would, and the next thing i know, he's coughing uncontrollably between exclamations of "holy shit!" and "load that thing again!". i couldn't decide whether to laugh or call an ambulance; i mean this guy is pretty old and now he's hacking up a lung. am i liable for this? fortunately(?) he survives and scarfs his banana fosters a-la-mode a little faster than the others, enjoying each bite more vocally than the one before it. monopoly mustache shares drug stories from the old days in the fraternity house - LSD, PCP, speed; he'd try anything once. Grabbyhands comments on how marijuana is much more potent now than it was back then, and everyone agrees. i recall a similar conversation i had recently with my dad and i immediately start feeling eerily uncomfortable. the good chef gifts them with a little extra something in a piece of cellophane before we leave for the night, everyone sitting around the poker table in minimal clothing.
so this was goodbye - i wouldn’t return to that same house the following night; i’d be working sushi and trying my hand bartending at a different mansion for another big-name pro-team owner. yes, i could name names, maybe embarrass these guys a little bit. but i won’t and it really doesn’t matter; they could be anyone in the end. this is every day: the players change but it’s the same old game. and it’s disturbingly normal.
and you know what the worst part is? i want to hate these guys, and i can't. i want to demonize them for embodying all that's wrong in this world, and i just can't. i can't hate them for cheating on and lying to their wives back at home, for subjecting these hired women to their repressed sexual fantasies, objectifying and subjugating them in the process, for no better reason than just because they can. for the love of god, one of them actually grabbed my Georgetown-educated, yoga-sculpted ass without even hesitating and didn't even apologize, and i still couldn't find it in my sad little heart to hate him for it. and of course i knew why. when i talk to these guys, i see them as people, not as nameless creeps with too much money and sex addictions. i look at these men and i remember hearing about my favorite uncle taking dozens of golf trips with friends to Baja over the years when i was growing up; i see my ex-boyfriends and college classmates and their countless bachelor parties and prostitute stories from when they traveled abroad; uncomfortably, these men even remind me of my own father and i feel it in the pit of my stomach and it gets even harder to hate them or convince myself that on a different day, even the men i admire most might very well find themselves in a similar scenario.
i can't dehumanize these men because they remind me of the men i love and care about in my own life, and instead of making them the enemy and singling them out as creeps, more than anything i want to understand. i want to know why this experience i observed and participated in is just the tip of the iceberg, why it happens all over the world, every single day of the week, fifty-two weeks a year. why do men with money need to buy women in foreign countries and treat them as objects - all part of the all-inclusive weekend getaway package? how do they go home to their wives with trinkets from the airport and go on living life as usual? do their foreign escapades make it easier to live a reality they despise? what is missing in your extravagant lives that this becomes so everyday, so normalized, so accepted as just the way things are? do you think about how your actions affect the lives and souls of the women you pay to sleep with you and pretend to like you while you live out the fantasy you’re too scared to explore in real life? or does what happens in Costa Rica just stay in Costa Rica forever: a distant memory of a crazy weekend with your buddies; fodder for future men-only fishing trips and golf getaways?
i think about the lives of the working women who supply the sexual and companionship services demanded by wealthy men en masse throughout the world. as long as there is demand for it, there will always be supply – sometimes the picture is pretty like Lucy and Candy and the girls who do it part-time for extra cash and seem generally in high spirits. most times it’s uglier, taking the form of human trafficking and underground prostitution rings servicing powerful government employees, corporate CEOs, diplomats immune from international prosecution for their sex crimes. hell, in our day, hookers don’t even have to be hookers to hook, especially the pretty ones can just cuddle up to a nice old gringo on a business staycation in Dakar and he’ll buy her and her extended family anything they need, as long as he’s gettin’ his when he asks for it. and no, she doesn’t love you; she is using you for your money as much as you are using her for sex and companionship - exchange value finding its most perverse expression. women selling sex is the oldest known industry on earth, so they say, and from where i’m sitting, it doesn’t look to be changing all that soon.
