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Gaining Favour with Sex Worker Bribes

One of my favourite quotes of all time takes place a deleted scene from the movie "The Producers" called “The King of Broadway," in which Max Bialystock (played by Nathan Lane ) shares the advice given to him by his mentor the great Boris Tomaschevski on his death bed. He said:

“...when you're down and out, and everybody thinks you're finished, that's the time to stand up on your two feet and shout, 'Who do you have to FUCK to get a break in this stinking town?!'"

Sage words indeed.

Bialystock funds his Broadway disaster by titillating old ladies into parting with their money. Prostitution?  Maybe. I would call it bribery, but in the real world, where sexual bribes often come in the form of paid sex workers, there isn’t much need to make that distinction. 

A new paper by the feminist scholar and political activist Sheila Jeffreys argues that the decriminalization prostitution in some countries has led to an increase in the use of paid sex workers as a form of bribery to union leaders, politicians and potential business partners. She gives a particularly extreme example of the German company Volkswagen using sex bribes to union representatives in order to grease the wheels of workforce relations. In one instance, the company flew a Brazilian sex worker to Paris to spend time with their head of personnel, and former government advisor, who was there attending a board meeting.

It isn’t difficult to see why this form of bribery might be popular as it is easier to fly under the radar of the anti-bribery laws with sex than it is with other forms of manipulation.

Most countries have very strict anti-bribery laws that set out the expectation of conduct in domestic and international transactions. These laws, like the one adopted in 2009 by the 34 member countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), prohibit either direct payment or providing of something of value in exchange for retaining business or gaining an unfair advantage.  Penalties for violating these laws can be high and, in fact, in some countries bribery is considered a capital offense. 

Volkswagen, as it turns out, didn’t get away with using sex bribes to manipulate workforce relations, but in general it is much more difficult to trace the provision of sex services than it is with cash or other goods. So, using sex services as a bribe can be a means to getting what you want without, necessarily, putting your neck on the line. This is particularly true if buying sex on the market is not a criminal act.

One of the purposes of anti-bribery laws, from an economic perspective, is to see that resources are allocated to their most productive uses. If sex workers are effectively used to manipulate economic decision makers then, just like other forms of corruption, this will lead to poor economic outcomes. It is surprising then that conventions, like the one adopted by the OECD, don’t explicitly mention the offering of sex services.

Dollars and Sex readers will be surprised to discover someone tried to bribe me when I was very young with a male prostitute named Patrick. True story. The briber was trying to convince me to move into an apartment that he owned and thought that this young man might sweeten the deal. He was wrong, obviously, and I declined both Patrick and the apartment. But there are probably women, like the grannies in The Producer, who are swayed by bribes of sex. In fact, I would bet money on it.

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