Paying for people’s services

There is a 78-year old Austrian billionaire named Richard Lugner who likes to have women celebrities as his dates at a fancy ball that is held every year in Austria. He reportedly pays them as much as $150,000 for the pleasure of their company and in the past has squired such well-known names like Pamela Anderson, Paris Hilton, Sophia Loren, Raquel Welch, and Andie MacDowell. Apparently there are complicated financial negotiations that have to be gone through by representatives of both parties before the deals are finalized and contracts signed. It all seems a bit much for a few hours of socializing.

I had naively thought that people asked their friends to partner them to social functions and so this commercial aspect surprised me. It also struck me as quite odd but I could not quite put my finger on the reasons for my negative reaction. I have argued that what consenting adults do should be of no concern to others so why shouldn’t people charge others for the pleasure of their company? One would guess that he people mentioned are quite rich and it is a little strange that they would feel the need to do this. I mean, does Paris Hilton really need the money? But we know that some people, however much they have, always seem to want more. If you are doing nothing one evening and someone offers you $150,000 to go to a ball with them, what is wrong with accepting that offer?

Also, is this any different from people being paid to attend any other events? Politicians like Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann charge people to have their photographs taken with them. And when people are willing to pay money to listen to a speaker, even though they know pretty much in advance what he or she is going to say, aren’t they just paying for the privilege of being in the speaker’s presence and to get a chance perhaps to have a brief conversation?

Taken further, how is this different from paying people for their services? Although I am not a celebrity, some people are willing to pay for me to come to their venue and give a talk, so I am also selling my services, even if my personality and name (and definitely my looks) by themselves have no marketable value.

I finally figured out what was bothering me about this commercial aspect. While it is partly the fact that it is blurring the difference between social interactions (which are supposed to be free of financial considerations) and commercial interactions (for which fees are charged), what really bothers me is not that these people are doing anything wrong but that we do not extend the social acceptance of paying for services to a wider range of people and services.

In particular, we treat sex workers to a different standard. For example, sex workers are also paid for sharing with others the pleasure of their company and providing services. Why are they prosecuted and treated like criminals in so many countries, when the rest of us are able to sell our services and even be admired for doing so? When Richard Lugner gets to spend some time with a famous woman by paying for her presence, it is considered acceptable, if a little tacky. But if the agreement also involves having sex as part of the deal, the entire transaction is viewed with disdain and can become illegal and the people involved subject to harsh criminal penalties.

It is this double standard that drives sex workers into the underground economy and creates conditions in which they can be exploited and abused because they are operating outside the law and thus cannot easily call upon society to protect them.

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