The Sex Ain’t the Problem

Spitzer’s real crime was hypocrisy

By Miriam Axel-Lute

A little-known tragic part of the whole Spitzer saga is that he wouldn’t have had to pay for what he was looking for. “I would have done it with him for free just for his support of reproductive rights,” says Carol Leigh, sex worker, author of Unrepentant Whore, and a founder of Sex Workers Outreach Project-USA and the Bay Area Sex Worker Advocacy Network. “A lot of [sex workers] would have for the contributions he’s made politically.”

But, of course, Eliot might not have known that. Because when he wasn’t actually making use of their services, he kept his interactions with sex workers limited to prosecuting escort services, not listening to them or their advocates.

In fact, in developing New York’s “anti-trafficking” law, he pushed through increased penalties for clients of all sex workers, despite objections of advocates who work directly with victims of human trafficking and with sex workers who were afraid the penalties would discourage people from coming forward with stories of abuse, notes a press release from the SWOP-NYC.

For New Yorkers, this was Spitzer’s crime: flagrant, arrogant hypocrisy. Not being a client of professional sexual services.

Why am I more concerned about Spitzer busting prostitution businesses than his patronizing them? Because when it comes to prostitution, “prohibition is the most harmful for the people involved,” to quote Susan Lopez, co-director of the Desiree Alliance, a network of organizations advocating for sex-worker rights. From a human-rights and public health standpoint, the arguments for decriminalizing prostitution are many and compelling. Put simply: When sex work is a crime, sex workers can be murdered, beaten, robbed, underpaid, and extorted with near impunity because they can’t go to authorities for justice nor organize openly for better working conditions. Though our screwed-up attitudes about sex and gender certainly are in play, the exploitation we think of when we think of prostitution is in very large part actually driven by its illegality. Moralistic arguments about sex work being inherently dehumanizing are patronizing at best in the face of a growing cadre of articulate, empowered sex workers who say otherwise.

So are arguments about how the families of clients are automatically “victims.” Certainly whenever there is lying and cheating, that’s true. In this case, that’s an issue for the Spitzers to resolve. But Leigh points out that it’s quite common that wives (or girlfriends or partners) know and don’t mind. Often, she says, there’s something particular their husbands want that “they would prefer not to do themselves.” And, adds Lopez, it can be far less disruptive to families than an affair with a secretary. People almost never get a divorce to marry their call girl.

If we stop trying to impose religious ideas about sex on consenting adults, then criminalizing prostitution can start to look a little silly. As Lopez says, “I can’t think of anything else in the world that’s legal when it’s free and illegal when it’s paid for.”

Now I don’t think that Spitzer—even the late, lamented, Day One, knight-in-shining-armor Spitzer—could really have pulled off decriminalizing prostitution in his first term, or even should have spent precious political capital trying. But he could have refrained from actively increasing penalties for it. He could have weighed in on the national debate about trafficking and suggestions to broaden the Mann Act to include intrastate transportation as well as interstate. He could have condemned the so-called anti-prostitution “loyalty oath” that refuses U.S. global anti-AIDS funding to organizations willing to work with sex workers in any capacity other than “rescuing” them, including providing them with condoms and health care.

If he’d taken that sound policy approach, then I’d have said his personal sexual proclivities and the state of his marriage don’t affect his ability to govern and are none of our business.

But that’s not what he did. Instead, he actively prosecuted businesses of the type he was patronizing.

And so, even Lopez thinks he should have resigned. “He went after all these financial companies,” she says. “Is he taking something on the back end of that, too?”

That Spitzer employed a call girl was not particularly unusual. In fact, especially for the wealthy and the powerful, it was completely run of the mill. But I don’t buy that it was inevitable. Given prostitution’s continued and even increasing illegality, Spitzer should have kept it in his pants out of deference, at least, to the people who elected him to do some good things in the state of New York. Unlike Hollywood madam Heidi Fleiss, who seems to think men are completely incapable of delayed gratification, I believe it would have been within his power to do so. (But if Fleiss is right, here’s some advice from Lopez to those pols who want to have their cake and eat it too: “He should have gone with an independent escort.”)

Of course, as much as this scandal is about Spitzer and what he should or shouldn’t have done, the intense, immediate, over-the-top reaction says more about us as a society than it does about him. Though I disagree with the applicability of the phrase “crime against humanity,” it’s hard to explain the larger hypocrisy at work here better than Rabbi Michael Lerner, editor of Tikkun magazine, did. After cataloging a long list of moral outrages committed by politicians of all parties currently in office, from the war in Iraq and the lies that got us into it to escalating child poverty to our refusal to repudiate torture, he writes: “That there is no outcry for these government officials and corporate leaders to resign immediately or be impeached, that there is no moral outrage at the entire system that produces this impact, is America’s ethical perversity. Instead, the only crime against humanity that the media takes seriously and the politicians fear is being exposed for personal sexual immorality.”

He’s right. All public figures who were more ready to call for Spitzer’s resignation than they were to call for Bush’s impeachment should be ashamed of themselves, and be forced to utter a public apology with an uncomfortable spouse at their sides.


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