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Eliot Spitzer's Fall from Grace: Reflections from a Feminist Perspective


Tuesday, Mar. 18, 2008

Lately, the headlines have been dominated by New York Governor Eliot Spitzer's sudden fall from power. A few days after credible reports that Spitzer had patronized a high-end prostitution service emerged, Spitzer resigned. It is a story with something for everyone: the political pundits, the tabloids, and, last but not least, the feminists (including ourselves). What might feminists - who array themselves on a broad spectrum these days - say about this story?

The current highlights of the Spitzer scandal are these: Spitzer was caught following a $5500, one-hour encounter with a woman who worked for the Emperor's Club, a high-priced call girl operation. The woman had traveled from New York to D.C. to meet him at a hotel for the encounter. On a wiretapped call, she and her boss alluded to the fact that prior prostitutes whose services were used by Spitzer were concerned that he liked to do things that some may consider dangerous. Spitzer now appears to have been a longstanding customer of the Club, having spent perhaps tens of thousands of dollars on prostitutes.

After learning he had been caught, Spitzer gave a brief, teary press conference in which he apologized vaguely for his "failings." Throughout the humiliating statement, his beautiful, accomplished wife stood by his side, holding his hand. A few days later, again with his wife by his side, Spitzer resigned from his position as Governor of New York, after completing little more than a year of his four-year term.

The Details of the Anti-Prostitution Law Spitzer, Ironically, Had Signed

There are many ironies in the Spitzer scandal, but high on the list is his transformation from a leader in the movement to toughen and improve enforcement of prostitution laws, to just another John who made the mistake of soliciting prostitutes in a way that was reckless enough for him eventually to get caught.

The irony is obvious, given that just months into his first year as Governor of New York, Eliot Spitzer signed into law one of the nation's toughest prostitution and sex trafficking laws. This is more than just an irony, though; it's also a betrayal of the women's rights advocates who had worked hard for the same cause and who once called Spitzer "our hero".

The law, NY Senate Bill 5902, attacks the sex trade on different fronts: as prostitution, as sex tourism, and as human trafficking. On the prostitution front, the law draws at least loosely from the Swedish model, which uses demand-side tactics to reduce prostitution. In 1999, Sweden decriminalized selling sex, but not buying it. The law treats prostitutes as victims, and the men who solicit their services as criminals. That law, according to the Associated Press, has been invoked against at least a handful of Swedish judges. Observers disagree about the effect of Sweden's law, but some claim that it has reduced the level of prostitution significantly.

New York's law does not go as far as Sweden's in its focus on the demand side of prostitution. It does, however, enhance penalties for patronizing prostitutes - raising the maximum jail sentence from 3 months to one year - without any corresponding increase in the penalty for selling sex.

The New York law also, and importantly, targets sex trafficking and sex tourism. While there are federal laws prohibiting human trafficking, they are widely perceived as too narrow and under-enforced. New York's law, which imposes a penalty of 3-25 years in prison for sex trafficking, purports to be the strongest in the nation. A person is guilty of "sex trafficking" when he or she coerces someone into prostitution through force, threats, drugs, or false promises of other jobs. In addition to tougher criminal penalties, the law also makes social services available to victims of sex trafficking.

Sex tourism - travel abroad that includes paid sex - has been notoriously hard to prosecute. New York's 2007 law, however, specifically criminalizes the sale of travel-related services in New York that facilitate "sex tourism" abroad. In yet another irony, this language was added to the bill at Spitzer's insistence.

Spitzer also focused on prostitution as New York's attorney general. Notably, he oversaw the prosecution of two prostitution rings, cases he described with disgust. The apparent revulsion to prostitution makes the disclosures of his misconduct all the more disturbing to feminists and others.

Reuniting Feminists: A Convergence of Disgust Bridges Differences Between the Second and Third Wave?

Though the term "feminist" is used broadly to describe anyone who advocates for the rights of women, there are many divergent strands of feminists, and perhaps more points of disagreement than agreement. Let's focus, for a moment, on just one aspect of the spectrum: the differentiation between "second-wave" and "third-wave" feminists.

Second-wave feminism is identified with the movements in the 1960s and 1970s, which sought legal and social change targeted toward a common end: the eradication of sex-based stereotypes, and the liberation of women from mandatory assignment to traditional, subordinate roles in society. Reproductive rights and workplace equality were among the focal points for second-wave feminism, but many advocates in this generation also urged that pornography and prostitution were perpetuating the subordination of women. Second-wave feminists, like advocacy groups for women involved in prostitution, disagreed over whether, on one hand, prostitution was inherently an exploitative occupation to which no woman would rationally consent or, on the other hand, women's choice to engage in "sex work" should be respected and law and policy should make the work safer and less risky.

