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Thursday, March 13, 2008

Is This a "Free" Agent?

Orly wrote a typically interesting and provocative post about the Spitzer saga yesterday, arguing (as I understand it) that at least some forms of prostitution, namely those involving the possibility of "rational choice" and the relative unlikelihood of "abusive gender exploitation," should be legal.  In the course of making her argument, she wrote, in part:

Yes, [the Spitzer case involves] prostitution, but, I argue, not the kind that feminists should be particularly concerned with. Many of these girls are probably confident, educated, empowered college or graduate students with all sorts of goals in life, who, exercising their agency, prefer making $5000 (or even $2000, after the company takes its share) an hour sleeping with some of the world’s most powerful politicians and business men than waiting tables, washing dishes, or working at Wal-Mart for $8 an hour.

Similarly, in a comment on an earlier post, our frequent correspondent Paul Gowder wrote: "I'm given to understand the prostitute was expensive, so this probably isn't a particularly exploitative relationship, as prostitution relationships go..."

I'm wondering what this story, revealing the name and describing at least some of the background of what purports to be the fateful (and fatal) prostitute in question, does to Orly and Paul's arguments.  It notes in part that the woman "left 'a broken family' at age 17, having been abused, according to [her] MySpace page, and has used drugs and 'been broke and homeless.'"  And it says  she is "worried about how she would pay her rent since the man she was living with 'walked out on me' after she discovered he had fathered two children."

A few initial comments:

1)  First, I cannot say for certain that her statements concerning her background or current status are true.  People have been dishonest before . . . even on their MySpace pages.  But of course, her statements could easily be true; she would hardly be the first woman to have encountered family conflict, drugs, homelessness, and male faithlessness.

2)  If her statements are true, is this really the kind of "confident," "empowered" person who is fully capable of exercising the kinds of rational choice and free agency Orly is talking about?  The kind of woman with whom feminists need not be "particularly concerned?"

3)  If question #2 is a reasonable one, then is it possible that we should not rush to assume that "high-priced call girls," or whatever other cliched phrase we want to use, are some breed apart from those kinds of prostitutes that we think of as lacking genuine choices and agency and needing legal protection?  Isn't it possible that even successful prostitutes don't always have, or see themselves as having, viable options and alternatives?  Does the fact that one is making money (at least in gross, although perhaps not in net), that one chooses prostitution over a job at Wal-Mart, necessarily mean that this is a free and rational choice?

4) I don't mean to be too heavy-handed about questions #2 and #3.  It seems to me they cut both ways.  We generally assume that lots of people possess sufficient human agency to be responsible for their decisions, even if they make bad ones or don't have especially attractive choices.  Most of us -- Barbara Ehrenreich devotees aside -- would treat a person in a low-end or unpleasant job as having at least some agency; indeed, to do otherwise might be tantamount to stripping them of basic respect and recognition.  Why does that necessarily change if the occupation is switched to that of low-end "sex worker?"  Do we assume that unless a sex worker is a "high-end" prostitute, she necessarily  or presumptively doesn't have free agency compared to, say, someone who instead chooses to work at Wal-Mart?  Why are our assumptions radically different?  Should we be more willing to concede agency to low-end prostitutes, and not just "high-end call girls" -- or less willing to treat low-wage workers as having real agency or viable choices of their own?  Can we at least start seeing the "high-end"/"low-end" prostitution distinction as being part of a spectrum rather than a simple dichotomy?

Truly, I don't mean to be too heavy-handed about any of this.  My comments are indeed "initial" ones, and as I have suggested, some of these thoughts cut in different directions.  But two things, finally, strike me when I contrast Orly and Paul's earlier comments with the more sordid and sad details painted in Thursday morning's story in The Times.  First, that we seem to be willing to be more blase about prostitution only once we have scrubbed it through some kind of idealized, glamorized, fictionalized, upper-crust fantasy machine, through which it emerges guilt-free and shorn of any "particular feminist concerns."  And second, that the real-life facts are, inevitably, more complicated -- in every direction.       

Posted by Paul Horwitz on March 13, 2008 at 12:09 AM in Current Affairs | Permalink


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Just a couple of comments.

In reality, no lawyer can take a prostitute to a professional reception of any kind. While lawyers are not required to mate with other lawyers (in practice it is sometimes necessary), lawyers are expected to have spouses that are of the same class – and people will seek to verify it. For instance, a lawyer can have a doctor has a spouse, but people will ask what kind of doctor they are, and where they practice. The doctor will be expected to answer specific questions. (I consider myself very open-minded, but when I meet a new person I do judge them, and yes, I will probably Google them.)

I seriously doubt that there really are many educated prostitutes in the business. True, some might be intelligent, but the highest level of education seems to be college dropout. (There was one law school prostitute recently, but I think that is an exception to the rule.)

I tend to think that addition is something that is a matter of “free choice.” People choose lifestyles which include addition. (Not all additions are socially unacceptable. As lawyers, we pretty much choose to be addicted to whatever it is we do.)

Finally, I really wish people would shut up about Spitzer and his wife. We don’t know anything about their relationship. There is no indication that he abused his wife. We don’t know if she approved, disapproved, or didn’t know or care about his activities. Unless we are going to start auditing EVERYONE’s marriage, it isn’t our business to condemn Spitzer or his wife for putting on a brave public face, together.

