Prostitution is hot news on both sides of the Atlantic. In the United States, Eliot Spitzer is being treated by the media as a fallen hero, a tragic figure brought down by recklessness. Some are even acting like a bunch of frat boys, snickering at a pal who got caught with his pants down. The British press, on the other hand, is more serious and sedate; and it’s focused on the women. It took five dead women to get the British media to recognize that prostitution is not all fun and games for those who sell sex for money. Serial killer Steve Wright was convicted last month for murdering five women working as prostitutes in Ipswich, England, and his trial revealed just how deadly prostitution can be. The prosecution said Wright “systematically selected and murdered” all five women over a six-and-a-half-week period, and the press reports that he left two of the bodies in a cruciform position with arms outstretched.
In the American coverage of Spitzer, it’s all about the “john”: Spitzer’s meteoric rise to fame and power, his national political ambitions, his political blunders, and now the “tragedy” of his disgrace. The women he paid for sex have been treated as hardly worth a mention. The dangers and violence of prostitution have been ignored. Even if the women used by Spitzer were well paid, they never had a shot at state attorney general or governor. We have not heard about the tragedy for most women who enter prostitution because of poverty, childhood sexual abuse, a drug habit, or a pimp-boyfriend, and live in fear that their next john could turn out to be another Steve Wright. Even if the john is not an actual murderer, there is a high risk of violence and rape. In a study of 130 prostitutes, Melissa Farley and Howard Barkan, found that 82% had been physically assaulted; 83% had been threatened with a weapon; and 68% had been raped while working as prostitutes.
As a way to avoid the reality of prostitution, the American media keep talking about a “high-priced” prostitution ring, as if the up-market end of the industry has nothing to do with the more “low-class” street prostitution. The media images thrown at us depict these high-end “escorts” as hot, young attractive model-lookalikes who stash their big bucks away and end up living a life of luxury. Who, after all, can forget Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman, looking glamorous as she is being carried away into the sunset by her handsome john, in the form of Richard Gere? For many of these women, life may not be as dangerous on a daily level, but their bodies are still commodities to be bought and sold by men who see them as disposable sex objects to be used for male entertainment.
Prostitution is at its very core, an absolute expression of male power and women’s lack of choices, and no amount of up-market-chic can change that. But in place of an analysis that situates prostitution within the context of sexual and economic inequality, the media give us (mostly male) talking heads. For these pundits, Spitzer was caught making a mistake and now he has to pay for it. We all know that “power corrupts”, but there has been no discussion of the particular way in which men with political power abuse their position in a sexual way. Neither has there been any discussion of what it means for a political leader, who holds very real power over our lives, to treat women as “pussy”, to be bought, shipped, and traded like cattle. Women pay the price for men like Spitzer, and it’s no surprise that women everywhere make up the majority of the poor, the hungry and the over-worked. As long as men with a john mentality get elected to office, there is no change in sight.
GAIL DINES, a sociology professor at Wheelock College in Boston, is co-producer of a powerpoint slide show on pornography that is available by writing firstname.lastname@example.org