I do not know what Eliot Spitzer was thinking when he was devoting so much of his time and money to obtaining illegal sexual services, but I know this: prostitution is both a cause and a symptom of great harm to girls and women. Women who are used in prostitution—including those bought and sold in 'indoor' venues like strip clubs and through escort services—are frequently raped and battered by the men whose disposable income is the lifeblood of the sex industry. In Chicago alone, where approximately 16,000 girls and women are involved in prostitution annually, almost a quarter (24.1%) of those prostituted through escort services report being raped more than ten times.
But instead of being regarded as an ongoing indictment of our country’s commitment to equality and dignity, prostitution tends to be treated as titillating or harmless—and many still define it as a “victimless” crime. When the issue of prostitution breaks into public consciousness via the occasional ‘scandal’ involving a great man brought low by his ‘private’ predilections, the conversation turns quickly to the damage that is, or will, or may be done, to his once marvelous career. The woman herself, aside from being regarded as some kind of a leper whose touch has the power to devastate career and family, recedes into invisibility.
That violence is regularly inflicted on prostitutes is widely acknowledged: even the fairytales about prostitution that permeate our entertainment recognize that prostitutes are frequent targets for brutality. When the pimps and the johns have real money, however, people become increasingly reluctant to believe survivor accounts of abuse: ‘hi-class’ call girls, the storyline goes, don’t get raped by their dates. The immediate coverage regarding Spitzer embodies this dynamic: while rape and battery are commonly regarded as the occupational hazards of prostitution, evidence that Spitzer himself targeted prostitutes for harm is being minimized, and the prostitution ring that Spitzer frequented is getting classier and classier with every description.
Violence is not the only reality that is seen and simultaneously ignored in prostitution. As is widely known but little discussed during scandals like the current one, the path into prostitution is paved by child sexual abuse. In fact, if every survivor of childhood sexual abuse was removed from the “supply” side of the equation, you could cripple the sex industry immediately: the overwhelming majority of women in prostitution are first bought and sold before they can vote. But like the research on violence in prostitution, evidence which suggests that the sex industry has a dependent and reciprocal relationship with the rape of little girls is mostly treated with a yawn.
Socially, we know a great deal about the harms done to women before, during, and after involvement in prostitution. But in the conversations about Spitzer, great attention (sometimes gleefully) is being paid to the ways in which he will be hurt by this, with virtually no discussion of the likely damage done to her.
Involvement in prostitution frequently follows circumstances that no one would wish on their worst enemy, including incest and desperate poverty. It is frequently characterized by daily exposure to violence and degradation that has a devastating impact on its victims—substance abuse and severe post traumatic stress disorder being only two of the common responses to being prostituted. And yet, we are once again having a public debate, related to prostitution, which seems obsessed with how a career will be damaged, how a ‘private’ matter has brought public shame to a prominent man and his family.
There are many people who can eloquently discuss the tragedies of a wife humiliated, a career derailed, or a politically motivated criminal investigation. What I want everyone to think about is the tragedy of our continuing insensitivity to the violence against girls and women that animates prostitution. I want to discuss the tragedy of one of our nation’s great criminal investigators participating in the exploitation of a woman who could likely teach him a great deal about sexual abuse, or point him in the direction of multiple rapists or batters. Spitzer didn’t meet with prostituted women in order to further a campaign against child sex abuse, or to learn how to better undermine an industry that benefits from and furthers the systematic degradation of girls and women. Instead, he used his money to pay a pimp, and even while he may suffer some shame, his actions only serve to legitimize the sex industry, which further undermines and silences the voices of the girls and women who wouldn’t be there if they had better options—or sometimes, just one way out.
Kaethe Morris Hoffer