Sunday, March 16, 2008

Prostitution, Privilege, and Spitzer's Folly

I'm actually spring cleaning and starting tomato seeds this weekend, but in the midst of all this wholesome activity, my thoughts keep circling around the Eliot Spitzer scandal. Why did he do it? Why does any man patronize prostitutes, especially when he could easily have sex with any number of willing women for free? A few days ago, I ruminated on the ethical problems of buying sex. Since the Spitzer scandal broke, I've been wondering how the motives for doing it are tangled up with gender and power.

I'll admit we'll never truly know another person's motivations. We'll never know what drove Spitzer to book repeated rendezvous with "Kristen" and presumably others, too. (This post is not about Kristen, but since I'm as interested in the prurient details as anyone, here's her MySpace music page. Turns out she may be making more off her music in the wake of the scandal than she earned entertaining clients.)

Anyone who buys sex from another person can do so only because they're coming from a position of relative power and privilege. If we question why it's "normal" for men but not women to buy sex in our culture, I don't think we need to look much further than male privilege and masculine sexual entitlement. Those relatively few examples of women buying sex also reflect privilege. Last fall there were reports of growing sex tourism in Kenya, with rich white women purchasing the services of young African men, though this has likely diminished due to the post-election violence.

At least some of the johns must be getting off on the power itself. It seems to me that Spitzer's apparent predilection for going bareback might fall in that category. Yeah, I'm sure it does feel better without a condom, but he's being heedless of his own health, not just the sex worker's, so you'd think he'd want to play by the rules. But maybe setting his own rules is the whole point of hiring a woman.

On a less speculative note, Pajamas Media carried an article a few days ago by a pseudonymous former booker for an escort service. She's worth quoting at length:
But why would a rich, powerful and handsome man pay for extra-marital sex? Aren’t there tons of women waiting to throw themselves at him for free? Yes, there are. But those women always want something: they want attention, intimacy and romance. They want to enjoy the high of sleeping with a powerful man. Escorts don’t want or care about any of those things. ...

One high-powered New York attorney explained it to me like this: “Of course I love my wife. Escorts have nothing to do with that. She comes to my hotel room and I don’t have to know her name, because they all use fake names like Amber and Kimberly. I don’t have to worry about how she feels or what she wants. It’s a simple exchange: I give her a thousand bucks, we have a good time for a couple of hours, she goes away and we never have to see each other again.”

... And if you are about to say that for a thousand bucks those girls must supply the best sex in history, then you really do not understand this world. Because it is not about sex; it is about power. And the simple act of ordering up an anonymously pretty 22 year-old girl to do your bidding in the salubrious confines of a luxury hotel suite is an act of power.
("Ruth Henderson," on Pajamas Media, via the Huffington Post)
To my mind, the really telling comment is the attorney saying: "I don’t have to worry about how she feels or what she wants." Plenty of pundits have commented in the past few days that what guys want from an escort is no-strings-attached sex, but this goes further than that. This is sex that's all about the man's pleasure - where the woman is really just reduced to an object of his pleasure.

This isn't always the case. Journalist Susannah Breslin has started a fascinating project of compiling "Letters from Johns." These letters reveal a more nuanced picture. One of her correspondents writes that giving pleasure is a big part of what turns him on:
The thing is, I like going down on women. I like it a lot. The last time I made a visit, I chose this tall, thin brunette with nipple piercings topping her small breasts and a few tasteful tattoos adorning her lean frame. Her eyes smiled as she was introduced to me, and more than anything else that's why I picked her. I went down on her for a full half hour, and after she came (or expertly faked it) she panted that this didn't happen often to her.
His story makes me curious about how many customers engage in foreplay, and how many expect the woman to be ready for intercourse at the drop of a hat - or other garments. Still, I can't help but think clients like this are the exception, not the rule, based on the content of the other letters.

The johns who wrote Breslin commonly remark on the thrill they got from selecting "their" girl. They get off on being able to choose anyone, knowing she won't say no unless they don't have enough cash in their pocket. At least two of them mention that they're aware of their privilege and the exploitation of the women, but they vary in their response to uncomfortable facts. One young man who traveled to Colombia with a group of buddies for an elaborate, coke-fueled bachelor party says:
We discovered that all the girls had admitted that they where mothers and that they lived in the brothel while making money to support their kids who I imagined lived somewhere else. I can't speak for the rest, but the guilt of my total lack of self-control on the trip hits me in the gut every time I think of it. I know I can't change the economic situation for these girls, but I'm morally disgusted by how much I enjoyed sex with the most sensual women I've ever met while at the same time she has no choice in the matter.
But another man who'd been a sex tourist in Thailand expressed no remorse. This is another guy who mentions that he likes to perform cunnilingus, though he'd only done it once with a prostitute. He says he likes to give as much as he gets, so he's not a power freak. But he's blind to the likelihood that his "Czech beauty" in Amsterdam was probably trafficked. To the extent that he does recognize his own complicity, he's remarkably able to reconcile it with a clear conscience:
One can try to hang a sign on us, the collective john, as perpetuating the global conspiracy of sex/slave traffic, and I'll grant that my Thailand trip may have/probably did contribute to some sort of thuggery. But in the end, I am ashamed of nothing I have done.
This is raw privilege speaking. White privilege. Male privilege. First-world privilege.

