Monday, March 31, 2008

Of Governors and Call Girls: Some thoughts upon Eliot Spitzer's downfall


No doubt it signifies a mixture of moral frivolity and profound lack of sexual imagination, but one of the first questions that occurred to me when I read of Gov. Eliot Spitzer's involvement with a high-class (or perhaps I should say expensive) prostitution ring was: What acts does a woman perform to be worth $3,000 per hour, compared with one who charges "only" $1,000?

Of course, I have long realized that there is a hierarchy among prostitutes, as there is in all professions. My first patient with tertiary syphilis, for example, was an old prostitute, impoverished, raddled, and toothless, who still plied her trade on waste ground for the price of a cigarette. Her pimp was also her husband, and her cries of despair when he abandoned her still ring in my mind's ear. I have never encountered desolation deeper than hers.

Another of my patients was a smartly dressed black woman whom I initially took to be a business executive. She was a dominatrix. She had her own website and flew around the world flogging the prominent of many nations. She was particularly proud of her connection, if that is the word I seek, with a senior judge in one of the southern states of the U.S. She had a large house and an expensive car and was proud of her success. It was skilled work, after all, and she provided value for money, or else her clients would not have retained her services. Many of them, indeed, were in love with her. She was so amusing that I could not condemn her, even in my heart.

This reminds me that prostitutes in literature have generally been treated kindly. No literary intellectual ever won his spurs by denouncing what everyone else had already denounced with pursed lips and a tut-tut. We do not think of Mistress Quickly and Doll Tearsheet as wicked, but rather as good-time girls with hearts of gold. Maupassant's stories favor prostitutes over their respectable, bourgeois clients. In Russian literature, fallen women serve to illustrate the possibility and power of redemption (and the generosity of authors). The demand for paid sex has generally been more severely condemned in literature than the supply.

One might have supposed that in a relatively liberal sexual environment such as ours, the demand for prostitution would decline, but that does not seem to have happened. This suggests that raw, biological frustration of the sex drive is not at the root of the demand. Appetites not only grow with feeding, but diversify with it. The limits or boundaries of licit and illicit change, but the demand for the illicit remains constant.

Mr. Spitzer can hardly have been driven to act as he did by the kind of sexual frustration that is said to be common in Muslim countries, where all contact with females before and outside of marriage is forbidden. He is both rich and powerful, and in our society men of that sort do not usually have much difficulty finding someone with whom to have an affair, if they feel the need. Moreover, one might have expected a man like Mr. Spitzer - who built his career on the prosecution (or was it the persecution?) of very rich men who supposedly had broken the rules without any compelling need to do so - to behave with circumspection, if not extreme caution, with regard to breaking rules, moral or legal. He who rises by moral outrage, after all, tends to fall by moral outrage.

On the other hand, the very dangerousness of what Mr. Spitzer did may have been what made it so exciting to him. For those with such a turn of mind, there are few pleasures greater than that of breaking rules and getting away with it; it heightens the esteem in which they hold their own intellects.

But there are other advantages in resorting to a prostitute. Prostitutes exact no emotional commitment; unlike in a proper affair, the balance of power remains firmly and predictably in favor of the man who hands over the cash. Not only can he suit his tastes and indulge his fantasies, but the possibilities of blackmail, emotional and financial, are much less than with an affair of the heart. Spurned lovers are notorious for seeking vengeance, but prostitutes are professionals, to whom a reputation for discretion and the hope of future business are important. They do not recriminate when their clients no longer come to see them. So there is safety as well as excitement in the transaction.

What of the supply - that is to say, of the prostitutes? Why do they become prostitutes? If there were no necessitous women in the world, would prostitution survive?

It would. Although middle-class sentimentalists like to think that all prostitutes are driven to the profession as snowflakes before the storm, with absolutely no choice in the matter (because no one would do voluntarily what prostitutes do), a moment's reflection shows that this cannot be so. For even if some young women are brought into Europe from Africa and Latin America and forced into sexual slavery, the fact remains that most prostitutes were not forced by circumstances but chose voluntarily to ply this particular trade. No one's circumstances are so dire that they lead to prostitution as surely as life leads to death; if desperate circumstances inexorably made prostitutes, after all, we would have more prostitutes rather than fewer.

Besides, whatever the social origins of most prostitutes, by no means do all of them come from backgrounds of deprivation. Recently in England, in the small town of Ipswich, a man was convicted of murdering five prostitutes (serial killers quite often choose prostitutes, as if to avenge some terrible sexual humiliation). Two of his victims, at least, were of middle-class origin; one had spent her childhood playing the piano and riding ponies. Interestingly, prostitution disappeared from the town in the wake of the murderer's activities, suggesting that this way of earning a living was not an unavoidable reaction to circumstances.

Quite near where I once lived, by a reservoir around which I often took walks, the body of a 16-year-old girl was found. She had run away from her middle-class home to what she thought was the glamour of the streets and of prostitution; she was bored by respectability and the prospect of a normal career. Her pimps had plied her overenthusiastically with heroin; she had died, and they dumped her body in the hope that it would not be found.

The supply side of prostitution, therefore, is not to be laid wholly at the door of desperate material circumstances. How, then, is it to be ranked with mankind's other moral weaknesses? I have discussed this matter with quite a few prostitutes in my clinic, and even those who have not studied moral philosophy have been able to justify their ways to me, if not to God, with plausible and even sophisticated arguments. They would not have been prostitutes, they said, if there had been no demand for prostitutes; and many of their customers, perhaps even most, were drawn from the supposedly respectable portions of society. From what standpoint, then, did society look down on them?

For Mr. Spitzer, I suspect, they would have had nothing but contempt: a stern moralist who was no better than the pathetic traveling salesman who wants a bit of furtive fun, or sexual release, with a rather less expensive prostitute on his nights away from his wife.

"You men!" says Sadie Thompson at the end of Somerset Maugham's great story "Rain," about a Protestant missionary seduced by a prostitute in the South Sea. "You filthy, dirty pigs! You're all the same, all of you." The prostitutes would agree with her: For them, Mr. Spitzer would be the exact moral equivalent of the missionary Davidson, who is seduced by Sadie Thompson while he tries to convert her to virtue, and then kills himself by cutting his throat in the tide. He, like Mr. Spitzer, did not live up to his own standards because, in the jaundiced view of the profession, no man ever does.

Besides, asked the prostitutes, in what way is it worse to sell one's body than to sell one's soul? How many people have never done something they knew to be wrong, merely to continue in employment? How many women, not considered prostitutes, have let the material prospects of their suitors affect their decisions to marry them?

All this rationalization, however, founders on one simple question: Would you, I asked them, want your daughters to follow in your footsteps, even if they could earn a lot of money by doing so? Not a single one has ever replied yes to that question; all were vehemently against.

We can call prostitutes sex workers, and prostitution the sex industry, but the oldest profession is also the oldest subject of opprobrium. I shall never forget the immortally distasteful words of a 15-year-old patient of mine, who was very easy with her sexual favors, and who may very well one day have decided to do for money what for the moment she did for fun. "My mum," she said, "calls me a slut. But I'm good at what I do."


Two tales of great heroism in the Middle East, one from Britain and one from the USA. The egotists of the Left would understand neither.

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