After news of Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s alleged encounters with high-priced prostitutes surfaced, famed Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz wondered why people were making such an issue of it.
“Men go to prostitutes — big deal, that’s not a story in most parts of the world,” Dershowitz, for whom Spitzer once worked as a research assistant, told The New York Times. “Prostitutes aren’t victims — they’re getting paid a thousand dollars an hour, and the johns aren’t victims. What upset me the most was that they wiretapped thousands of e-mails and phone calls. In an age when terrorism needs to be stopped, they’re devoting these kinds of resources to a prostitution ring?”
In some quarters, the Spitzer scandal has revived the debate over whether prostitution should still be illegal, with Dershowitz and others characterizing it as a victimless crime.
But Delores Edmonds-McIntosh, who runs Project Safe, a Schenectady-based program that assists teen prostitutes, said such debates ignore the ugly reality of sex work. She doesn’t see a huge difference between the teens she tries to help and the high-priced prostitutes Spitzer is said to have patronized; many adult prostitutes, she said, entered the sex trade as teenagers, after suffering some kind of trauma or abuse, often sexual.
“It angers me to hear people say it’s a victimless crime,” Edmonds-McIntosh said.
When Edmonds-McIntosh began working at Project Safe more than 20 years ago, she expected that most of the teens seeking help would be from lower-income families. She discovered that, though many of the teens are poor, some are from middle-class and even affluent backgrounds. “I’ve seen such a wide variety,” she said. “I’ve had teens in the program who had worked as call girls in New York City. . . . By the time I met them, they may have been 20. But as teenage girls, they had worked for an escort service.” Many of the girls who worked for escort services, she said, got their start as street prostitutes; johns, she said, often seek out younger women.
‘A Way to survive’
The majority of the teens who receive help from Project Safe had their first sexual contact with an adult before the age of 13, Edmonds-McIntosh said. “It makes you wonder whether, once that boundary is broken, is it easier to engage in sex with people you do not know?” she said.
“People think that kids want to be on the street, that they want to be doing this,” Edmonds-McIntosh said. “These kids want to survive.” She said some people make a conscious decision to become prostitutes, but that those people are the exception. “I’m talking more about the general population,” she said. She said she asks the girls who come to Project Safe whether they like the johns. “I’ve never once heard a girl say, ‘Yes, I enjoy the customers.’ For them, it’s a way to survive. That’s what it’s about. If men were not purchasing this supply, they would not choose this road.”
Like Edmonds-McIntosh, Taina Bien-Aime doesn’t see a big distinction between “high-end” forms of prostitution and street prostitution. Bien-Ame is executive director of Equality Now, a New York City-based organization that worked with Spitzer on a tough anti-sex and labor trafficking bill that last year passed the New York State Legislature. “The exploitation is the same,” she said. “Just because one perpetrator has more money the result is the same.”
“Who are these girls?” Bien-Aime said. “They’re usually girls who have been abused, they’re drug dependent. They meet a guy who gives them food and clothing. You’re talking about a very vulnerable population.” She said the woman linked to Spitzer — 22-year-old Ashley Alexandra Dupre, who, according to her MySpace page, left home as a teenager and had abused drugs and been homeless in the past — fits the mold.
Sapna Patel, the staff attorney for the New York City-based Urban Justice Center’s Sex Workers Project, said prostitutes have myriad experiences. “The majority are in it by circumstances; a few have been forced into it,” she said. “But there’s also a group of sex workers who exist who don’t feel victimized. They feel they’ve made a choice.” Some of these prostitutes may be well-educated and even find their work empowering, she said.
The Urban Justice Center’s Sex Workers Project provides services to prostitutes, such as outreach to street prostitutes, aid for trafficking victims and legal advocacy. Patel said high-end sex workers are more likely to seek help with taxes; for street prostitutes, access to condoms is a big concern.
Like other activists who viewed Spitzer as an ally on women’s issues, Bien-Aime was shocked by the prostitution allegations.
“This is beyond my comprehension, although the john mentality is not something I particularly understand, other than men purchase women because they can,” Bien-Aime said. “We were hoping Gov. Spitzer was an exception to that, but he’s become a perpetrator.”