even harder to swallow is this overwhelming sense of powerlessness when we consider that there are no simple solutions despite the uneasy feeling we get knowing that this reality is so pervasive, recognizing that there is something ethically and socially wrong about it all, but not quite sure where to place the blame. sure, it would be nice if rich old dudes would stop paying for sex in foreign countries, perhaps slowing the cycle a bit. but where would that leave these well-paid women who rely on prostitution to support their families and livelihoods? a few local organizations have tried with limited success to convince women to get off the street, providing them with free basic skills training and connecting them with employment agencies to find other means of income. in general, these organizations’ impact has been marginal at best, especially when women are faced with the real-life decision of making minimum wage working long hours in a dead-end job or continuing to sell their bodies to the highest bidder for an hour or two of unattached if not soul-depraving sex with a faceless stranger, affording them and their families an otherwise dignified lifestyle full of the things society tells them to want. the economics of it is all too clear, and neither demand-side nor supply-side strategies have any lasting influence: trying to rein-in men’s demand for sex services or control the supply of women willing to work as prostitutes is a pipe dream when there are no viable or meaningful employment alternatives for the women involved. in a world where sex sells and women can be bought and sold as objects, they have no real choice. what else could they do that would make them as much money to support their family in the short-term? in the long-term? in plain economics, these women are better off working as prostitutes, a reality they are fully conscious of regardless of the social stigmatization they confront; a reality i also understand no matter how sick it makes me feel. and through resignation to my own utter powerlessness, all judgment turns to compassion.
in the words of Douglas Dowd, “if every thing has a price, every person has a price”. sex, and even the simulation of loving companionship, is just another commodity to be bought and sold on the market, where people and life experiences have a price just like anything else. as just one more facet of our all-encompassing consumerist society, why should women’s bodies and the sacred, intimate experiences of sex and love be exempt from the far-reaching tentacles of capitalist market exchange? we know this to be our reality, but it’s one that doesn’t let us sleep easy, and that is where our humanness sets in, sending up an ethical red flag to our consciousness: “hey, something isn’t right here…”. when what we know as sacred is treated as profane in the crudest sense, our morality responds to remind us that if the system we live in can create this type of rational behavior among so many of us in our society, there must be something inherently wrong with the system itself, for it is the system that defines and dictates our behavior within it. while we may be paralyzed to change the global capitalist system that breeds and supports the dehumanization, subjugation and objectivization of women in the sex-tourism industry, our moral radar on the subject is indeed useful for its ability to alert us to what we know in our hearts and guts to be ‘wrong’, perhaps as a first step to at least beginning to envision an alternative system in which this type of behavior would not have the slightest incentive to exist, let alone thrive as it does today.
while this experience with monopoly mustache, Grabbyhands, the gentle giant, Lucy, Candy and ‘the girls’ brought me face-to-face with one of the most uncomfortable human expressions of our diseased global system, forcing me to confront my own paralysis in a situation I know in my soul to be ‘wrong’, i come out of it with a semblance of hope and trust that as a society we can do better and that sooner or later we will. the system is crumbling on its own and new systems are emerging that offer inspiration for a renewed appreciation of universal human dignity and values-based (rather than profit-based) social relations. people living and being treated as people, rather than being bought and sold as things for sale on the market. Morris Berman calls our current transition phase “the waning of the modern ages”, referring to the dual process of “the disintegration of capitalism and the concomitant emergence of an alternative socioeconomic formation” as the central story of our time. spiritual economist Charles Eisenstein (my most recent economist crush, btw) describes our present historical moment as “the space between stories” as we wait for a new Story of the People to emerge, bringing meaning to our lives and supporting our new vision of humanity. He writes: “when a story nears its end it goes through death throes, an exaggerated semblance of life. so today we see domination, conquest, violence, and separation take on absurd extremes that hold a mirror up to what was once hidden and diffuse”. as our current collective story nears its end and we experience its ugly manifestations more frequently and more unavoidably, let us recognize them for what they are – the lingering goodbyes of a dying system now on its deathbed (DNR), croaking and gasping for air before its inevitable demise; a skeleton clearing the space for our new story to emerge.