Eliot Spitzer: Crusader By Day, Philanderer By Night

By Guest Columnist Mar 17, 2008

by Samantha Erskine In an ironic turn of events, New York’s governor Eliot Spitzer was forced to resign because he was caught paying thousands of dollars for a pre-Valentine’s Day rendezvous with an escort at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, DC. Perhaps if Spitzer hadn’t made so many enemies, touting his holier-than-thou assaults on big businesses and on prostitution, then he would not have been caught. What’s even more ironic is that Spitzer has referred to sex work as "modern-day slavery,” yet he used the service as a “john” while serving as New York’s governor. This debacle underscores two important policy implications. For one, this case exposes the blatant hypocrisy of yet another seasoned politician – one who advanced in his career by prosecuting and criminalizing workers who were providing a service that is widely utilized by consenting adults. For Spitzer to not only be an accomplice in the prosecution of the sex work industry, but also to take part in it as a client, is such a royal act of hypocrisy and privilege – to think that he could operate at the higher end of the very industry he attempted to criminalize. It is one thing to be a hypocrite, but it’s another to think that your privilege entitles you to get away with it. Second, Spitzer’s hypocritical moral crusade gives us an opportunity to examine the sex work industry as a whole. All of us should really think about the ways that anti-sex work laws perpetuate the racialized criminalization of people who are already marginalized in our society. “Kristen,” the woman Spitzer “enslaved” for sex (using his terminology), is described in the New York Times as “an American [read white], petite, very pretty brunette, 5 feet 5 inches, and 105 pounds.” She was booked at about $1,000-an-hour plus tips, as a three-diamond escort at the Emperor’s Club V.I.P., the escort service involved in this scandal. Kristen was only in the middle of the Emperor’s seven-diamond scale. Seven-diamond escorts at the Emperor’s commanded up to $4,300 an hour and for their most valued clients, the Emperor’s Club offered a membership in the elite “Icon Club,” with hourly fees starting at $5,500! Now, I am pretty sure that if the Emperor’s Club had any black women at all, they’d be in the one- to two-diamond scale range. In my research on sex workers, I’ve learned about the many racial disparities that exist in the various sex work industries. Black female sex workers are not as sought after in private escort agencies so they more often work in strip clubs or they are street-based, where they have a higher rate of being apprehended by the police than the higher-end sex workers. In New York, the average rate for sex with a street based sex worker is about $75. New York City (and other big cities) has cleaned up its red-light district, though, which has pushed the sex-work industry indoors — to strip clubs, escort services “massage” parlors, and dungeons – or onto the internet. The more private venues tend to serve middle and upper class men – which usually involve white male clientele who prefer white and so-called “exotic” women over African-Americans. Second, in the rare events that black women are sought after, they’re asked to hyper-exoticize themselves by acting “more black” or “ghetto,” or even to feign Caribbean or Latina accents and mannerisms so that they appear more “exotic” and less African-American. But generally, black female sex workers just sit around and wait for customers to choose them, and when they are chosen, these women have to barter for more money, while the customer tries to negotiate more “bang for his buck.” Even Asian women and Latinas – the “exotic” women – could barter for more money per hour than African-American women. The sex work industry is particularly appealing to new immigrant women because they gain autonomy and mobility, they can quickly move up the socio-economic ladder by earning a lucrative living, they can travel, buy nice things, and they can take care of their families’ needs. Of course, the industry is not all rosy, but in general, these women work relatively flexible hours for more pay than they would make if they worked in supposed “legitimate” (low-paying) jobs with a college-level or less education. This is a clear example of the nexus of race, sex, class, and the economy – and the need for a racial justice framework in revamping our society’s social and economic policies – even the aspects of society that are the most taboo.