But, if we ARE going to start auditing peoples’ marriages, I don’t think people will like the results. All spouses will be expected to make each other happy. All the time. (Heck, even military service, while honorable, will result in one spouse being unhappy.) Any temptation that one spouse has to see a prostitute or do something not within the strict confines of the marriage will be judged against the out spouse. So, the next time someone starts saying that Spitzer is harmed his family, ask yourself, “Does everyone you know have a marriage that would stand up to a rigorous audit?”

Posted by: S.cotus | Mar 13, 2008 11:32:40 AM

I think you're right about us being less judgmental about high-class prostitution. It seems that the Emperor's Club was rather hip to some of those moral judgments. One of the news sites (can't remember which) had screen captures from the ring's website, and each woman's profile said that they were independently successful--the "they don't actually need to do this" approach. I think that the ring was signaling to people like Spitzer, who are surely capable of some fine moral distinguishing, that they wouldn't have to worry about the agency problems being discussed: If these women (pick one: have/are getting graduate degrees, are successful businesswomen, are successful models/entertainers) then they must be the type of people who have many options, and are thus exercising their own free will to choose this one.

It also turns out the ring wasn't being truthful. The NYTimes reported a short telephone exchange with the prostitute's mother, who let on that she did not finish high school. So, in this particular case, it looks like (though I do not conclude) this prostitute may not have had the options we associate with a freer agency in the sex-work industry. Despite what we may think--or romanticize--it to be to allay our concerns about agency in this context, what distinguishes the high-class prostitution business from lower end forms may just be better PR.

Posted by: Adam Richardson | Mar 13, 2008 11:20:02 AM

It's all good. Since I'm posting too this week, feel free to do the same to me.

Posted by: Joseph Slater | Mar 13, 2008 11:11:52 AM

Mea culpa, Joseph. I do think Nickel and Dimed has its problems, but I could have forgone the cheap remark without losing anything. Thanks for keeping me on the straight and narrow.

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | Mar 13, 2008 10:37:08 AM

Good post, but is there some irony in disclaiming being heavy-handed and then accusing "Barbara Ehrenreich devotees" of believing that low wage workers do not have any agency at all? That's not what I get out of B.E.'s works.

Posted by: Joseph Slater | Mar 13, 2008 10:34:22 AM

Thank you, paul, for making the same kind of comments I did to Orly's post, which S.Cotus naturally (perhaps inevitably) responded to, and then misunderstood.

I stated that Orly did not know whether "Kristen," who has now been the subject of a NYT article disclosing her name and Myspace account, came from an abusive family or was addicted to drugs. S.Cotus took that to mean that I thought negatively of her. S.Cotus is not a person I tend to agree with on many issues. I meant to imply that addiction, being difficult to break particularly when financial consequences can be staved off, operates to diminish free choice. I meant to imply that most women who enter sex work either have substance abuse problems, an abusive partner, or have a history of abuse or exploitation, whether sexual or otherwise. Why else would people choose to do that kind of work? Free choice? Such a thought makes a mockery of armchair economics. Sex work is not fun for most people involved in it. That's why they call it work.

S.Cotus' point about the intersection of class and gender, on the other hand, is agreed with, and implicit in my questions: Why isn't this the sort of person that a feminist can be quite concerned with, no matter how much money she allegedly takes home?

I note, in closing and in passing, that this was not a case of a powerful female chief executive, with a history of decades of extramarital and inappropriate behavior, who was paying for the services of a 22-year old male. If flipping the genders throughout the story changes it materially in one's head, then there may be some equality issues - which are in my mind the signifier of a potential issue for feminism to consider.

Posted by: Eh Nonymous | Mar 13, 2008 8:09:50 AM

I enjoyed this post very much as well. For me, what the post brought to light is that the sorts of arguments for/against prostitution that depend upon economic empowerment don't really get at the heart of what it is that makes us feel "sordid" and "sad" about the Spitzer case. And most of us, I suspect, do feel that way, even if we are bothered by the feeling. But even if we are bothered, why is it necessary to banish those feelings to the dustbin of defunct moralistic views? Is it because we can't offer "rational arguments," as Dave suggests, for them? Those intuitions run deep for many other moral positions as well, even those that cannot be explained away through some sort of feminist or economic rationalization. The inability fully -- completely, rationally, so that everyone can understand it as if it were written in a textbook -- to explain why we feel the way we feel about prostitution does not demand us simply to throw out our intuitions as useless and shameful relics of a barbaric past. I don't have a nice, clean argument to explain why I think what Spitzer did was wrong, other than the feeble one that 'he broke the law.' But my goodness, what can I possibly mean by 'wrong' if the only gauge of value I can muster is 'that which is not economically empowering.'

Posted by: md | Mar 13, 2008 7:51:31 AM

Great post, Paul. I didn't know this about the prostitute in the Spitzer case but I also had assumed that she was from a relatively fancy background. Still, though, dire circumstances always force people into some pretty unhappy choices. Would it have been better or worse for this woman to have turned to scrubbing toilets for far less pay? Some pro-prostitution feminists have argued that it's perverse to use the point that many women have limited options as an argument for limiting those options further. I think the argument for banning prostitution has to explain why sex work is uniquely worse than the other kinds of unhappy work people do for money, and while there may be a distinction I'm not sure what it is.

Posted by: Dave | Mar 13, 2008 12:57:21 AM

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