The Spitzer Backlash

Amid the chaos, New Yorkers can mourn their lost, credible counterpoint to the orgy of capitalist excess that has overtaken the city.  Eliot Spitzer proved himself a hypocrite. He betrayed his large female constituency. He disregarded state law and consorted with high-caliber criminals. Yet according to numerous editorials and even more bloggers, we shouldn’t care.

True to form, political journalists are towing the “boys will be boys” and “the leak was political” party line. Likewise, Alan Dershowitz’s statements about Spitzer, his former research assistant, occupied a crowning position in a March 11 New York Times article:

“Men go to prostitutes — big deal, that’s not a story in most parts of the world,” Mr. Dershowitz said.

But he also said he had been surprised when Mr. Spitzer prosecuted a prostitution ring in 2004. “I always thought he was somebody who would come down on crimes with real victims,” Mr. Dershowitz said. “Prostitutes aren’t victims — they’re getting paid a thousand dollars an hour, and the johns aren’t victims. What upset me the most was that they wiretapped thousands of e-mails and phone calls. In an age when terrorism needs to be stopped, they’re devoting these kinds of resources to a prostitution ring?”

What’s wrong with this picture?

Liberal apologists seeking to normalize Spitzer’s behavior are forced to resort to the same lies about prostitution indulged by Dershowitz.  They ignore the fact that by defending men’s right to paid sex with women, they applaud the atrocious exploitation of the same sorts of market inequalities they decry when the victims are blue-collar workers.

Long duped into believing that treating the sex industry as legitimate work will foster a more “humane prostitution” while satisfying natural, male impulses, such liberals deny prostitution’s well-documented harms.  In fact, the condescension that allows the confounding of prostitution with legitimate, but unpleasant labor betrays a strong bias, both against workers and against women.

The fact is that all prostitution, including Spitzer’s brokering of a high-priced call-girl, is dangerous for several reasons: first, as a population, prostitutes suffer grave victimization and physical harm; second, prostitution degrades the status of all women by affirming the pathology of associating sex with property; finally, prostitution undermines perhaps the most important moment of reckoning in our country’s history – when we established legally that human beings cannot be bought and sold.

For many prostitutes, “sex work” follows naturally from childhood sexual exploitation or incest victimization.  8 times out of ten, victims of rape or incest prior to engaging in prostitution.  Prostituted women are routinely raped.  Their life expectancies are shorter than average.  They represent 15% of the women for whom suicide attempts result in hospitalization.  Most prostitutes experience physical violence.  They come from poverty and remain in poverty as prostitutes. This is the norm to which there are few exceptions.

Furthermore, prostitution comes at a high psychic cost to its “workers.”  Renowned psychotherapists like Lenore Walker and Judith Herman confirm, based on their clinical experience and research, the overwhelming presence of PTSD in prostituted women.  Melissa Farley, whose international research substantiates the consistency of prostitution’s extensive harm, stresses the importance of understanding the “choice” to pursue prostitution.  She writes, “conditions that make genuine consent possible are absent from prostitution: physical safety, equal power with customers and real alternatives.”  Comparative studies underscore the ridiculousness of accepting prostitution as a vocational choice.  In a 2003 study, Farley and Cotton reported a 75% homelessness rate among respondents, and 89% of prostitutes in the 9 countries they studied expressed “their desire to get out of prostitution.”

Critics of studies exposing the harms of prostitution often point to an overuse of data relating to street prostitutes.  Even studies performed by University of Nevada legalization proponents Brents and Hausbeck, implying the relative health and safety benefits for brothel prostitutes in Nevada, document the extent to which prostitutes under legal prostitution don’t live free lives:

…the vast majority of brothels do not allow women to leave the premises while they are on contract to work, even if they are not on shift….Most brothels identify certain days when women can go to the store or run errands; some do not even allow that.  Others just require that women log in their specific locations…at all times.  Most all brothels have a system in place for women to order out for what they need from around town by paying a staff person to do their errands for them…

Brents and Hausbeck’s studies similarly indicate why brothel owners go to so much trouble to restrict prostitutes’ movements: their financial benefits are enormous. Indeed, worldwide even the most effective social safety nets can’t protect prostitutes’ freedom.  Abused women, many of whom are not safer under legal prostitution, make lots of money for big business, mostly men.  Even in very progressive societies, like Germany and the Netherlands, legalization and its benefits do not apply to illegal workers, which constitute 6 out of ten prostitutes in those countries.

While brothel owners make large gains from selling sex, tax benefits to the State appear murkier than liberal, legalization proponents forecasted.  Melissa Farley reports that although “the sex industry constitutes 5% of the GDP,” in the Netherlands, “only 5 percent to 10 percent of almost 20,000 prostitutes pay taxes” and, according to the Wall Street Journal, in Germany “there are three times as many illegal prostitutes as legally registered ones.”  This statistic is consistent in Australia and New Zealand, in the wake of legalization.  German newspapers have reported how the social safety net has consistently failed prostituted women, while big brothels, which pushed the reforms, have made predictable gains.  By contrast, in Sweden, the legalization experiment was declared a full-on failure at protecting prostituted women.  Strong laws were instated against pimps and johns, and prostitution has since been reduced.

The idea that prostitution harms women has been argued by feminists for a long time.  It’s a muddy argument because many women defend men’s right to paid sex and some women, like famed madame Heidi Fleiss, even benefit from prostitution (although at the risk of incarceration).  The confusion stems from the fact that prostitution in practice is both classist and sexist and that, as in all market-driven endeavors, gender matters only as much as gender difference is conveniently exploitable.  The “need” for prostitution, however, is, at its core, misogynistic.  In 1975, Susan Brownmiller explained the second-wave feminist opposition against prostitution:

Perpetuation of the concept that the ‘powerful male impulse’ must be satisfied with immediacy by a cooperative class of women, set aside and expressly licensed for this purpose, is part and parcel of the mass psychology of rape.

Frighteningly, apologists for Spitzer take the position, as Harvard’s Tom Fiedler did in the New York Times, that Spitzer’s “alpha male” status requires him, according to the biological imperative of “natural selection,” to enlist various females on whom he can affirm his power.  In fact, Spitzer’s behavior mirrors that of the grandiose, reckless corporate elites he once doggedly prosecuted.

Should we accept that this critic of capitalist malfeasance needed to express his natural, adult sexual urges with another consenting adult by spending inordinate amounts of time on the phone with a criminal operation to arrange for a woman to be transported to Washington D.C. at the price of about $1,000.00 a hour?  In 1859, Abraham Lincoln wrote, “This is a world of compensations; and he who would be no slave, must consent to have no slave.”  The belief that slavery should be illegal was, at its best, premised on the idea that humans aren’t property. By the same token, the anti-prostitution movement’s premise, at its best, argues that human sexuality deserves a place above the market.

Editorials abound concurring with Dershowitz’s charge that this scandal is unimportant relative to the “real” problems plaguing America.  Observing the issues raised in the current presidential campaign, one could certainly believe that the people harmed directly and disproportionately by prostitution – poor people, poor women, women of color – are unimportant.  But if they matter, then this scandal matters.  We need to make sure that our disappointed responses are well placed. Laws could be reformed to be more sympathetic to prostitutes, but johns do not deserve legal protection.  While the disclosure against Spitzer might have been politically motivated, there was only one politician on the phone with Empire V.I.P., one “difficult client.”  And it is with him we are right to be disappointed.

R.F. BLADER can be reached at