A Million Johns Can’t be Wrong

First, a general note: there will be only light blogging as I visit friends in Berlin this weekend.  Lucky me!  Further, to echo something Atrios said, "I do request that people occasionally pause for a minute before they post a comment."  So far, I think the pretty-much-unmoderated comments policy here works pretty well, but the occasional trolling comment, gratuitous insult or ad hominem attack always makes me reconsider. 

With that friendly request, onto today’s topic.  It’s a little blue, so send the kiddies to bed. 

According to figures released by the former German government, there are approximately 400,000 prostitutes plying their trade more or less legally in Germany, servicing around 1.2 million men per year day.  I’d say the 1.2 million is an understatement, but that’s probably as close as we’re going to get to official numbers on this subject. 

My local public-radio station just interviewed some of the men and women (G) in this trade.  Of course, you never know how reliable these informants are, but none struck me as totally implausible.  Some of their voices seemed to have been disguised.  The johns ranged from a divorced father of three who liked to visit conventional bordellos to a younger single man who frequented a street in the Rhineland known for street prostitution.  The men gave the usual reasons for prostitution: not enough sex from their wives or girlfriends, or not the kind they want (there still seems to be a taboo against oral sex in Europe), inability to start relationships with women (too shy/too busy), or a decision, after several failed relationships, that paid sex is better than no sex at all.  One of the men said that he knew full well that sex was supposed to be best when it was experienced as a "whole" along with love and companionship, but that paid sex was still worthwhile because it created at least an echo of the "whole" experience.  (Isn’t that basically what television does?).

Only one prostitute was interviewed, ‘Elvira’.  She said she began working to finance a heroin habit, but has since gone clean and gotten a traineeship in a "reputable" firm.  She still nevertheless goes out on the street once a week for adventure — to "dive in" to another world — and to supplement her pay so that she and her child can afford some luxuries once in a while.  Most of the men don’t want anything particularly adventurous; many want nothing but oral sex ("french style", in German slang), because they can’t get it from their significant other. (This, by the way, is probably the number one complaint about German women in the masculine world.  Ladies Respected female colleagues, don’t flame me in comments, I’m just passing it on.)  When asked whether she was turning tricks voluntarily, she thought for a minute, and said yes.  She feels sorry for the women who are obviously drug-addicted, and thinks the men who hire them are creeps.  She also finds the language the johns use to desrcibe the women in online forums degrading.

The largely legal status of prostitution in Germany is one of the most interesting points of cultural comparison (I say "largely" because not all aspects of the trade are legal; the details are complex, and I don’t want to bore you with them here).  The political polarities surrounding prostitution are very different from those in the U.S.; the recent left-wing Red-Green government, far from trying to eliminate prostitution as inherently degrading and dangerous to women, instead passed a "prostitution law" to give working women some rights.  The new grand coalition government has not sought to repeal the law; the consensus you find in Germany is that prostitution is an inevitable part of all human societies, so trying to wipe it out would be fultile and probably counterproductive.  Besides, prostitution has a long, storied, and more-or-less open history in Europe.  Just because you may not like the Catholic Church doesn’t mean you’re going to go around tearing down cathedrals.

However, I wonder how long this will last.  Just look at all the public-policy initiatives Germany and/or Europe has taken over from the U.S. in recent years.  (Note that I’m not endorsing any/all of these.  Once again, just passing it on).  Fifteen years ago, Germans were snickering at the puritanical Americans who had outlawed smoking inside public buildings.  Couldn’t happen here, they said.  Five years ago, they were chortling at the politically-correct Americans who had destroyed private contractual autonomy by making racial and gender discrimination between private persons illegal.  Couldn’t happen here, they said.  They’re still amazed to find out that you cannot drink alcohol in public places in the U.S., but the voices are growing ever louder to limit public drinking in Germany as well.  And let’s not even mention speed limits on the autobahn…

Is largely-legal prostitution going to be next?  I personally doubt it, but I’m not sure exactly why I doubt it.  Perhaps someone can help me clarify what I think in comments.

UPDATE: A commenter spotted my mistake, it’s 1.2 million men per day.  I’ve corrected the post accordingly.

Meditation Improves Concentration

Researchers at the University of Wisconsin have shown that meditation improves your concentration (.pdf).  The minds of us Westerners suffer from something called "attentional blink," which makes our minds to "blink" after perceiving some important fact, causing us to miss other pieces of information presented directly after it. 

Attentional blink can be operationalized and tested pretty effectively.  Heleen Slagter and her colleagues at the Center for Affective Neuroscience at the University of Wisconsin tested subjects before and after three months of training in Vipassana meditation, and found that their attentional blink was significantly reduced after they had begun meditating.  That is, they were able to concentrate more evenly, not in little spikes, and were therefore able to perceive and retain more information from their environment.

You may be asking yourself: "Is there a clear, accessible, jargon-free book that can explain Vipassana meditation?"  Why it just so happens that Bhante Henepola Gunaratana has written it.  It’s called Mindfulness in Plain English.  The author is a Sri Lankan Buddhist monk who’s also extensively trained in Western philosophy, and introduces beginners to Vipassana meditation in clear, lively prose.  No knowledge of Buddhism required, although if you become curious about it after meditating for a while, Bhante G. has got you covered there as well.