Just days after jumping into the race for New York City comptroller, Eliot Spitzer was interviewed by Susan Arbetter, who asked him: “You solicited prostitution. Does your candidacy send a positive message to women who no longer want to be seen as objects?”
Although provocative, the question assumes an attitude about sex work as inherently degrading to women. The theme has been repeated by Spitzer’s opponent, Scott Stringer, and his supporters, as well as by the National Organization for Women.
Public advocate candidate Reshma Saujani has even started a campaign called “Up to Us” to oppose candidates like Spitzer and Weiner, claiming, “It’s up to us to stand up to the misogyny and change the conversation so women are empowered.”
But whom exactly did Mr. Spitzer victimize with his male privilege?
Ashley Dupré, a woman he slept with once, was paid handsomely for their liaison and now owns a boutique in New Jersey where she lives with her fiancé and child. According to the documentary Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer, Spitzer’s preferred sex partner, “Angelina,” is now a commodities trader and says that her colleagues at the Emperor’s Club VIP were well paid and willing. And Kristin Davis, the “Manhattan Madam” whose connection to Spitzer remains unsubstantiated, worked on Wall Street before providing escorts and is a supporter of legalizing prostitution. Although it’s undeniable that Spitzer caused great personal injury to his family, particularly his wife, it’s hard to claim the same about the women he paid for sex. These are not victims of human trafficking; these are fully empowered and well compensated women who made a socially unpopular choice.
Essentially, the “Spitzer as antiwoman” argument is an argument against prostitution, which plays into the stigmatization of women who do sex work. The situation is not unlike the never-ending debate about women who work outside the home versus those who do not. After winning key victories for women’s equality in the 1970s, the feminist movement shifted away from its previous stance that all housework is oppression and instead turned to a rhetoric of respect and tolerance for women who choose not to work outside the home. It was a defining moment whereby a movement born of Betty Friedan’s desire for liberation from bourgeois boredom had earned the freedom for women to stay home if they wished. NOW’s accusation that Spitzer and Weiner “mistreat women” and view them as “objects” ignores the fact that their sex partners were willing playmates (with the notable exception of the college-age woman to whom Weiner sent unsolicited photos), just as similar accusations decades earlier invalidated the choices of women who stayed home.
Not all women agree, of course. Although she’s supporting Stringer, feminist icon Gloria Steinem told The Wall Street Journal that she doesn’t personally view Spitzer’s actions as a disqualifying factor to his candidacy, describing them instead as “self-destructive” rather than harmful to others. Likewise, polling consistently shows Spitzer’s support among men and women to be nearly identical. Neither an Aug. 9 New York Times/ Siena College poll nor an Aug. 14 Quinnipiac poll showed any gender gap at all.
Yet when Lena Dunham, the star and creator of HBO’s hit show Girls, endorsed Scott Stringer, she strongly suggested that Mr. Spitzer was an unsuitable candidate for women, citing the need for “someone with a record of respecting women and the issues that matter to them.”
At root, feminism is about ensuring economic, political and social equality for women. There are plenty of valid reasons not to vote for Spitzer, but his record on women is a weak point of criticism. The employment discrimination cases he pursued as attorney general, the legislation and policies to increase penalties for human trafficking and protect reproductive rights that he implemented as governor, and his history of hiring women for senior positions are a better indication of his views on gender equality than the scandal that eclipsed his career.
Frankly, the more relevant debate about prostitution in the comptroller’s race would be whether to legalize, regulate and tax it to create a new revenue stream for New York City, as in Amsterdam or Nevada. However, while the political establishment may be uncomfortable acknowledging sex work and talking about sex, the women whom Spitzer engaged and the broader industry of high-end escorts are not. It seems particularly patronizing to attack Spitzer on their behalf.
Alexis Grenell (@agrenell on Twitter) is a Democratic communications strategist based in New York. She handles nonprofit and political clients.
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