I'm not suggesting that privilege and power are the main motives for all men, though they're enabling factors in virtually every case. Breslin's Newsweek article on Spitzer's folly paints a fairly sympathetic portrait of johns and their reasons for buying sex. She says some get turned on simply by the fact of paying for it. Others get off on its illegality; she suspects Spitzer falls into this group. Many are sex-starved and lonely:
In many cases, like Spitzer, they're married. Many report they are in relationships with women who are no longer interested in sex. ...

Often these guys aren't just looking for sex. Many are depressed or stressed, lonely or bored, looking for intimacy or a connection, no matter how transient, no matter the cost. One john who was rejected on a regular basis in the dating scene wrote that, in contrast to the women he met at bars, prostitutes saw him as "a normal and charming guy."
I'm not at all unsympathetic to lonely people. But the fact remains that lonely women don't normally have the same recourse. Even if a woman did hire a male escort, it's be more stigmatized because people would assume she must be a real dog if she can't even give it away.

I'm also not unsympathetic to married people who aren't getting any. In an ideal world, people would communicate - and even confront each other - when their marriage suffered bed death. I'm not so naive to think that this will always result in revived passion. I suspect, though, that an awful lot of people just accept the situation without fighting hard to change it. I also wonder how many of these men whose wives lose interest have really focused on her pleasure and not just on their own - given the existence of guys like the attorney quoted above, willing to pay for sex that's all about them, where they don't have to worry about their partner's pleasure.

But even assuming that a man (or woman!) has tried, and tried, and finally failed to revive a sex life with their spouse - and assuming further that they're otherwise reasonably compatible - and that divorce would be hideous (especially if there are children involved) - I still don't get why one's first recourse would be to go out and pay for sex.

Figleaf points out the array of legal, free options for married people looking for an affair, a friend with benefits, or just a brief fling. (He's not endorsing them, just noting them.) There are online and offline dating services that specialize in setting up discreet matches, sex-oriented community centers (well, he's in Seattle, not southeast Ohio!), and even sex clubs. Figleaf writes:
The point being, one again, not so much that (prosecutorial hypocrisy notwithstanding) Eliot Spitzer shouldn't have hired escorts. It's that even he probably really didn't *need* to. And I bring this up because there's so much fuss about prostitution on the one hand, and yet so little effort to develop frameworks more sophisticated... and less covert... and more egalitarian... when it's already surprisingly legal.
Well, what did Spitzer get out of the deal by paying for it? One reason I've often heard cited is discretion, but that's a crock. Yeah, you're paying for the woman to disappear at the end of the evening. That's only good until you get caught - and as call girl Tracy Quan writes in the New York Times (free registration required), the sort of Internet agency Spitzer patronized is at high risk of being busted. If he'd had an affair with someone like himself - married, smart, high-profile - she'd have kept mum for free, and eventual discovery wouldn't have cost him his career.

I wonder if the real value-added for men with other options is that they get to pick and pay for a woman who might otherwise be "out of their league." "Ruth Henderson," the pseudonymous booker I quoted above, says that youth is at a great premium:
And then one day, usually between the ages of 25 and 28, once [the girls] developed that knowing, experienced look that clients instinctively disliked, they found that themselves in a classic bind: they were addicted to high living but could no longer pay for it; they had no marketable skills; and years of late nights and lazy days had left them with no self-discipline. ...

So the value of the escorts declined rapidly as they aged. Meanwhile, the value of the clients increased because they accumulated more money and more power. ...
Breslin's letter-writers also frequently mention youth and beauty as the main allure of the prostitutes they patronized. The ability to acquire beauty by the hour, for a price, is again the spawn of privilege.

But I have to wonder if this fixation on extreme youth - which you also see in men's personal ads (online and elsewhere), in porn, even in the Clinton-Lewinsky saga - is in many ways a futile attempt to fight their own aging, their own mortality. If so, that's even sadder than the loneliness that Breslin says drives many men - although maybe the fear of mortality is also a fear of existential aloneness. And that's where privilege ceases to matter, where no one is exempt.

I could end on that somber note, but instead, since I'm sure you were wondering what your own value might be in the sex-for-pay marketplace, here's a silly quiz that purports to tell you. I'm skeptical, partly because there's no over-40 category, partly because their average per-hour figure has some sort of bug, but mostly because I can't quite imagine that the average client would pay more for me than the $1000 per hour that "Kristen" allegedly got - no matter how lonely, horny, or mortality-stricken they might be.

bedroom toys

Privileged kitteh captioned by me at I Can Has Cheezburger?


Smirking Cat said...

I'm not surprised that men who dislike having to worry about someone else's feelings or wants, end up paying for sex. Women being treated as things makes me unbelievably angry, so there is no excuse good enough for me.

Sungold said...

Yeah, I think this is one subcategory of clients. But the selfish jerks aren't representative of all of them. I tried hard to avoid cherry-picking the evidence, even though I have a general beef with privilege and part of me would like to say, well, they're all just cads. But it's not that simple. While some men seem to view sex workers in highly objectified terms, others have a more nuanced view.

What I found so fascinating about Breslin's work is the variety. I recommend following the links to her stuff. The men who write her are highly articulate - maybe they're a self-selected bunch, maybe she's polished their letters before posting them. For me they offer a glimpse into a world I'll never enter. If she hadn't just recently started her project, I'd probably still be reading those letters.