Anyone who felt like defending Spitzer as having got caught in a "victimless" crime got slapped down today in a New York Times oped piece this morning. Now, I agree with a lot of what the authors say about prostitution. It's an industry designed to profit from despair, vulnerability and the oppression of women.
But even so, there are two things I am wary about with their arguments. First, as GLBT people we should always be skeptical of opening the Pandora's box of "sex crimes," especially as a tool of personal destruction. It's selective, it always leverages "morality" to achieve someone's agenda, and it is always available to re-direct towards other sexual relationships that someone is uncomfortable with, namely ours.
Secondly, I think that buying their framework only works if you're ignoring the exploitative and demeaning reality of most employment in today's economy and playing dumb to the fact that the pressures driving people into prostitution remain in place whether Elliot Spitzer is paying the bill or not.
Hmmm... what industries can we think of that were built to exploit despair, vulnerability and historic forms oppression? How about the rapacious banking and credit card industry asking poor and middle-class people to compensate for the health care, housing and educational opportunities we lack through bankrupting debt? Then there's commercial agriculture and livestock, whose profits rely on the vulnerability of undocumented immigrants, heinous cruelty to animals and constant destruction of the environment. Don't even get me started on the criminal justice system of prisons and police, dependent for its cash flow on poverty, racist sentencing laws and untreated addiction. I could go on. Shouldn't we be as concerned about the men and women who almost certainly work as domestic servants to the Spitzers as we are about the prostitutes?
The authors say that the prostitutes at Spitzer's alleged service were given a hard time about needing to pick their children up at school, suggesting that they were considered to have "extra baggage" if they had kids. Say it isn't so! If that's the injury they're concerned about they have to widen their focus to everyone with a day job (and night job!).
I am fully aware of the substantial risks and harms born by women and men who work as prostitutes, but the fact that the authors resort to including this tidbit is a clue to the shakiness of their premise overall. Exploitation of women (and men and children) is constantly justified and dismissed when its done at Walmart or Tyson foods because we've come to accept some very right wing notions about the rights of businesses versus the rights of workers and people in general. It has become normal to expect companies to underpay and overwork people, leave them without health care when they are injured and abandon them to poverty in old age. Without challenging those attitudes and norms we'll never make a dent in the factors that drive women into prostitution, addiction and all the other manifestations of poverty and oppression.
And I keep coming back to their assertion of prostitutes often being survivors of sexual abuse. Do we know how many women in other professions are survivors of childhood abuse? (Fill me in if you have information about this. I really don't know.) While hooking is one of the worst ways to have to make your money, you have to admit we have begun to accept dehumanization as normal in just about any hourly job you look at and there are any number of professions to choose from that will let a person play out a rock bottom self-esteem.
If we barred people from jobs and situations that replayed abuse dynamics, women wouldn't be allowed into graduate school where male professors can be demeaning and harassing and have complete control over one's success/survival. Most of the waitressing or hourly wage jobs I've worked would be appropriate either.
Spitzer's resignation won't close the door to this discussion. If our values as a nation were that the health, safety and dignity of every citizen, immigrant and guest was more important than corporate profits, we'd have fewer prostitutes, fewer johns, and fewer good public servants being destroyed for their personal failings.