Toronto
3 min

Standing up for Spitzer

We are all Elliot Spitzer. Well, okay, we aren’t all a former governor of New York who once prosecuted prostitution rings while also availing himself of their services. But Spitzer’s downfall implicates all of us whose identities involve sex and sexuality because, in his magnificent fall from grace, he took sex with him.

His crime — in the eyes of the public — is that he paid for sex and that is still in fact a real live crime in the state of New York and many other jurisdictions. (In Canada it isn’t a crime to pay for sex, though it is a crime to communicate with a sex worker to arrange to pay for sex.)

Spitzer committed a crime. But not just any crime — a special kind of crime involving commercialized sex that crossed state lines (this is a particularly bad thing in the US, since then, it’s a federal crime).

And of course let’s not forget the adulterous part of the sex. He paid for sex and committed adultery at the same time. Adultery may no longer be a crime in the state of New York (although it is in many US states) but that doesn’t make it any less of a crime in the court of public opinion, where cheating on your wife is still seen as a big, bad scandal.

So why should we care? Why should we care about the fall of a self-righteous hypocrite who prosecuted others for what he did himself?

Because his fall gives sex a bad name. Because once again sex work is dragged down through the mud and a young woman who makes a living as a sex worker is dragged through the mud too. Because almost nowhere in this scandal did anyone argue that well, maybe, just maybe, sex work shouldn’t be illegal.

Throughout the scandal it was simply taken for granted that buying sex from a sex worker is an outrageous thing to do. What exactly is wrong with paying for sex? In Spitzer’s case, it’s true that he was committing a crime. But the question that should be asked is why is it still a crime?

In the past it has been about morals. Now, more often than not, it is said to be about protecting against the degradation and exploitation of women. If ever there was a case to suggest that maybe, just maybe, prostitution doesn’t always exploit vulnerable women, this might be the case. He was paying $5,500 an hour for the pleasure, after all. But the fact that he paid so much money becomes the brunt of endless jokes instead of an argument for why, sometimes, prostitution might not be such a bad gig.

That didn’t happen. Instead the Spitzer scandal just reinforced all the morality tales of powerful men playing with fire, where fire is equated with immoral sexual conduct. And that’s what it was really about: immorality.

Spitzer was bad. He had sex with a prostitute, he paid way too much for it and he cheated on this wife. Bad, bad, bad.

With all that bad sex, he might as well have been gay.

A New Jersey governor went down a few years ago for that one: having a gay affair with one of his employees. At least, though, he had the good sense not to self-righteously prosecute other gay people.

It’s hard to defend Spitzer. Just like it’s hard to defend Larry Craig, the most recent of the Republican homophobic hypocrites to get caught up in a gay sex scandal. It’s more fun to rail on about what hypocrites they are.

And yet every time one of these sex scandals plays out those of us whose identities remain so closely associated with sex and sexuality are implicated because, instead of improving the status of sex and sexuality, it once again just gets dragged down through the muck of immorality, shame and disgust. That doesn’t help the cause of gay folks or trans folks or kinky folks or sex workers or anyone whose identities and lives are closely associated with sex.

It would have been easier to defend him if he hadn’t prosecuted prostitution so self-righteously — or at all. Yet we need to try change the terms of the debate, to at least try to defend the sex, if not the man.