Third-wave feminism began in the 1990s and has included a critique of second-wave feminism as too essentialist and overly reliant on the power of identity categories such as "gender" and "race." An important strand of third-wave feminism, however, is a "sex-positive" stance - urging that women's sexuality is an important, positive aspect of life and one worthy of celebration. Sex-positive feminists are much more suspicious of the anti-pornography and anti-sex-work claims made by their second-wave predecessors. (Here, third wavers echo the earlier, so-called "sex wars" among second wave feminists over women as independent agents or as victims.)

Feminists from different waves are not always at each other's throats, but there have been flashpoints this year. The most notable one is the Obama-Clinton race for the Democratic Presidential nomination. Second-wavers are more likely to support Clinton - and, even to suggest that not doing so is anti-feminist. Older feminists tend see the opportunity to put a woman in the White House as one that simply cannot be passed up, a symbolic retort to the decades of oppression and subordination they have fought.

Younger feminists, however, tend to reject this notion of identity categories - that you should support someone simply because she's a woman - and want to look beyond them. They are able to reject the categories in part, however, because they did not live through the times when the oppression of women was categorical. Women who came of age in the 1980s and 1990s have, by and large, experienced a world in which boys and girls are treated more or less equally. And they have yet to confront the biggest obstacles to equality - those that arise from the biological and social differences attached to pregnancy and child-rearing. Third-wavers are thus not moved by second-wavers' constant refrain about the subordination of women.

How might the Spitzer scandal unite these two roughly-demarcated groups of feminists? Watching a powerful, liberal leader fall from grace over a desperate search for illicit sex - and watching his accomplished, yet humiliated wife stand by his side while he admits his "failings" - has served as a wake-up call for some who were ready to declare the gender wars over. Everyone who watched this story unfold over the course of a week had to be stricken by what the New York Times described as "the spectacle of yet another male politician admitting he had betrayed his wife, while she stood clubbed beside him - and male commentators talked about his patronizing of prostitutes as a 'victimless crime.'"

Is it really some kind of identity-less coincidence that this same story plays itself over on repeat? Or were those second-wavers onto something when they sought to raise women's consciousness about the reality of their gendered lives?

Power Couples vs. Husbands As Heroes

Some feminists might be disheartened at what the Spitzer scandal reveals about the possibility of egalitarian marriage, or peer marriage. (We considered the plight of "Desperate Feminist Wives" in a prior column.)

Presumably, those third-wave feminists who view heterosexual marriage as part of their life plan envision a marriage free of the sort of gender subordination of earlier generations; in short, they assume they will be able to have a peer, or egalitarian, marriage. Last year, the new magazine 02138, featured Eliot and Silda Wall Spitzer on the cover of its "Power Couples: See What Happens When Harvard Meets Harvard" story. Love between equals can work, and even be fun and sexy, the story and accompanying photos seemed to announce.

But last week, a different formula for happy marriage was offered by none other than Dr. Laura Schlessinger, who, to the astonishment of her host on the NBC Today Show, laid the problem of Governor Spitzer's cheating - and of men's cheating, in general - at the door of Silda Wall Spitzer and any other wife who failed to make her husband feel "like a man, . . . like a success, . . .like her hero," so that he was "very susceptible to the charm of some other woman." Schlessinger purported to hold women "accountable" for not giving "perfectly good men" the love, kindness, respect, and attention they need, charging that "these days, women don't spend a lot of time thinking about how they can give their men what they need…." (Dr. Laura's diagnosis seems particularly inapt given that Silda Wall Spitzer had actually put her own career to the side to help her husband's political career.)

When, then, makes for marital happiness? What do men need? In an earlier book, The Proper Care and Feeding of Husbands, Dr. Laura advises wives to reinforce men as head of the household, to resist the lure of feminist ideology about equality, and to celebrate difference. Adoration of and deference to a husband will yield a wife far more power than direct challenge. Equality is a turn-off. Inequality is sexy.

How about the inequality inherent in the prostitute-client exchange? That the Spitzer scandal was primarily about marital failure, and thus a cautionary tale to wives, was a message delivered in less directly offensive form on various television shows about "why men cheat." Relationship experts gave advice to wives on steps to take to keep their marriages "sexy" and keep men from straying. This therapeutic model of marriage resonates with current federal public policy to fund efforts to promote "healthy marriage." Marital success, on this view, depends upon a basic set of skills that can be learned; marital failure lies in the dynamics of the marriage, not with the individual spouse. A man's having sex with prostitutes is read as a joint, therapeutic problem, an approach reinforced by Spitzer's resignation speech, emphasizing his need to focus on healing himself and his family.

