Brothel Bundles

A new trend in Germany [where brothels are legal] — flat-rate brothels that offer unlimited sex and food for a fixed sum — has provoked mounting criticism from politicians, local residents and women’s rights groups in recent months and led to police raids on such establishments in four cities on Sunday. …  The brothels … advertise with the slogan: “Sex with every woman, as long as you want, as often as you want and how you want.”

The Justice Minister …: “If one takes their advert seriously, it indicates a breach of the right to human dignity of the prostitutes who work there.” He said the woman’s right to self-determination had been hurt, which gave authorities the right to take action.

Hat tip to Tyler.  More:

Other imaginative offers include rebates for pensioners and people on benefits, 10 per cent discounts for men who arrive by bicycle or public transport, and free shoe-polishing for customers who stay overnight.  But it is the flat-rate deals – which are priced as low as £60 (€70) – that have attracted particular controversy.

I’ll admit to being a bit tone deaf on what offends most people.  But these seem fascinating clues about the urge to ban sex sales.  So help me out – assuming prostitution were legal, which of these possible prostitution promotions seem more or less offensive or ban-worthy?  And why?

  1. Gift certificates.
  2. Buy nine, get one free.
  3. Coupons in the newspaper.
  4. Discounts for attractive customers.
  5. Brothel vouchers as prizes in contests or charity events.
  6. Workers who play act as if kids, or elderly, or rape victims.
  7. Sell certifications that clients have specific sex skills.
  8. Including free condoms, lotions, porn.
  9. Including free alibi saying where else you were.
  10. Requirement for job interview, e.g., casting couch.
  11. Requirement for receiving charity medical care.
  12. Bundled with cleaning, e.g., your maids are available.
  13. Bundled with psychotherapy, e.g., sex therapist.
  14. Bundled with education, e.g., full service teacher.
  15. Bundled with religious service, e.g., sex priestess.
  16. Sex job offer counts regarding unemployment benefits.

Other suggestions?

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  • pwno

    People associate discounts and coupons with objects. This is probably the main reason people find it offensive.

  • I’m probably just as tone-deaf on offensiveness as you are. The only item I really find objectionable is the alibis. My sympathies lie firmly with the spouse being cheated on. Not that trying to ban it would do any good.

    The psychotherapy and education options strike me as all-around terrible ideas, but I’m not really offended. The maids are merely a kink

    I’d very much like to see the religious option become more than just a kink — to see it grow into a serious religion. It’d be a priceless cultural counterpoint to the mainstream anti-sexual religions.

  • kvn

    First of all, this post is awesome.

    I’m most offended by 4, because it implies that real sexual attraction plays a part in prostitution on the prostitute’s side. My guess is 1, 3, 5, and 15 would be most offensive to others.

    I think 1 would offend because it seems like you’re giving away right to have sex with the woman, not the woman doing it herself.

    3 and 5 would offend because they take prostitution out of the shadows. Even most people who support legalizing prostitution think it’s gross/tacky and should stay out of the public eye.

    15 would offend because it sullies the good name of “religion”, which is something we’re all supposed to support, if not as factually true, then at least as morally instructive.

    • Kenny Evitt

      I assumed 1 was merely a prepayment, i.e. that all the other normal rules and procedures (e.g. consent) between the customer and the vendor would apply.

    • Oliver Beatson

      I disagree with the claim that 4 is bad. Indeed I think that it should be the prostitute’s right to charge whatever they want, on the basis that attractiveness would make the job more pleasant for the prostitute. The less pleasant a job, the less reasonable it is to expect it to be paid as poorly as a pleasant job.

  • In modern Western culture using prostitutes is considered extremely low status behaviour – there’s a continuity here so buying random girls drinks in hope for a one night stand is still very low status, but nowhere near as bad; showing off with your possessions is pretty low status; and paying for both yourself and your girlfriend’s on a date is considered almost OK in some countries (like US, but not UK).

