Friday, July 10, 2015

a bit too sweet for my taste

My friend Chad has been teaching an ethics class in the evenings for a couple of decades at the junior college in his hometown.

When we last met for lunch, the topic of mores came up.  I was chiding myself for falling into the "things-are-getting-worse" school when Chad told me: "Don't be too rough on yourself; ethical matters may be getting worse.  At least, they are changing."

He then told me he has been starting his first class each year with a question for his students: "If an unattractive, old man with plenty of wealth offered you money to have sex, would you do it?"  The question was loaded to get an expected response: not a hand moved.  That was in the beginning.

Then, about ten years ago, the hands started moving -- but always with the same question: "How much money?"  Chad said the response, at least, led to some interesting discussions on the role of money in making ethical choices.

He told me he has decided to abandon the question.  A majority of his students now raise their hands that they would accept the offer, and the ensuing "discussion" usually gets no further than a conclusory "Why not?" 

(He is also abandoning the question because some students have complained to the administration that he is creating an "insecure" environment on the campus.  But that is the topic for another essay.)

I thought of Chad the other day while electronically leafing through The Economist.  I ran across an article (A Teaspoon of Sugar) on the rising debt load being shouldered (or sometimes shirked) by graduates from American colleges.  And just like the students in Chad's classroom, some of them have come up with a creative solution -- selling sex and companionship to wealthy older men to pay for their education.

Now, I am not so naive as to believe that solution for earning money is particularly new.  Prostitution earned its appellation of "the world's oldest profession" for good reason.

What struck me, though, were the numbers reported in the article.

First, was the usual monthly pay for, to not put too fine of a point on it, "putting out."  $3,000.  The article points out that some "sugar daddies" pay their "sugar babies" much more than that.  If you can read that sentence without cringing, you did better than I.

But that was chump change in the ethics market.  Apparently, there is a site on the internet that facilitates "sugar babies" and "sugar daddies" hooking up.  Of course, there would be.  There is a web site and app for everything these days.  And this one is designed exclusively for students trying to avoid school debts.

While scanning through the article, I suspected the site would probably have no more than 9,000 students.  After all, the number of young students is limited.  My research indicates there are 21 million students enrolled in American colleges; 13 million full-time.

That is why I was shocked to read, on just one web site, there are over 900,000 "sugar babies" looking for their benevolent benefactor.  The number has more than doubled in the last two years.

And the draw?  According to the web site, two-thirds of the participants graduate with no student debt.  Maybe the rest have moved on to the Madame de Pompadour employment agency.

I am not quite certain what to think about this whole scheme.  As a former criminal defense attorney, the arrangement would easily escape prosecution for prostitution.  Attempts by some states to outlaw it have run into practical problems -- how to outlaw the activity without affecting the legality of marriage.

As a libertarian, I would be very reluctant to interfere in what appears to be a free market solution to the government-created student debt crisis.  There is a certain elegance in the solution.  Let the market clean up the government's mess.

But I do have moral and ethical concerns.  I come from an era that cherished the exclusivity of sex within the confines of marriage (even though the ideal was often honored only in the lurch).  And I still do. 

I am no longer the ethical norm.  Nor is The Economist.  It would be hard to imagine the article being published within its economic liberal pages even a decade ago.

Earlier in the week I was in Manzanillo at the Burger King -- a treat for me.  The place is usually filled with the children of middle class Mexicans, dropping their kids off for lunch and play.  I have yet to see another northern face in the place.

I sat down with my tray and nodded to a young man sitting at the next table.  He got up and asked if he could join me.  His eyes were noticeably red.

Let me confess.  I was not initially very hospitable.  Burger King seems to attract some interesting people.  On one occasion I was offered a packet of cocaine.  On another, to buy a California-licensed vehicle because the purported owner was having trouble getting papers for it.  The vehicle salesman really needed to work on his sales routine.

It turned out this young man was offering neither drugs nor dodgy pickups.  What surprised me was his English.  It was almost unaccented. 

He was born in Guanajuato, but he grew up in a rather hard-scrabble life in Colorado, where his mother raised him and his two brothers on her own, doing whatever was necessary to put food on the table.  And he was quite explicit in what she thought was necessary to protect her children.

At 21, he returned to the Manzanillo area five years ago, and found life just as rough.  He put together some manual labor and waiting jobs.  All of that changed last year when he met an older Canadian, and moved in with him.

The money has been great, but the young man's girlfriend (for good reason) is jealous.  That is why he was talking to me.

I had no idea where the conversation was going.  Had I been Chad, I would have been drawing an ethical flow chart in my head.  Not me.  I sat there dumbly not knowing what was coming next.

He asked me: "Have you ever broken a relationship?"  I chuckled and told him if there is anything at which I am an expert, it is ending relationships.

Then, came the question.  "How do I break up with my girlfriend?  This gig is too good to give up."  Hardly the question I was expecting.

I loved his use of "gig."  His lack of accent and use of slang were not the only aspects that belied his American acculturation.  He would have fit right in with the students in Chad's most recent classes and the young people who sign up as "sugar babies."  For all I know, there is a great overlap between those two groups.

What he finally decided, I have no idea.  Well, I do.  Or I wouldn't have included his story in this piece.

The question posed by Chad to his students has an international taste to him.  I should invite him down here to do some research -- if the school ungags him.

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