Moralists are ever ready to sacrifice one-half of the human race for the sake of some miserable institution which they can not outgrow. As a matter of fact, prostitution is no more a safeguard for the purity of the home than rigid laws are a safeguard against prostitution. … Yet society has not a word of condemnation for the man, while no law is too monstrous to be set in motion against the helpless victim.
– Emma Goldman, The Traffic in Women
Goldman published this in 1910. I’m dismayed at how little progress we’ve made in the past 99 years. I just wrapped up a discussion of this piece with my online feminist theory class, and even among this group of young, feminist-leaning people who are 90% female, moralism cropped up at every turn.
About half of my students worried about the moral consequences of legalizing prostitution. They thought it sent the message that adultery was okay. They feared previously faithful men would be snared on the streets. They fretted that more women would be drawn into the profession. Most of them weren’t any more comfortable with decriminalization as a solution, even though most of them also recognized that prostitutes would be safer if they weren’t hiding from the law.
That discussion ended a few days before the murder of alleged escort, Julissa Brissman, made the news. It turns out that Brissman – killed allegedly by medical student, Philip Markoff, who’s being called the Craigslist Killer – had formerly worked for Kristin Davis, the “Manhattan Madam” who was caught up in the Elliot Spitzer scandal. Davis writes on her blog:
She was only a bodyrub girl – never an escort so please don’t get the wrong idea. She was a doll and now she is dead – and this all could have been avoided by not busting me or even by making a dent in the industry by busting all my clients who are also criminals and shedding some light on how widespread this industry and really making a difference. Or by legalizing it so that these girls are safe.
Now, I don’t even know exactly what a bodyrub girl does. I’m assuming it’s a “sexy massage” as opposed to a therapeutic one? But never mind exactly what Brissman did; she was targeted for her proximity to sex work, judging from Markoff’s other alleged victims. The details of her work are immaterial. They shouldn’t distract from the larger issue of whether, as Goldman accuses, we’re still “ever ready to sacrifice one-half of the human race.”
Isn’t it striking that a self-styled capitalist entrepreneur like Davis and a socialist anarchist like Goldman frame the problem so similarly? They both see the prostitutes themselves as sacrificial lambs in a system that protects the powerful under a figleaf of morality. In fact, your political orientation, your religious beliefs, and your personal morals are actually quite irrelevant to whether prostitution ought to be decriminalized. If you blame sex workers for formenting immorality among their customers – instead of holding the customers responsible themselves – and if you thus conclude that prostitution has to stay illegal, there’s only one possible outcome. Sex workers will continue to be beaten, robbed, abused, raped, and killed, often with impunity. If you embrace the current slut-shaming legal regime anyway, you’re complicit in these injuries and deaths.
The flip side of all this moralism is hypocrisy. Davis is still furious with Spitzer for his duplicity. She has every right to be enraged. She served jail time while he walked away free.
And yet, the gossip about Spitzer (if true) suggests that his misogyny may dwarf his hypocrisy. Another high-end escort, “Annie,” tells the New York Daily News that Spitzer tried to choke her during rough sex – without her consent:
“He wanted a scenario where I was supposed to say I had just been to a self-defense class. He was supposed to respond, ‘Let’s see if you learned anything. He would be aggressive. I would have to defend myself.
“When he arrived, he took off his jacket but kept on his shirt and tie. His demeanor was nice, but I don’t remember any kissing or tenderness. He wanted to get on with the role-play. It was the first time I’d done that.
“I remember holding his wrists and him pushing back. I felt he was gauging my strength. We moved to the bed. He put his clothes neatly to the side, folding his pants. Yes, he did leave his socks on.
“I was never fully undressed. He was naked. He was perspiring a lot. He was holding me down. He pinned me to the bed. That didn’t bother me. But when he grabbed my throat, that was too much. I remember trying to push myself up off the bed, which made him apply more pressure. I’ve never been worried about my safety, but I was really concerned.
“Finally, I pushed him away and got up. He hadn’t finished. But I’d had enough. I don’t think he was planning on really hurting me. He didn’t ask if I was all right. He didn’t appear to be mad, either. Maybe he had had so many experiences with other people that he could see I didn’t know what I was doing. As he was leaving, he gave me a tip.”
I realize this isn’t the most trustworthy source, but the allegation that Spitzer liked rough sex (without condoms) has surfaced repeatedly. That gives it some credibility.
And if it’s true, it suggests that Spitzer attempted sexual assault against this escort. Yes, she agreed to the role play. No, she didn’t agree to the choking. I understand that some people kink on consensual breath play; even then, I have qualms because it can end fatally. But that’s not what’s alleged here. Annie did not consent to being choked. Amanda Marcotte suggests Spitzer may be a sadist. I don’t think we can know that, though my gut feeling is that Marcotte is right.
If the allegations are true, however, we would know something that’s much more serious than a private proclivity for (consensual) sadism. If Annie is telling the truth, Spitzer is guilty of sexual assault because he did something that fell outside the consensual boundaries of the role play. He didn’t negotiate consent for choking. He brought real danger into the scenario. And Annie could have really gotten hurt. That’s why it’s bullshit to chalk up Spitzer’s behavior to plain ole boyish horniness, as Dan Savage does. Spitzer was not apparently interested in negotiating a BDSM scene. He wanted to make an end run around consent (and probably figured that the hourly rate was high enough to include that). Without a clear “yes” and clear boundaries, though, kink is not kink; it’s abuse.
Of course, there are noble men out in the world, working to protect prostitutes – like these gents in Oklahoma City. But oh – wait! The vigilantes who claim to be protecting the prostitute on this clip end up threatening to hunt her down, put her in jail, and have her children taken into protective custody. Some chivalry, huh?
I’ll admit that I winced, too, when I saw how her pimp seems to be doubling as babysitter. I agree that kids shouldn’t be accompanying any sex worker on the job. I don’t think it’s an appropriate profession for “take your daughter to work day.” I’d much prefer a world where no one’s daughter thought that sex work was her best option.
But this gal says – loudly if not proudly – that she’s doing the best she can for her kids. It’s a sad indictment of our society, not her morals, if prostitution is her least-bad option. I winced at this, too, but I believed her.
Emma Goldman forcefully argued that women assumed the risks of prostititution because their other options were often worse. In her day, the alternatives for urban girls were factory work, where they spent practically all their waking hours under semi-enslaved conditions in dirty, often dangerous condtions, or domestic service, which offered virtually no freedom and still sometimes exposed young women to the sexual depradations of their employers. The equivalent jobs today, I suppose, would involve double shifts of flipping burgers, often without anyone watching the kids.
If the moralists really cared about women, they’d stop choking them/prosecuting them. They’d cut out the vigilante act. And they’d press for decriminalization, which the sex-worker-rights organization COYOTE (Call off Your Old Tired Ethics) has demanded for close to 40 years. Then again, that was part of Goldman’s program a century ago. Goldman gets the final word, since her ideas are – unfortunately – as fresh as ever (my emphasis):
An educated public opinion, freed from the legal and moral hounding of the prostitute, can alone help to ameliorate present conditions. Wilful shutting of eyes and ignoring of the evil as a social factor of modern life, can but aggravate matters. We must rise above our foolish notions of “better than thou,” and learn to recognize in the prostitute a product of social conditions. Such a realization will sweep away the attitude of hypocrisy, and insure a greater understanding and more humane treatment. As to a thorough eradication of prostitution, nothing can accomplish that save a complete transvaluation of all accepted values especially the moral ones–coupled with the abolition of industrial slavery.
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