She said Spitzer was one of the few male lawmakers who really understood the concerns of Equality Now, which promotes the rights of women throughout the world. “You can’t take away from the things he’s done,” she said. “We work with a lot of policy makers and legislators, and sometimes you leave meetings and think, ‘He’s on the list.’ But Spitzer was never a guy we thought was on the list.”
Marcia Pappas, president of the state chapter of the National Organization for Women, said she was saddened and disappointed by the revelations about Spitzer. “When you get to a certain age, nothing shocks you,” said Pappas, who served on an advisory committee for the anti-trafficking legislation. “It’s a sad thing. We’re saddened because we had such high hopes for him as governor. His kids and his wife have to be going through hell and back. It’s a tough thing because he was so beloved.”
Spitzer sought NOW’s endorsement when he was campaigning for governor, and the group was impressed with his “comprehension and understanding of women’s issues. The issues he didn’t know about . . . he grasped pretty quickly.” Pappas said NOW is looking forward to working with incoming governor David Paterson, who, she said, has a strong track record on women’s issues.
NOW doesn’t have an official position on prostitution. Pappas said feminists understand that many prostitutes enter that line of work because they are poor and need money. She added, “I don’t think you can ever say there’s one reason why people go into any line of work. You’d probably have to talk to those women. There are probably different perspectives.”
New York’s anti-trafficking bill is one of the toughest in the country. It made sex trafficking and labor trafficking separate felonies; a conviction of sex trafficking carries a penalty of three to 25 years in prison, while a labor trafficking conviction carries three to seven years. It provided services to victims of sexual trafficking, such as drug treatment, and increased the penalty for patronizing a prostitute from a maximum of three months to up to three years in jail. Bien-Aime praised this measure for attacking the demand side of prostitution.
“In order to address trafficking you have to look at demand,” Bien-Aime said. “Very little attention is given to demand. You need strong penalties for traffickers, but you also need to look at johns.”
law in sweden
She praised the approach to prostitution in Sweden, where it’s not illegal to sell sex, but it’s illegal to buy it. In Sweden, “they recognize that prostitution is a form of gender-based violence,” she said. “They recognize that you have to attack the demand side of the market. They have educational programs for me that highlight that it’s unacceptable to purchase women’s bodies for profit.”
Bien-Aime said she doesn’t believe legalizing prostitution, as countries such New Zealand, have done, is the answer. “The state becomes a pimp,” she said.
“The question is, who is purchasing these women’s bodies?” Bien-Aime said. “As a society, you have to ask yourself why it is acceptable for men to purchase another human being. It doesn’t matter if she’s making $20 or $1,000. What matters is the amount of money being made by the commercial sex trade.”
Many prostitutes have been trafficked — bought and sold and forced to work in the commercial sex industry, Bien-Aime said. “Trafficking is a severe form of exploitation, and it’s linked to the commercial sex trade,” she said.
The U.S. State Department, which describes trafficking as “modern-day slavery,” estimates that between 14,500 to 17,500 people a year are brought into the United States and then used for forced labor or sex.
Some have argued that prostitution should be legalized.
Writing in the Los Angeles Times, Patty Kelly, an anthropology professor at George Washington University who spent a year studying a legal, state-regulated brothel in Mexico, suggests that it is time to decriminalize prostitution in America. “It’s a part of our culture, and it’s not going away any time soon,” she said. She said many of the women at the brothel she observed set their own hours, made some sort of rational choice to work there, and decided for themselves what sorts of sex acts they would perform. The brothel, she said, was safer than the streets because of police protection and condom distribution by government authorities.
The Urban Justice Center worked on the anti-trafficking bill, but opposed the stiffer penalties for johns. Patel said that although the organization doesn’t take a position on whether prostitution should be legalized, the group believes that “the criminal justice system should be taken out of the industry. Anytime the criminal justice system is involved, the whole industry goes underground. It’s very hard for people to get services. They don’t seek help if they’re the victims of violence, either by police or the johns. They’re concerned about being arrested.” She said arresting johns isn’t an effective way to deal with prostitution. “We haven’t found that to address what sex workers need,” she said.
The average age of entry into prostitution in the U.S. is 14, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.