Virginity to The Highest Bidder

I must have missed the after-school special about saving your virginity for your first love or your highest bidder. Apparently, the program is running in syndication in Brazil.

In the fall of 2012, a 20-year-old Brazilian student named Catarina Migliorini participated in an auction on an Australian website. The website is named So yeah, the thing up for auction was Catarina’s self-proclaimed virginity.

The whole thing is being featured in a documentary by an Australian filmmaker – the documentary addressing, I guess, the weirdness of the Internet. Or the many faces of sex-trafficking. Or the extreme lengths people will go to find fame. Or maybe, as the filmmaker has said, it’s simply a documentary about the “cherry-popping heard round the world.” Ew.

Anyway, when the auction finally closed, a Japanese man identified simply as “Natsu” had committed a $780,000 – yup, $780,000 – bid for the grand prize. Catarina was promised $20,000 for her participation, plus ninety percent of the winning bid. She claimed she would funnel all or most of her earnings to a housing project for poor families in her native Brazilian town.

The filmmaker planned on “delivering” Catarina, in mid-November, to Natsu on an airplane somewhere between Australian and US airspace. The act was to take place on the plane so as not to be subject to the prostitution laws of any country. Visa issues and pesky human-trafficking investigations fouled up the timing, though, and as of Christmas, Catarina reportedly still had something in common with the Virgin Mary. She had, however, successfully sold pictures to Playboy. I’m no Bible expert, but I’m pretty sure neither testament has a story about Mary landing that kind of deal.

Catarina also managed to inspire a copycat.

Rebecca Bernardo, an 18-year-old who also hails from a small town in Brazil, heard about Catarina’s “For Sale” sign and decided to throw her own virginity into the digital ring. With a sick mother to support, and claiming that her waitressing job barely covered expenses, Rebecca posted a video on YouTube. She stands humbly before a mirror, introduces herself, and matter-of-factly announces that she’s auctioning her virginity.

After netting “only” 14,000 views and a highest offer of $35,000, it seems Rebecca reached out to Virgins Wanted for a bigger platform. Not only does Rebecca want money to pay her mother’s medical expenses, she wants enough to buy both of them a better house in a better neighborhood. At least, that’s what she told the television station that offered to pay for her mother’s care when she turned down their offer.

For what it’s worth, Rebecca’s mother is not in favor of her business plan, and YouTube took the video down.

I don’t mean to sound glib about any of this. If I seem to be, it’s probably because I can’t believe any of this is true. The fact that all of it is true actually makes me very, very sad.

In a survey of 100 countries, the majority allow prostitution, or permit it with limitations. In Brazil, for example, prostitution is legal. In the US, it’s legal in certain counties in Nevada.

The world’s oldest profession may also be the world’s longest debate. Policy-makers, health-care experts and current and former prostitutes themselves cannot agree on whether prostitution should be legalized. If you say a woman should have control over what happens with her body, why can’t she decide to sell that body for money? If prostitution is going to happen regardless of what the law says, why not put it on the books so that it can also be regulated, and therefore made safer? Does legalization do anything to combat the exploitation and degradation that seem so entwined with the act of prostitution?

That is a debate I must reserve for another time, more screen space and several advanced degrees. But I believe that, regardless of your position on prostitution as a legal question, most of you would agree with my more simple reaction to these virginity auctions: that sadness I mentioned.

I am sad that Catarina and Rebecca believe having sex with a stranger for money after an online bidding war is their best option to achieve whatever it is they are hoping to achieve. I don’t care whether their motives are purely altruistic – houses for the poor, medicine for a mother – or are tied to a more selfish desire for fame in its basest, most enjoy-your-15-minutes form. It says a lot about the girls, their circumstances and our shared cultural values that they go for an attention-grabbing ploy that they know will raise eyebrows and other body parts. They don’t connect with Habitat for Humanity or reach out to Brazil’s public health system – which the World Health Organization has applauded for providing free health care to needy citizens – or take advantage of social media to start a charitable campaign. No. They don’t use what is between their ears, they use what is between their legs.

I am sad that these girls know how easy it is to get attention and get money by marketing their sex.

I am sad that there was a market ready to receive their marketing.

I am sad that, despite the progress much of the world has generally made on women’s rights and gender equality, there are still so many examples of a woman’s worth being tied to her vagina and what can be done with it. The reality star who becomes famous thanks to a sex tape. The businesswoman who is told she must quid-pro-quo her way to the next promotion. The teenager who thinks she’s unlovable if she doesn’t let him do it. The young women in Brazil who let strangers tell them how much they’re worth based on the sex they will have.

I am sad that Brazil recently elected its first female president, but Catarina and Rebecca are the Brazilian females The Huffington Post is linking to.

I am sad that, even in a country where prostitution is legal, these two girls have now exposed themselves to ridicule and mockery. They were already desperate enough to sell themselves on the Internet. I’m not sure where they have left to go when they feel trapped by belittling snickers and reputational condemnation.

I am sad that these girls thought a price tag could be put on a sexual act, but never realized their dignity was priceless.

Image via Shutterstock