    So it’s not surprising that people get easily offended by everything prostitution-related. I guess the offense is mostly an opportunity for people to express their contempt for low status males paying to prostitutes, and is unrelated to nature of promotion.

    That’s also a reason why 5/7/10/11/13/14/15 wouldn’t work – status signals are completely not what they need to be in those cases.

  • Eric Johnson

    Mmmm…. sex priestess, especially if pagan, sound awfully good to me. But here’s an even better idea: instead of paying the girl, one loves her, gets married, and has kids. That way German civilization may actually continue past 2100 – a nice little perk, or positive externality I guess.

    I would find it neat and attractive to think that societies understand the above somehow, and that this is the main driver of their anti-prostitution stances. But I’m pretty unsure that that’s true.

    • It’s my understanding that it was once common to have “temple prostitutes” who were supposed to service visitors to the temple, with the visitors not paying for the service. In that sense they may have been more like sex slaves, but they are referred to as “prostitutes” anyway.

  • 11 and 16. I’m actually surprised there weren’t more replies saying this.

    • Doug S.

      I think #16 was added after the post was originally put up. And I think I’m a bit confused by what #11 means.

      Also, isn’t #10 dereliction of duty on the part of the interviewer? Interviewers are supposed to hire the best candidate, not the one that offers the biggest bribe. (Assuming that job itself doesn’t involve having sex with people, of course.)

  • What’s missing from the story is how the sex workers are compensated. For example, are the sex workers also getting a flat rate, or do they have a system for allocating the take based on the number of sex acts performed? If the sex workers are getting piecework rates, does the brothel take on the downside risk? Would people have to pay a premium to use Viagra?

  • Vladimir Slepnev

    Agree with Eliezer: 11 and 16. All the other points sound kind of fun, except 9 on which I can’t yet parse my thoughts. If more readers of OB were female, you’d get more interesting replies.

  • Douglas Knight

    I suspect that a good way to view the German story is that it’s a combination of prostitution and middlemen, both of which cause offense. Thus I predict that an employee-owned brothel that experimented with pricing would cause less offense. In Britain, prostitution is legal, but many commercial aspects are not.

    8 is common, I think.

    • But that doesn’t explain why flat-rate brothels rather than other brothels including middlepersons (which are common here in Germany) were targeted.

  • Patri Friedman

    Ah, Friday night with Robin Hanson…

    (6) is the one that jumps out at me. I think many people would find it offensive. 10, 11, and 16 also, I think would be considered “an affront to human dignity” or something.

    Agreed with Robin that this situation is a fascinating clue into what aspect of prostitution people find offensive. I just can’t get my moral intuition to see any difference between flat-rate service and piece-work service, regardless of whether the brothel or the girls are taking the risk.

  • Psychohistorian

    11 and 12 do not make clear sense as written.

    The objection to the flat rate is mostly an objection to prostitution. To the degree that it is specific to the actual offer, offering unlimited sexwith a sex worker violates their right to withdraw consent; in general the law prohibits contracts that waive consent in a broad and undefined manner. You would have serious difficulty enforcing a consensual contract to enter slavery, even if were only for a short time.(these are actually written and signed by some practitioners of alternative lifestyles – they are no legally enforcible.). An emloyer promising that an employee will unconditionally waive consent is thus problematic.

    • Kenny Evitt

      What are some examples? I was wondering about the extent to which you could currently do something like this – even if not in the US, are there are still locales where this is possible? What I’ve read of foreign workers in Saudi Arabia and its neighbors seems close – but I haven’t researched much beyond a few stories.

    • Number 11 defeats me completely. I’ve no idea what Robin is trying to say.

      • Alan, someone offers you “free” medical services, but only if you sleep with them.

      • Constant

        Number 11, real world example, would probably be a breech of agreement between the charity donors and the employees of the charity, with the donors not intending to subsidize their employees’ sex lives.

