Who cares if Eliot Spitzer hires prostitutes?

What accounts for the intense moral outrage from all corners over this private, consensual act between adults?

By Glenn Greenwald
March 11, 2008 2:11AM (UTC)
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(updated below - Update II - Update III)

Regarding all of the breathless moralizing from all sides over the "reprehensible," outrageous crimes of Eliot Spitzer: are there actually many people left who care if an adult who isn't their spouse hires prostitutes? Are there really people left who think that doing so should be a crime, that adults who hire other consenting adults for sex should be convicted and go to prison?


Just as was true for moral crusaders David Vitter and Larry Craig, there is unquestionably a healthy chunk of hypocrisy in Spitzer's case, given that, as Attorney General, he previously prosecuted -- quite aggressively and publicly -- several citizens for the "crime" of operating an adult prostitution business. That hypocrisy precludes me from having any real personal sympathy for Spitzer, and no reasonable person could defend him from charges of rank hypocrisy. And he should be treated no differently -- no better and no worse -- than the average citizen whom law enforcement catches hiring prostitutes.

But how can his alleged behavior -- paying another adult roughly $1,000 per hour to travel from New York to Washington to meet him for sex -- possibly justify resignation, let alone criminal prosecution, conviction and imprisonment? Independent of the issue of his hypocrisy -- which is an issue meriting attention and political criticism but not criminal prosecution -- what possible business is it of anyone's, let alone the state's, what he or anyone else does in their private lives with other consenting adults?

With all of the intense hand-wringing abounding, it's very difficult to discern the standard being applied here. Are any public officials who commit adultery engaged in such morally intolerable behavior that they ought to resign, because that didn't seem to be the standard back in the 1990s? Or is that any illegal behavior of any kind -- no matter how serious or frivolous, whether victim-creating or victimless -- merits resignation? If a political official smokes pot, or gambles in a poker game, or commits adultery in a state where adultery is a crime, are they now so morally beyond the pale that it is time for them to go? Is that the standard here?


The intensity of the condemnations is actually bizarre, rather disturbing, and completely puritanical. Here, for instance, is the breathless statement released by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics's (CREW) Executive Director Melanie Sloan, "a former federal prosecutor":

Given that Governor Spitzer appears to have violated both federal and D.C. law, the U.S. Attorney’s Offices for the Southern District of New York and the District of Columbia should cooperate and conduct a thorough investigation of Governor Spitzer's likely crimes. . . .

It is completely unacceptable for any government official -- much less one who has held himself up as a paragon of virtue -- to engage in criminal conduct. Governor Spitzer's behavior is reprehensible.

Hiring a prostitute is "reprehensible"? I wonder what adjective Sloan would use for a crime with an actual victim. As is true for much of the commentary today, this sounds like Henry Hyde and Joe Lieberman talking about Bill Clinton, or Midge Decter talking about loose women. And the story has been out for about four hours, yet CREW already has him fully convicted and ready to be strung up.

Also, would it be possible to pause for a moment for some critical thought about how odd this whole matter is? Prosecutions of individuals who hire prostitutes are extremely rare. It's even more rare when it's being done by federal prosecutors, rather than local or state prosecutors, who have to invoke an anachronistic 1910 federal morality statute, the Mann Act, to do so.


Yet here, this appears to be the result of a major sting operation -- complete with sophisticated wiretap schemes -- aimed at a rather insignificant "prostitution ring" (meaning: a small business that brokers meetings between prostitutes and clients, typically via Internet or phone). And in the midst of it all, Elliot Spitzer's name is leaked as nothing more than a single client. Digby raises the obvious questions:

But there are questions that should be asked. It is unusual to release the names of johns and it's weird that we still don't know why the feds were wiretapping on some seemingly inconsequential prostitution case in the first place. Is that something the feds spend a lot of time doing these days?

Far be it for me to mistrust the Bush Justice department or think they might have partisan motives, but it might be worth asking whether there might be a little partisan prosecutorial hanky panky involved. It certainly wouldn't be the first time.

It's only a matter of time before all the fun, salacious details start leaking -- what exactly Spitzer did with the prostitutes he hired, what the prostitutes thought of him, how many times they met, etc. Already, media starts are pouring over the clinically detailed "Client-9" paragraphs of the Complaint as though it's the Starr Report, flashing sexualized photos as they read from it that their producers found from the Internet and, in passing, justifying the "relevance" of all the details. Reprehensible, intolerable, outrageous!


The higher the intensity of our moral condemnations -- especially when publicly expressed -- the purer and more uplifted we feel ourselves. Has a single crime of the Bush administration generated even a fraction of the attention or moral outrage which this oozing, petty sex scandal is well on its way to generating?

UPDATE: In Comments, DCLaw1 asks a question to which I would love to hear an answer:

I have always found it very curious that one of the following, but not the other, is illegal:

(a) Two people have sex, one of them gets paid for it;

(b) Two (or more) people have sex, all of them get paid for it, and it is videotaped and sold to third parties as a commodity.

I have yet to hear a convincing argument why this difference makes any actual sense.

For all the people in comments and everywhere else waxing oh-so-indignantly over the moral evils of prostitution, do you also want to criminalize adult pornography? How can it possibly be the case that the former is outlawed while the latter is permissible?

And for those who keep robotically proclaiming that "prostitution is illegal," nobody is contesting that. As I made clear, Spitzer -- until the wretched prostitution laws are abolished -- should be treated like the average citizen who is discovered by law enforcement to have hired prostitutes (which, just by the way, almost never results in prosecution). But that isn't the point.


The question is whether we are going to have a standard where any elected official must resign whenever it's discovered that they have broken the law -- whether it's when they smoked pot with friends once, or gambled in a private poker game, or committed adultery in those states that criminalize infidelity. Before the 2003 Lawrence v. Texas decision from the Supreme Court, sodomy was actually criminal in many states, and anyone who engaged in sodomy in their bedrooms was engaging in an act every bit as illegal as hiring prostitutes.

Is it really the case that any elected official who ever breaks the law should be righteously condemned by all decent people and then forced from office -- without regard to how serious the offense is or whether there are even any victims? If so, I don't think there are going to be very many elected officials left.

UPDATE II: Harper's Scott Horton, one of the country's foremost experts on the Bush DOJ's overtly political prosecution of former Democratic Alabama Gov. Don Siegelman, compiles numerous additional questions regarding this quite unusual, massive federal law enforcement effort directed at a small prostitution ring that just so happens to have had Democratic New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer as a client (leading, in turn, to the disclosure of all sorts of salacious details in the "Client-9" paragraphs of the Complaint having no bearing whatsoever on the actual criminal issues).

It will be difficult for the questions Horton raises to attract much attention given all of the fun, titillating details concerning Spitzer's sexual activities which are already preoccupying so many, to say nothing of the invigorating charge that comes from being part of an upstanding mob so righteously condemning the private lives of others. But the issues Horton raises are of far greater significance than how Eliot Spitzer and other consenting adults chose to spend their time with one another.

UPDATE III: Jane Hamsher is asking similar and additional questions about this very odd prosecution.

Glenn Greenwald

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