When star-crossed Juliet was contemplating her difficulty with Romeo’s last name, she famously observed that “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” In other words, Romeo’s hated name was not central to his nature; which was clearly good. Conversely, when we apply a pleasant-sounding name to something horrible, we do not thereby make it any less horrible.
This past week my wife and I took our son to Tallahassee for his college orientation. As we were driving around campus, we turned a corner and saw perhaps the creepiest billboard we’ve ever seen:
It starts off innocently enough: “Hey students, need a summer job?” Well, what college student couldn’t use a good summer job? This is targeted marketing at its best!
But then the horrible reality of this summer job opportunity is made clear: “Date a Sugar Daddy.” This message is reinforced by the image of a young woman applying a little too much makeup. So rather than encouraging college students to apply for an internship, work at a summer camp, or even flip burgers, this billboard is urging them to make an “arrangement” with a wealthy benefactor. And while this kind of arrangement is described as a “date,” it is all too clear that money can be expected in exchange.
The advertised website (which I’ve concealed because I don’t want to promote it) is even less subtle. The main page shows a woman dressed in lingerie standing provocatively in front of a fully-dressed business man with a wolfish stare. The tag-line beside this image reads “Intimacy with a Twi$t.” I guess that’s supposed to be clever, but a “twist” implies something unexpected, and exchanging intimacy for money is hardly something new. In fact, it’s commonly referred to as “the world’s oldest profession”!
Dating a “Sugar Daddy” is a nice way to sugar coat the exchange of money for sex, but prostitution by any other name still smells anything but sweet. What’s more, the attempt to lure female college students into thinly-veiled sex work reeks on numerous levels. It communicates to young women that their sexuality is a commodity they can use to get ahead in life. It urges them to look for a man who can take care of them—not a husband who will love and sacrifice for them, but a “sugar daddy” whose gifts come at a shameful price. Conversely, it encourages wealthy men to exploit young women who may be struggling to pay for college. Worst of all, it dresses the whole seedy affair up as a “date” with a wealthy man—the kind of fairy tale imagery many young women associate with romance.
As I drove away, it occurred to me that the decision to prostitute oneself in this way is really just the next logical step beyond the way many college students are already handling their sexuality. Rather than seeing it as something to be valued and saved for a future spouse, many girls offer it in exchange for a nice dinner, a few drinks, or a boy’s empty flattery. After giving it away to a few penniless college guys, they may wonder what’s so bad about using it to get something in return. American culture has so commoditized and cheapened sex that prostitution is no longer unthinkable—just as long as we are careful to call it by another name.
Some feminists might argue that it can be “empowering” when a young woman chooses to use her sexuality to benefit herself materially, but that line of thinking has always struck me as playing right into the hands of men who want sex without responsibility and commitment. My perspective on this is reinforced by the image used to sell these “arrangements” on the advertised website: it is the fully-clothed businessman who holds the power, while the woman is partially undressed for his enjoyment. In the end, she is just one more commodity for him to purchase and consume.
A woman’s sexuality is indeed a powerful thing—not when it is carelessly given away, nor when it is cynically bartered for material gain. It is at its most powerful when used according to God’s design: to bind a husband and wife together as “one flesh” (Genesis 2:24). That has the power to encourage a man to give his whole life to a woman, as opposed to merely handing her a few Benjamins.
I pray that the girls who see that billboard will learn Juliet’s wisdom in reverse: prostitution cannot be made to smell sweet by any other name.
Have you ever heard the song “Both Sides Now” by Joni Mitchell? It’s a beautiful poem set to music in which she reflects on her initial idealistic view of things like clouds (“ice cream castles in the air”), love (“the dizzy, dancing way you feel”), and life (“dreams and schemes and circus crowds”). She then moves to a somewhat disillusioned view of those things and observes that she has looked at them from “both sides now.” In the end we’re left with a kind of grown-up ambivalence: having experienced both sides of life, we can no longer maintain our youthful optimism, yet somehow it’s “life’s illusions” we continue to hold on to, so that we “really don’t know life at all.”
The other day my wife and I took our oldest son up to Florida State University for his new student orientation. Twenty-six years ago, my parents were taking me to that same university for my own new student orientation.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but while I was going through my orientation, my parents were going through a parallel orientation for family members. Now that I was taking my son to college, it was my turn to go through the family orientation. While my son was choosing from a smorgasbord of interesting classes and being exposed to all the fun experiences he can look forward to, my wife and I were being told when the payment deadlines are and what can happen if our son’s GPA dips too low. The speakers at our orientation occasionally made comments about how little the students typically remember from their orientation and how important it was that we parents remember the information we were receiving.
About halfway through this process, it occurred to me that my wife and I were going through the real orientation! Then, as if I was finally seeing the “man behind the curtain,” I began to realize how much my parents shouldered the “real world” aspects of my education so I could be free to explore “great books” and “big ideas”.
A “liberal” education is called that precisely because you have to be “free” (Latin liber) in order to study things like literature, philosophy, art, science, and culture. People who work hard every day just to put food on the table do not have that kind of freedom, and so a “liberal education” is a luxury they simply can’t afford.
For me, college was a wonderful time when I got to wrestle with important ideas and competing views of how the world works, the nature of God and man, what constitutes a good life, etc. The answers I came to largely determined the course I have taken to this day.
My parents had received a liberal education (at FSU a couple of decades prior to my going there), and they had raised me to be interested in all those lofty subjects. Yet somehow, while they were interested in what I was learning, I could tell they weren’t as passionate about it as I was. They were focused on more “prosaic” things like earning a living. When I myself entered the “real world” and began providing for a wife and a rapidly growing family, I soon found I had little time to contemplate all those lofty ideas I was so focused on in college. I was simply too busy with “prosaic” pursuits like earning a living.
Today I see that the freedom I had to pursue a “liberal” education was largely made possible by the added responsibilities my parents shouldered on my behalf. Sure I contributed to the financing of my education with scholarships and summer jobs, and sure I had to take on increasing amounts of responsibility, but there was always that safety net: that knowledge that Mom and Dad would come to the rescue if I really messed things up. That freedom from worry is what really liberated me to wrestle with all those grand and lofty subjects.
It would seem I am now looking at college “from both sides.” If I were adding another verse to Mitchell’s song, I might say I’ve looked at it “from play and pay!” Yet somehow, like Mitchell, it’s still “college illusions I recall.” I know a large university is a big bureaucracy with many people who are more concerned about defending their little fiefdoms than about guiding young minds. I know the honest exchange of ideas is sometimes tainted by insecure professors and sycophantic students. I know many kids use their newfound freedom to do incredibly foolish things. I know a college degree is not a guaranteed ticket to a great job and an easy life. Don’t tell my kids I said this, but I even know a college education doesn’t necessarily make sense for everyone—especially from a cost-benefit perspective. Still, it’s an opportunity to grow up some without completely having to “sink or swim.” It’s an opportunity to wrestle with big ideas and discover for yourself what’s really important. It’s an opportunity to meet people who share the interests your high school friends never understood, as well as to engage people who think very differently than you do. All those ivy-covered illusions we have about college life still resonate with us because they represent the enduring value of a liberal education.
So while my son still has the freedom to pursue a liberal education, my wife and I will preserve that freedom by shouldering some additional responsibility. And if he starts to think us a little prosaic, I can take comfort in the knowledge that he too will eventually see college “from both sides.”