Former New York Governor and current NYC Comptroller Candidate Elliot Spitzer was on All In With Chris Hayes last night talking about a number of topics, among them his identification as a feminist in contrast with recent criticism from NOW-NYC President Sonia Ossorio about his history of violating the law by soliciting “an industry that we all know has a long history of exploiting women and girls.” I’m personally torn about this criticism of Spitzer’s past. On the one (very valid) hand, he knowingly and repeatedly violated the law when he was a government official who was meant to uphold the law. It signifies a serious lack of respect for the law and egoism about being above the law. But on the other hand, I’m deeply uncomfortable an across-the-board understanding of sex work as inherently any more exploitative than other types of work under capitalism.
There is a somewhat common, but not universal, viewpoint in the feminist movement that sex work is bad because it exploits women’s bodies and leads to human trafficking of women and children. However, many within the sex work industry see the criminilization of sex work, both on the supply side (sex workers) and the demand side (clients), as actually increasing the danger to those working in the industry, driving it further underground and into even less safe conditions for sex workers who are less able to prevent exploitative situations when they can’t fully screen clients and less able to seek protection when they need it. Portraying sex workers as “victims” does not empower them.
Furthermore, in an effort to stop human trafficking, increasing policing of sex work can sometimes actually decrease the means for fellow sex worker advocates or law enforcement to identify potential human trafficking situations, because the visibility of sex work is driven further underground and thus it is more difficult to discover these scenarios. SWOP-NYC, a New York City based sex workers advocacy organization, protested the Village Voice shutting down their “Backpage” for sex work advertising since the Backpage was a useful source in identifying potential trafficking situations. But anyway, Spitzer himself passed legislation trying to address human trafficking, acknowledging that while he was a sex work client himself, he wanted to prevent the exploitation of the trafficking industry.
This is a complicated issue, and one I am no expert in. But an across-the-board judgment of Spitzer for his use of sex work on the grounds that it is anti-woman is an over-simplification and does not give credit to the pro-woman the work he did as Attorney General and Governor of New York. When asked if he’s a feminist, he doesn’t hesitate to say yes and doesn’t feel the need to qualify his identity as a feminist. He goes on to say that he’s shown “devout dedication to women’s rights on the issues of choice, on the issues of equal pay, on the issues of discrimination… I’m asking the public, look at the totality of the record.”
G-ddamn, I’m so easily charmed by politicians. I don’t think his commitment to feminism should really be questioned, but it’s definitely fare game to discuss and judge his breaking the law and then asking to be a lawmaker again. This isn’t Chicago after all (no offense, Windy City).
Video below. Discussion encouraged in comments.
What’s up with our kinky ballot this year, NYC?