Judging by the frequency with which the epithet has been tossed around since Sunday afternoon, it is apparent that, in the collective imagination of the New York City press corps, Eliot Spitzer remains “disgraced.”
I certainly don’t disagree with this appraisal, but I do have a quibble: If and when the details of Spitzer’s disgrace are adumbrated, the focus seems to fall on his having used prostitutes and not on his having betrayed his wife. To my eyes, this reveals a spectacular misalignment of priorities. What Spitzer did wrong — morally, at least — was to cheat on a woman to whom he had promised his loyalty, his life, and his love. Except insofar as it was a violation of the law, it matters little that he forsook Mrs. Spitzer with a “high-class” prostitute who charged him $1,000 a go. A liaison with the girl next door would have had the same effect.
As a matter of general principle, the proscription of prostitution — and our insistence on maintaining laws to that effect — continues to be a mystery to me. Sex remains one of the few things that a free person may give away gratis but which he is forbidden from selling. It is perfectly legal to sleep around in the United States — subsidized and panegyrized, even — and, as the growing parade of octogenarian billionaires’ wives demonstrates, it is both permissible and socially acceptable to sleep with someone in pursuit of regular material comfort. Yet it is strictly felonious to have sex with someone else in direct exchange for cash.
At least that is illegal unless you film and distribute yourself doing it
, in which case it is not only legal but profitable too. It is logic of this questionable quality that has led to the perverse state of affairs in which, under English law, prostitution itself is not a crime, but “soliciting” a prostitute or living off earnings gained through prostitution are. While the laws surrounding the issue remain such a dizzy and irrational mess, drawing a clear moral line through the morass remains nigh on impossible.
Nevertheless, people try vigorously. To broach this topic in polite company is to invite someone, invariably under the mistaken impression that this constitutes a hammer blow, witlessly to parrot the banal old line that “nobody grows up wanting to be a prostitute.” At best, this is a red herring. Certainly, few people grow up wishing to be prostitutes. But there are an awful lot of careers that escape the dreams of children. Many vegetarians mature with no intention whatsoever of becoming butchers and Christians rarely spend their childhoods wishing devoutly for a vocation as an imam. The material question here is not whether one could foresee oneself ending up in an undesirable line of work, but whether or not that line of work is so undesirable that it should be prohibited by law.
On this, I am with Cornell’s Sherry F. Colb, who has argued for legalization on the following grounds:
Prostitutes are not committing an inherently harmful act. While the spread of disease and other detriments are possible in the practice of prostitution, criminalization is a sure way of exacerbating rather than addressing such effects. We saw this quite clearly in the time of alcohol prohibition in this country.
It is no accident that prostitution, which was almost uniformly legal in the United States from the period of colonization up until the start of the 20th century, was banned in almost every state within the same five-year period during which the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union managed to convince the nation that alcohol should be constitutionally outlawed.