On the Public, the Private . . . and Brain Chemistry

Let's put aside, for a moment, the argument that the scandal reflects some underlying problem of marital failure. What other issues are being obscured by that singular focus? We believe that the focus on the family, in this context, seems to miss the broader issues of political failure and sexual exploitation: This sex scandal was all the more painful in light of Governor Spitzer's zealous work to combat prostitution as not a victimless crime but a dangerous occupation. He obviously did not believe it was okay for men in general to solicit prostitutes, and, indeed, that such behavior was so wrong and harmful, that harsh government intervention was warranted. Why is he able now to publicly claim this is a "private matter"?

If women who identify with Silda Wall Spitzer see in this scandal a painful and troubling blow to the ideal of peer marriage, then the women and men who are aggressively fighting sex trafficking may feel another sort of betrayal. They may see in the scandal the betrayal of a commitment to end sexual exploitation of women - a betrayal that a therapeutic reading of the scandal, one confined to the Spitzer family alone, simply misses.

On one hand, the real woman behind the name "Kristen" seemed to be empowered enough to have a page on MySpace where she published music lyrics and wrote of her ambitions for a music career. On the other hand, some of the pieces from her biography - leaving a "broken home" at 17, having been abused, and having used drugs and been "broke and homeless" -- seemed to lend support to the argument that prostitution is not a victimless crime because the life circumstances of women engaged in prostitution raise questions about genuine consent to this form of employment.

In fact, the statistics about prostitutes are pretty staggering: Prostitutes often enter the business in their early teens, suffer sexual abuse, drug dependency or mental illness at very high rates, have attempted suicide, have been physically threatened, and face the highest occupational mortality rate in this country. Having spearheaded the legislation, Spitzer must have been aware of the damning statistics. Yet he still went ahead and became a client.

Another feminist reaction may be to invite attention to the issue of sexual risk-taking and how gender bears on that risk. Perhaps ironically, the Spitzer scandal shared the front page of newspapers with a report from the CDC that one out of every 4 teenage girls age 14-19 were infected with at least one sexually transmitted disease. Commentators on the report have observed that sexual risk-taking stems in part from teens' failure to make sound assessment of risk and long term consequences of their behavior.

What might explain Governor Spitzer's sexual risk-taking? The wiretap transcript suggests that Spitzer may have had "dangerous" sexual preferences, but the more certain recklessness was to engage in sexual acts that he knew to violate the law (including at least one law he had personally signed). This scandal raises the perennial question about why male politicians engage in career-threatening (if not career-ending) reckless sexual behavior. Does the male brain hold the answer?

Just in time, Newsweek has published an article, "His Cheating Brain," which asserts that brain chemistry, evolution, and testosterone might explain why powerful men "risk everything for sex." Experts opine that Governor Spitzer may be a "sensation seeker," who thrills at breaking the rules, or simply an "alpha male," who loves risk, aggressiveness, and competitiveness, and has a strong need to win - skills, they say, basic to political success. Let's assume we should credence these appeals to brain science. What inferences, if any, may we draw about political leadership? Is it possible to have male leaders without these characteristics?

The Broader Question the Spitzer Scandal Raises: Can Equality Be Sexy?

Prosecutors are now weighing whether to bring charges against Spitzer for possible violations of local prostitution laws, the federal Mann Act (a 1910 law that prohibits transporting a woman across state lines for immoral purposes), or even money "structuring" laws. The public still craves more information about the personal aspect of this dramatic story: Will Silda leave him? But there's one aspect of the scandal that we think deserves more attention than it has gotten - which is what it says, more broadly, about the future of equality.

Can equality be sexy? Nietzsche once stated that man was the warrior, and woman, the entertainment of the warrior. Would he have said the same of today's male politician? We agree with Dr. Laura that the issue is accountability, but certainly not of the sort she identifies. Rather than pointing the finger at wives in purportedly egalitarian marriages for driving their husbands away, why not ask that politicians, whatever their brain chemistry or gender, live up to their simple responsibility of earning and deserving public trust?

Joanna Grossman, a FindLaw columnist, is a professor of law at Hofstra University. Her columns on family law, trusts and estates, and discrimination, including sex discrimination and sexual harassment, may be found in the archive of her columns on this site. Linda McClain, who has been a prior guest columnist for FindLaw, is Professor of Law and Paul M. Siskind Research Scholar at Boston University. She discusses egalitarian marriage and other family law issues in The Place of Families: Fostering Capacity, Equality, and Responsibility (Harvard University Press, 2006).

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