      • How about a discount on medical care for attractive patients who agree to perform sexual services for their doctors, with participating doctors receiving an accordingly reduced salary? Help contain healthcare costs!

      • mattmc

        I’m not sure Eliezer’s Idea would work with third party payer.

      • Dave

        That’s already been thought of. I knew a(former) dentist who traded sex withe prostitutes for dental work. The Board of Dentistry was not amused.

  • Benquo

    1,2,3,8 seem pretty indifferent to me from a moral perspective.

    4 is problematic as worded, but it seems silly to me to assume that prostitutes do not, like everyone else in the world, prefer some clients or parts of the job to others.

    10,11,12,16 strike me as wrong (12 mostly because cleaning work is low status, and for some reason it feels much worse to replace maid jobs with prostitute jobs than vice versa).

    Don’t really know about the rest of them — 13 might be a good idea, might be a train wreck…

  • Cyan

    How does #13 differ from services currently offered by sex surrogates?

  • Numbers 1-9 and 12-15 strike me as standard and unremarkable co-branding or marketing techniques that we accept without cavil in connection with any other product or service. If you view the sex trade as just another service-industry job (is it really much more intimate than, say, delivering a Brazilian waxing, or a necessary hospital catheterization?) then none of these should be problematic.

    If I’m correctly understanding the moral panic over the the German flat-rate advertising, the concern is that the advertising seems to undermine the agency of the sex workers involved. (I realize there is a radical view that doesn’t respect the agency of sex workers ab initio, but I consider that rather wacky.) If it were true that the ads allowed patrons to procure sex acts from sex workers who were unwilling to perform those acts, I could understand. But I suspect that, in reality, every German brothel has rules (Hello, this is GERMANY here) as to what is allowed, and employs women who are willing to provide the allowed acts. If the advertising merely promises — modulo a normal fraction of trade puffery — unlimited access to the menu of services already being provided by willing sex workers, I don’t see flat rate marketing as being any more (or less) offensive than the underlying services already provided by the brothels in question.

    Back to the current blog post, I agree with other commenters that items 10 and 11 are hard to parse with the rest of the list. The “requirement for” language seems to take these out of the realm of marketing; are we saying it would be a “requirement for” the purchaser of sexual services to purchase them before being eligible to interview for a job or to receive medical care? Or is the focus of the list being flipped in these two cases, discussing instead a requirement to perform commercial sexual services in order to seek employment or charity?

    If the latter, I find 10 and 11 to be somewhat problematic, along with 16. Even if we lived in a world where a person’s right to sell (and thus to market creatively) sexual services was universally respected, it’s another substantial step further to encourage or promote or require (for weak values of “require”) participation in that trade. The line between permitting something and requiring (or even strongly encouraging) it is surely a Rubicon that invites further moral consideration.

    • Each side to a voluntary relation is usually allowed to specify requirements that the other side must satisfy to be an acceptable partner. This doesn’t make the relation any less voluntary.

      • …and that’s why I said “for certain weak values of require”. But I do think that choosing not to prohibit an activity has the potential to be morally distinct from encouraging it (promoting it, subsidizing it, providing economic incentives or rewards for doing it).

  • Dave

    I don’t know anything about offending people, but would 11 or 16 improve the marketability of the product?
    The illusion, at least, of health and class is important to many customers. Would you go to a clinic or unemployment office to find your fantasy partner? Strike these because they wouldn’t work.

    One way, not mentioned above, to stimulate the sex business among the environmentally and socially concerned clientele would be to offer discounts for socially desirable behavior, such using recycled condoms, and reducing carbon footprints by using unheated, unairconditioned motel rooms and showing social concerns by patronizing unconventionally attractive prostitutes, such the fat, old or ugly.

    • Kenny Evitt

      I think 16 was about the eligibility of sex-work as a potential job opportunity – something which one may be required to accept without losing one’s benefits. [I wonder how many male vs. female prostitutes would be created by such a policy.]

