By Ana Shell
Today we hear many complaints from the older generation that our modern times are immoral and vicious. Young people are disconnected from God and live deeply in sin, while the previous generations had pure morals, honored God, and therefore had no problems. The idea of going back to “better and old fashioned times” is not new and can be found in many societies; in the post-Soviet countries, this idea can be called “conservatism.”
Modern people are concerned about failing values and the consequences of such failures, such as homosexuality, for instance. But such an idea is hardly new. Old fashioned values in opposition to vicious contemporary trends is a common trope but a false one. The very notion connecting higher values and morality to traditional society is itself a modern idea that has no connection to traditional societal norms.
Ever Ancient Egyptian times, people have talked about a decline in morals; however, even back then the traditional society had a very selective system of morality. While strict moral principles did exist and punishment was forced for even minor deviation, there were numerous areas where they were not applied. For instance, murder taboo was not relevant in war times including civil conflicts. It was normal to kill, rob seized cities, rape the women, and kill the conquered civilians. No warriors ever had any moral dilemma doing these things, or at least none did that we know of. Society and religion didn’t perceive any moral problems in such cases either.
Such moral selectivity is also apparent when it comes to the subject of sex outside of marriage. Traditional society prohibits sex outside of marriage and condemns abortions. The topic of sex is as taboo as are robbery or murder in traditional “polite” society. However, despite these various taboos and limitations, prostitution has existed at all times in all traditional societies. In spite of all of the religious wars throughout history this ancient profession still exists today. Only recent emancipation of women has impacted the profession negatively. Only modernization of society, a natural evolution (or a decline in morals, according to the older generation) has had some success in decreasing prostitution rates.
The fact is that the roots of prostitution originate in the traditional society, where women did not have any rights outside marriage. A woman was connected to the world only through her husband. A woman outside of marriage was an outcast; she did not enjoy any civil rights or any ability to make a living. Men held the majority of jobs, and women’s labor was worth nothing. Animal hunger was what pushed women to prostitution; all morals and sermons were eclipsed by the face of hunger. As an example, widowed woman had only two alternatives for survival: the brothel or the monastery, but monasteries were fully booked.
Huge numbers of unfortunate women and the very limited rights they had created an extremely low price for their services in brothels. Prostitution was widespread, and since profit had to be made through a high number of clients rather than the price of the services most women lasted no longer than two years in such a market as they were not able to withstand its brutal pace. Alcoholism and STDs were inevitable side effects for women of the trade and their clients.
Apart from “official” or mainstream prostitution, there were also unofficial practices. House servants and maids, apart from their regular duties, provided some extra services. Their main motive was not love, lust or other sentiment, but some extra cash or trivial gifts, for the wages of servants were extremely low. Often, services of this kind were given for free in order to keep the master happy or maintain a job in a market that was highly competitive.
Needless to say, such “high morality” had serious consequences. Syphilis and other sexually transmitted diseases were among the most severe problems of Europe. There were no good medicines to fight the diseases and even the invention of the condom by a physician was not helping. Only the short human life span of the era prevented masses of people with physical manifestations of STDS.
The income gap between the lower and higher classes allowed richer men to have as many women as they pleased. And all this was happening against the background of high morality and pious abstinence.
Prostitution was built on the economic platform of the patriarchal society. Economics, not lust, was what forced women to work in the streets and brothels. Only after the emancipation era, when women were given the opportunity to work and earn minimum income—an opportunity tantamount to the ability to avoid dying of hunger—did the number of prostituted women start to decline. Brothel prices for the services of prostitutes went up and the number of clients significantly dropped. The brothel industry went into decline, and by the 1950s brothels were banned in many countries—something that could never have happened in earlier times. But what is even more interesting is that the sexual revolution happened right after the emancipation: women became equal members of society, gained their rights, and increased the value of their labor.
Sexual relations between the genders evolved from a simple “service” to a “personal relationship.” This major shift in social psychology was equivalent to abolishing slavery or a lesser class status.
The idea of “free love” made the notion of “paid love” seem abnormal and deviant. In the place of “wife as an economic partner” appeared “wife as a lover.” Visiting prostitutes became extremely unpopular socially, and paying for sex was viewed as something culturally marginal.
Immoral sexual revolution with the idea of free love replaced traditional morality with brothels and sex-servants. As it became increasingly clear that the sexual revolution was not capable of solving all gender issues, idealized notions of traditional society started to return to the cultural discourse. Anti-feminist groups and other socially conservative groups came up with the revolutionary idea of returning to the traditional society for political inspiration, even though any actual return was not possible any longer due to the new economic status of the women in society.
The new generation, which has experienced the sexual revolution, has not had to cope with the serious problems of the traditional society that plagued their ancestors. For the younger generation, the past looks simply like beautiful dance balls and noble, romantic love stories. Much of the classic literature from that time has been misunderstood and misinterpreted by current audiences. The movie industry has deepened this misunderstanding about traditional society. Most film directors were themselves byproducts of free love culture who then went on to grossly distort the traditional society in their work. This is how we end up with a perpetually spiraling myth that the past is always better than the present and that ancient people were more moral and noble than are their modern counterparts. As classic Russian writer Chekhov said: “The past seems beautiful, for we are no longer there.”
Ana Shell is an environmentalist and successful venture businesswoman. She is the creator and developer of many wide-ranging projects with the aim of an easier, more sustainable life for our and future generations.