In the modern Western consciousness, there is perhaps no act considered more indicative of a culture of bizarre cruelty than human sacrifice. Whether confronted with tales of ten thousand slaves slaughtered in one day on the steps of an Aztec temple or with anthropological studies of so-called “headhunting” indigenous peoples, we would be hard-pressed as a society to find an act more easily dismissed as intolerable, barbarous, and, above all, confounding. Human sacrifice is, to us, unique not only for its brutality but also for its seeming irrationality. The modern Westerner cannot (hopefully) even begin to comprehend why many prosperous and successful civilizations over the course of human history have decided to descend to such inhuman levels of violence, nor how those in these civilizations rationalized the blood streaming down their city streets.
In the face of this understandable mixture of confusion and disgust, it’s easy to forget that human sacrifice, like all human institutions, offered pragmatic benefits to the culture in which it took place. Scholars studying the history of Mesoamerican society identify two main functions fulfilled by ritual killings: Appeasing various Gods and exerting psychological control over subjugated vassal states. While believable threats of torture and death played an important role in intimidating conquered populations into submission, the primary focus of human sacrifice was undoubtedly a practical attempt to win the favor of dozens of Aztec deities who demanded sacrifice in various ways. Specific Gods were offered human victims in specific ceremonies with the hopes of warding off specific disasters, such as drought and famine (Tlaloc and Chalchiuhtlicue) or defeat in warfare (Huitzilopochtli). Regardless, however, of the precise deities involved, the general understanding in Aztec culture was clear – certain numbers of slaves, prisoners of war, criminals, and other socially undesirable individuals (as well as the occasional ceremonially anointed nobleman) had to die in order to prevent calamity at the hands of the all-powerful Gods. At no point, it seems, did the elite question whether or not a civilization that required a constant stream of dismemberment and death to survive was worth utilizing such practices to protect.
When properly expressed, the motivation behind human sacrifice – the idea that a certain dreadful force required appeasement in the form of violence done to the weakest members of a social structure – is not only easy to understand, but fundamentally indistinguishable from our modern approach to several social ills, chief among them the prostitution of women. Across the nation and across the world, multitudes of influential policymakers and public intellectuals are arguing for the establishment of a sex industry as a way to prevent male violence. The logic, it seems, is that without a steady stream of disconnected images to masturbate to and unknown women to sleep with, men will begin to rape and batter the women in their own lives at higher rates. By creating a class of individuals – prostituted women, almost universally poor, indigenous, or of color – to act as a buffer between men’s violence and the wives, daughters, and girlfriends of those who would otherwise suffer, we can create a system in which men can “let off steam” and return home to loving, stable households. As an added bonus, these advocates of legalization say, the prostituted women themselves will be safer, having their abuse and exploitation rebranded as a legitimate occupation.
How, exactly, this logical approach differs in any meaningful way from the logic of human sacrifice is unclear. In fact, human sacrifice may be considered a forerunner of the modern liberal approaches we know as “harm reduction strategies.” The legalization of prostitution in the name of safety, either for the prostituted women themselves or for those who would otherwise bear the abuse of undersexed men, is little more than acquiescence to the mad God of male violence. Both strategies start with the blind acceptance of an idea steeped in the twin poisons of apathy and fear – that there exists an unchallengeable, all-powerful malevolence that can neither be stopped nor reasoned with, only appeased. For one culture it may be Tezcatlipoca, the Aztec deity of strife and conquest. In another it is male supremacy, the central deity of Western civilization. In either case, a culture is instructed to abandon its base indignation towards cruelty with the explanation, “Well, it’s just got to be this way.”
Both strategies, too, realize that social stability can most easily be maintained when those sacrificed come from the classes already marked as undesirable. For Aztec culture, this was a mixture of slaves, prisoners of war, and criminals; for Western culture, it is currently a mixture of women of color, survivors of sexual abuse, the poor, and the indigenous. However, those ritually slaughtered in Mesoamerican cultures were not completely drawn from lower castes. In addition to the traditional pool of victims, a single child, usually a teenage boy, was commonly drawn from the population to take on the trappings and vestments of the God to which he would be sacrificed. This child was treated as a living God up to the time of his death. This ritual no doubt fulfilled several different functions, the least of which would be glorifying the brutality of slaughter and recasting victimization as a spiritually (and materially) beneficial act. Compare this with the common liberal approach of highlighting those two to eight percent of so-called ‘sex workers’ who claim to freely choose and even enjoy their role in prostitution and pornography. Just as the structure of human sacrifice drew almost exclusively from the oppressed classes while occasionally parading about an exception to the rule in order to disguise (or celebrate) its brutality, so prostitution and pornography make reference to an anomalous case (the ‘happy hooker’ or ‘liberated woman’) in order to do the same.
The political function of human sacrifice, while secondary to sincere concerns over supernatural approval, was undeniable. The hegemonic Aztec empire retained control over its dominated territories largely by a system of economic and social violence enforced through credible threats of even greater violence should resistance arise. It is known that Aztec rulers would demand sacrificial victims from various vassals under its control, with evidence suggesting that these vassals would be intentionally pitted against each other in order to prevent subjugated peoples from organizing against the comparatively small Aztec ruling class. The threat of torture and death at the hands of the Aztecs was a weapon of psychological terror, one very effective at keeping individuals and tribes from considering actions deemed unallowable.
It is here again that the methods and motivations of the sex industry and the system of ritual killing intersect. Just as human sacrifice was designated as the punishment for refusal to abide by the decrees of the ruling class, so too is prostitution often cast in our society as the fundamental “lowest point” that a woman can be placed into, almost exclusively by committing a sin in the eyes of the patriarchal social structure underlying Western culture. Our long-standing narrative of the “good girl” who falls into sexual exploitation as a result of leaving a male partner, engaging in irresponsible behavior (drug use, casual sex, or even refusal to pursue traditional employment) differs little from the threats made by Mesoamerican warlords hundreds of years ago – that a position of submission to violence is waiting should the oppressed attempt to violate the terms put on them by the oppressor.
It goes without saying that Western civilization is right to frown on human sacrifice, realizing that there is neither practical reason nor ethical justification for violence towards the weak in exchange for security. How then, in this supposedly enlightened age, can we rationalize a strikingly similar approach to the question of male violence? The legalization of prostitution mimics the endorsement of ritual slaughter, designating our streets, massage parlors, apartment buildings, and so-called “brothels” as altars upon which women will be sacrificed in a bid to appease the otherwise unchallenged God of male violence. It is little more than the ritual designation of the poor as acceptable collateral damage, a barrier between brutal men and the women we have deemed worth protecting.
The alternative approach, radical both in its analysis and simplicity, asks only that we refuse to enshrine male violence as a force of nature on par with the rains and tides. It asks that we demand, as indigenous feminist activist Cherry Smiley said, “Safe, not safer; harm elimination, not harm reduction.” The mad God of male violence is very real, but he is not undefeatable. He is not an inevitability around which a society must be organized. We don’t need to bargain with him, to accept his terms and beg for his mercy. The structure of violence in Mesoamerica so many hundreds of years ago would have collapsed as a gruesome relic had the population withdrawn the effort it expended in the collection and execution of blood offerings and turned it instead towards the destruction of the idols upon which the blood came to rest. How easily would these industries of violence and abuse collapse as well if we stopped negotiating with men who pay to rape and instead declared that not a single woman would be offered up?