  • kebko

    This reminds me of Penn Jillette’s solution for replacing the TSA. Make each potential passenger eat a piece of bacon & gently kiss the genitals of someone of their own gender.
    So, I guess that’s number 17: A condition of riding on a terrorist free airplane.

    • Cyan

      I guess Penn Gillette wasn’t aware that the terrorists weren’t exactly following all of Islam’s strictures. Frankly, I don’t think anyone so committed to their political goals that they are willing to fly a plane into a building is going to scruple at a little cock-kissing.

  • Kenny Evitt

    Personally, I am unoffended [not yet in the dictionary?] by any of these. Even 6.3, 9, 10, 11, or 16.
    Your questions rated on scale of 0 (completely unoffensive) to 9 (you should die for even asking the question) relative to the offensibility of prostitution (given that it’s legal).
    1 Gift certificates. 0 · It’s already legal, right?
    2 Buy nine, get one free. 1 · “Encouraging … insert_bad_thing
    3 Coupons in the newspaper. 3 · “The children …”
    4 Discounts for attractive customers. 6 · Unfair (à la ladies nights at bars)
    5 Brothel vouchers as prizes in contests or charity events. 5* · Offensive in proportion to relative esteem of prostitution and the subject of the contest or the object of the charity event, per the devaluing via association
    6 Workers who play act as if kids, or elderly, or rape victims. 8 · Per other, related taboos [“elderly” – really? That’s probably more disgusting than offensive people.]
    7 Sell certifications that clients have specific sex skills. 1* · Dependent on the skill, really …
    8 Including free condoms, lotions, porn. 0 · Meh
    9 Including free alibi saying where else you were. 7 · Is this currently legal for, say, a golf course?
    10 Requirement for job interview, e.g., casting couch. 7 · Feminist objection (unless male prostitution has a surprise boom post-legalization); though if it’s for a sex worker position, it’s a little offensive
    11 Requirement for receiving charity medical care. 9 · Really?! Many people already think there should be no requirements for medical care, ever – even if you’re willing to pay or barter
    12 Bundled with cleaning, e.g., your maids are available. 3 · Though how many people are home when their homes are cleaned, anyways?
    13 Bundled with psychotherapy, e.g., sex therapist. 4 · (Publicly) mild professional outcry + modest consumer demand + (potentially) modest increase in psychotherapeutic successes (value captured by consumers)
    14 Bundled with education, e.g., full service teacher. 3-7* · What niche of the education market do you envision would offer this? Private tutors? For adults? Covering what topics? Or do you imagine a single teacher ‘servicing’ an entire class of students? Certainly sex teachers (e.g. a sex/relationship coach) would be least offensive
    15 Bundled with religious service, e.g., sex priestess. 9 · Religion provides the prototypical ‘moral’ counter-argument; certain people would be incensed by this
    16 Sex job offer counts regarding unemployment benefits. 8 · Per the ‘religious’ fervor of the staunchest defenders of said benefits (e.g. the immorality of exploiting the disadvantaged, etc.)

  • re 6: Fake rape and pedophelia are morally questionable to the extend that the fake thing works as a gateway to the real thing (i.e., there are externalities).

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  • People associate discounts and coupons with objects. This is probably the main reason people find it offensive.

    People are objects.

    • Z. M. Davis

      You know very well what pwno meant. The word object has a well-understood meaning that has nothing to do with the truth of materialism.

      • Andy the Programmer

        I find the rather thick condescension in this comment and the linked one distasteful and ironic, especially since it’s not at all clear to me that you really understand what Vichy means.

      • Z. M. Davis

        “it’s not at all clear to me that you really understand what Vichy means”

        Hmm. Maybe I was jumping to a conclusion. Vichy or Andy, what’s the interpretation that I’m missing?

  • Matt

    Well most of these are pretty standard ideas for porn, so I could see them having viability. Prostitutes as charity prizes or gift certificates would probably be the most offensive to me personally, but only if I was the recipient. It seems like a prostitutes value is highly objective.

