July 29, 2007
Will Prostitutes Be Better Off With Johns like Spitzer in Prison?
The irony at the center of the Spitzer sex scandal is that Attorney General Elliot Spitzer made possible legislation on prostitution that will almost certainly result in a more severe penalty for soon-to-be-ex Governor Elliot Spitzer.
The progressive legislation pushed by Spitzer alongside advocates for women and prostitutes followed the Swedish model, which punishes the male Johns, not the prostitutes. The theory seems humane: most prostitutes are victims of sexual abuse. And most typically enter the profession at age 13 or 14. One psychologist cited by Nick Kristof in the Times today finds that nearly 90 percent of prostitutes want out; two-thirds suffer post-traumatic stress disorder.
This dynamic was at work in the Spitzer case. The young woman he was caught with, the Times reports, came from a "broken home," was abused, and reported having been homeless and had drug problems. Spitzer, by contrast, is a multi-millionaire who, the wire transcripts seem to show, may have hurt or put other prostitutes in danger.
The Swedish-Spitzer solution seems morally just: the law punishes the supposed perpetrator not the victim. Whether or not you agree that all Johns are perpetrators and all prostitutes victims, the law raises an important question: will prostitutes be better off with Johns like Spitzer in jail?
The assumption at the heart of the Swedish-Spitzer law is that stronger penalties for Johns will dissuade them from using prostitutes. This seems sound, but is there any evidence that it works? Even intimate knowledge with the law didn't dissuade Spitzer.
At the same time, it seems likely that Spitzer is an outliner -- not a typical John. The guy was intense, to put it midly. A high-profile, publicity-intense prosecution of Spitzer could have a powerful deterrent effect on men hiring prostitutes (at least those who require giving your credit card to a company on the Internet.)
What's best for Ashley Alexandra Dupre?
As for the question of whether or not the prostitutes will be better off under the new law, I hope somebody is conducting a high-quality study. I think it is very unlikely we will ever get rid of prostitution. But smart laws effectively enforced should be able to rid us of child prostitution and sex slavery while dramatically improving the lives of the women who work in the sex industry.
While I am very sympathetic to prostitutes, many and perhaps most of whom have been sexually abused, I view with some suspicion anyone who approaches adult prostitution as a moral crusade (child prostitution requiring a bit of a crusade, I'd say). Jailing women is obviously counterproductive to the women and to the taxpayer. And so is denying them work. A true moral crusade would damn the consequences to the individual women.
What's needed is something that helps prostitutes get drug treatment, counseling, and work re-training. Are we Americans sensitive enough to approach complex issues like prostitution with wisdom rather than simply a desire to punish?
As for Spitzer, I'd say he's been punished quite a bit more than your average busted John. I hope the judge sentences him to reconciliation with the sex workers he hired, and a long period of public service. He should be required to work with -- and help -- the women who have been hurt in the sex trade, not for a few weeks but long enough for it to have an impact on his -- and our -- capacity for empathy with these women. Doing so will send a far more powerful message than prison.