New debates about the oldest profession

We can argue over the morality of prostitution, but it's not all about men victimizing women.

By Carol Lloyd
Published March 13, 2008 2:15PM (EDT)

It was inevitable that the spectacle of Eliot Spitzer appearing as the most humiliated john on the planet would reignite an old debate about the world's oldest profession. I admit to being such a Spitzer fan that when I first caught wind of the noxious revelation, I felt mostly pity for the guy and a good deal of impatience with our current vice laws. Can't we just change the laws and let the man keep his job? If every luxury madam were to reveal her client lists, do we honestly think the halls of power wouldn't suffer a serious population drop?

It's not that I don't have issues with Spitzer's wanton ways: The hypocrisy of hiring a prostitute and prosecuting sex rings is the unforgivable part. And if it wasn't part of a private agreement to explore other sexual vistas, you better believe that his wife has reason to have both of his heads on a platter.

Moreover, the New York Times opinion piece "The Myth of the Victimless Crime" didn't convince me that, in and of itself, selling sex should be treated as a serious crime. According to the writers, that makes me a man:

"Whose theory is it that prostitution is victimless? It's the men who buy prostitutes who spew the myths that women choose prostitution, that they get rich, that it's glamorous and that it turns women on."

Say that to the sex-positive sex workers in my town (San Francisco) and you'll get an earful about freedom, power and the intolerable drudgery of wage slave jobs like waiting tables. It's not that I believe all their protestations of empowerment, but add such opinions to the fact that many sex professionals where I live are men, and the picture of the evil men versus the victimized women becomes considerably muddier.

Of course, there's nothing empowering about most forms of prostitution -- I don't doubt the stats the writers cite about the high incidence of child sexual abuse among prostitutes, the ways that women are driven into sex work because of economic hardship, the fact that many prostitutes are far from free agents and closer to indentured servants. (The Times interview with "Kristin," aka Ashley Alexandra Dupré, describes her back story thus: "She left 'a broken family' at age 17, having been abused, according to the MySpace page, and has used drugs and 'been broke and homeless.'") What's more, in my personal life, hearing that a friend or acquaintance visits prostitutes irrevocably damages my opinion of him. Yet despite these facts and my own moral judgments, I'm not convinced that every act of prostitution is an immoral transaction, much less a criminal one.

No doubt prostitution is a field rife with nefarious labor practices. It's true in any unregulated market that employs vulnerable populations (as well as a lot of regulated businesses as well) -- just sit around a park and listen to immigrant nannies talk about their hours, their incomes and their employers.

In looking for ways to nail Spitzer's chosen escort company the Emperors Club, the writers only damage their case with flimsy accusations:

"Telephone operators at the Emperor's Club criticized one of the women for cutting sessions with buyers short so that she could pick up her children at school. 'As a general rule,' one said, 'girls with children tend to have a little more baggage going on.'"

Hate to be the bearer of old news, but snarking about mothers leaving work early for their children is hardly limited to the sex industry.

There are compelling arguments for both legalizing prostitution and keeping it illegal. But above all, let's get beyond the black and white: It's not all about men victimizing women.

Carol Lloyd

Carol Lloyd is currently at work on a book about the gentrification wars in San Francisco's Mission District.

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