    Other Suggestions:

    Sexccountant. Half accountant half whatever you want it to be.

    Door-to-door sales.

    Offer free STD test with each brothel visit or free prostitute with each Std test.

    Offering clients free childcare.

    Brothels at or near malls “so you have something to do while she shops.”

    Anything thought up by a used car salesman, “Not only does it have a great sound system and the latest GPS technology, but check out what we’re throwing in the trunk for you…”

  • MouseJunior

    1-9, 12-15 are all transactions between two willing participants.

    10, 11, and 16 are rape. 16 is especially repugnant, because it’s government-mandated rape. The fact that a large part of the commentariat seems to not even have noticed this is disturbing.

  • Number 11, as clarified, splits into two cases.

    For an example of the first case consider a charitable doctor, in private practise, who sometimes waives his fee for poor patients. A prostitute, down on her luck, seeks free care, but is told: I’ll waive my fee for you if you’ll waive your fee for me.

    Much tut-tutting ensues, but the more worldly notice that accepting payment in kind from some-one who is short of cash confers a benefit, and for the providers of ephemeral services it is a quite substantial benefit.

    Something like this already happens when the plain woman marries the cosmetic surgeon and he makes her beautiful.

    For an example of the second case consider the administrator of a medical charity who fiddles the eligibility criterion in return for sexual favours. The goods, that is the medical care, were not his. They were neither his to sell nor to barter, and we view this as straight forward corruption, meriting a prison sentence, whether he demanded cash or sex.

    I’m not clear whether lust or avarice gets the longer punishment. I guess lust, indirectly. It is sleazy and the administrator cannot claim that he needed the money to pay for his mother’s medical treatment.

  • Catperson of either sex

    I wonder if the original story isn’t wrong. 70 euros for unlimited sex seems implausibly cheap for a legal western brothel.

    Many brothels operate on a “pay twice” structure, where you pay the house for use of the room, and later pay the woman for sex. My suspicion is that the 70 euros just covers unlimited use of a room…

  • Negotiations for sexual favors require the cooperation of both sides, lest it become rape. So anything that seems to alienate one side from their cooperation will smack of such. If Alfred and Betty have sex, that’s fine, but if Alfred then pays Betty for a “certificate” that seems to entitle anyone of his choice (for example, his emotionally-distant friend Charles) to Betty’s ministrations, then that is double-plus un-fine, even if Betty had “agreed” to it ahead of time (agreement doesn’t mean undue pressure was not applied, nor that the agree-er was fully aware of all consequences, nor that the presence of consenting adults sanctifies all possible acts). All variations of this scheme are subject to the same criticism.

    The bundles are straight out of Idiocracy, and further, nonsequiturs. What does sex have to do with accountancy? You can offer me a free oil change with my Big Mac, but it won’t make me any less leery to have the same people fixing my car and my food. They only appear to make sense in the patriarchal mind because female cleaning staff (or female teachers or female therapists) and prostitutes are both seen as subservient. So they’re doubly bad for having manipulative advertising and reinforcing gender normative etceteras.

    #15 is horrific. Countenancing the enforcement of sexual servitude for religious reasons has been bad enough already.

    Other possibilities:

    Supporting local children’s sports teams
    Accepting food stamps
    In lieu of application fee for housing/rental agreements (The “casting couch” would only avoid being wildly inappropriate if the job was to create or emote sexual pleasure, since requiring payment for a job application is already bullshit.)

    #7 is a long-standing dream of mine, but I suspect there would be issues with accreditation: the brothels have too much incentive to sell the “diplomas” to anyone, which would sadly devalue them to meaninglessness. But that is well besides the point.

  • Granite26

    I understand people being offended by negotiations that would seem to alien the prostitute from the customer. Basically, any situation where she’s not allowed to say ‘NO’ before-hand is bad, and any situation that implies that is questionable (Hence the gift certificates or vouchers or ‘any girl’ stuff)

    For 11 and 16, compare prostitution to working at Hooters. Would you require a girl to get a job waiting tables at Hooters before she could collect unemployment? How about a Muslim working at a pig slaughterhouse? They are, from a relativist perspective, morally equivilent.

  • Autumnal Harvest

    This is really a fascinating list. As a sex-positive feminist who believes that prostitution should be legal, but has a lot of discomfort with that belief, it really makes me think about my “urge to ban sex sales.”

    The basic reason that I believe prostitution should be legal is because I believe in people as autonomous individuals, who can best decide how to freely make choices for themselves. But I have a lot of discomfort with that belief, largely because I believe the view of individuals as able to make free autonomous choices is often a libertarian fiction—I believe it reasonable to say that people are “forced” to do something by circumstances, even if they are not physically coerced into doing so. But the line between when an individual is acting freely and autonomously, and when they’re forced to by circumstance, is pretty vague in my head. A libertarian might say it’s vague because it’s an incoherent distinction, because I’m essentially saying that people can be “forced to choose” things. I would instead say that the two ends of the spectrum are qualitatively different, but in a way that doesn’t lend itself to a sharp distinction. As you describe the structure of ways that emphasize more than women might be commodities, rather than individuals in charge of their job choice of prostitute, I get more and more uncomfortable with my support of legalized prostitution. Different people draw the line in different places, and the flat-rate brothels don’t personally raise any hackles for me. But I think this distinction between “autonomous individuals” and “forced by circumstance” is why most people, even those in favor of legalized prostitution, have internal conflicts about what is OK.

    For me, #10, #11, and #16 are the only ones that seem ban-worthy, because they really emphasize that when prostitution is legal and/or treated like any other job, the structure of incentives can change to force (not physically) women into prostitution who would not, absent legalization, have wanted to choose it. e.g. under #10, the secretarial job that they might freely chosen and gotten, under prohibition, may now only be available when bundled with prostitution. I’m offended by #9, but don’t find it ban-worthy. The rest, I’m not offended by, although they increasing levels of discomfort in correlation with the degree to which they make me think of prostitutes as commodities, rather than individuals choosing to be prostitutes.

    Thanks for a fun mental exercise.

  • Rachel

    Interesting read, the only one I would want banned would be 16, I agree with granite26 it is morally equivalent to a muslim person working at a slaughterhouse but I think government supplied unemployment benefits should be considerate of moral preferences for jobs and exemtion should be allowed for both cases. If the benefit was from a private insurance company that had unemployment insurance I wouldn’t want it banned though, as long as the contrct made it clear when you signed up.
    10 and 11 I find offensive but I think the reputation effect would do a large part to make the problem pretty small in most industries. Any business that cares about it’s reputation wouldn’t engage in such activities.
    9 I think you could make an externality case against, and therefore a ban might be in order. Since if it’s well known that brothels give alibis then even legitimate alibis are suspiscious, and this may engender distrust in even solid relationships where there hasn’t been any cheating, this could even in turn hurt business at bars etc if men are more prone to coming home straight away to prove their faithfullness

  • Art Of

    As someone who was secretly prostituted out from the age of 6…I find it ALL deplorable. Condoning this “business-like” ethic is the equivalent of taste-testing different kinds of poo. You analyze and debate the most base of all behavior and assume your critical analysis creates an open dialogue. Do you have any idea who is using these girls? Do you understand the mistreatment that goes on behind closed doors? Do you think money legitimizes destroying someone’s identity? And then to smugly believe that someone can walk past their 18th birthday with the strength of heart to choose the right path after having been abused their entire childhood. Yuck! Yuck!Yuck! Legalizing this ridiculous behavior just adds salt unto the wounds of victims….but I guess that’s ok if you have a lust and their is a condom around somewhere to make it clean enough.

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  • You know, Robin, most of the time when it comes to gender issues I think you’re an irredeemable jerk, but I just wanted to say that I love this list and think it’s brilliant. Pingback.