In (Partial) Defense of Eliot Spitzer

Is it cheating if it's with a sex worker? Is it preferable to a full-blown affair?

When news of Eliot Spitzer's link to a prostitution agency first broke, "Why Do Powerful Men Cheat?" stories sprang up all around us, from morning shows to the nightly news. Within the framework of the cheating-husband narrative, no one made the distinction between employing a sex worker and having an affair with a "civilian," except to emphasize that Spitzer cheated and broke the law. I think a distinction should be made about his choice of sex partner. When someone cheats with a civilian, he usually spends more time on courtship than between the sheets: There are text messages, e-mails, phone calls, secret rendezvous, whispered sweet nothings, gifts, even romantic dates. When someone hooks up with a sex worker, while some of those elements may be in play, they are a lot less likely to be part of the equation.

Melissa Gira Grant (melissagira.com), a reporter, sex worker, and sex-workers' rights activist, says: "Some men go to sex workers for closeness and intimacy—they want to cuddle, and that's what they are not getting at home. But for others, it's not emotionally therapeutic at all, it's the same as getting a deep sports massage." In Spitzer's case, according to court documents, his dates seemed pretty businesslike. When he got on the phone, he talked not to "Kristen," the sex worker, but to the agency, and the details of the call were about payment and logistics. According to the transcript, it appears that he may have seen her before, but not regularly, since he needed to be reminded of what she looked like. For the record, Kristen is not the "woman who brought down the governor"—she's simply the one they have on the wiretap. We don't know how often he saw the same escorts or what emotional attachment he had to any of them, but I'm betting Spitzer wasn't into one particular woman, otherwise he would have requested her. This tells me that he wasn't after romantic companionship, but a sexual relationship. To me, his lack of emotional investment (which often accompanies affairs) should soften the blow to Silda Spitzer, although I am pretty sure it hasn't.

I'm not denying that he lied to his family, or that he spent time, money, and energy on other women. I'm not glossing over the irony and hypocrisy of it all, especially considering his hard-charging prostitution prosecutions in the past; it wasn't like he was a big advocate for sex-workers' rights who then got caught with his pants down. However, I think when he chose to have sex with someone other than his spouse, Spitzer chose wisely. People often seek out sex workers as sexual partners precisely because the relationship—and both people's expectations—are clear from the get-go. Successful sex workers, especially high-end escorts, pride themselves on having good work boundaries: They won't call someone late at night or stalk them like a civilian could. They are invested in privacy and discretion, and don't have to be wined, dined, or otherwise manipulated to have sex with you. Marcus has been a sex worker in the Washington, D.C., area for six years; he sees both men and women, and counts a senator—as well as several other high-profile politicians—among his clients. "Privacy and discretion are my highest priority," he told me. He says that a few clients have expressed nervousness over the Spitzer scandal, but it hasn't slowed down business for him.

Sex workers' attitudes about sex, monogamy, and relationships vary wildly. Some make a clear distinction between "work sex" and "non-work sex," rigidly defining both. To some, work sex is a job, an economic exchange, a performance devoid of physical and emotional intimacy; non-work sex is about love, desire, commitment, and physical and emotional intimacy. It's real.

Others draw a distinction between the two, but have a more complex view of work sex versus non-work sex. They allow themselves to enjoy pleasure, experience intimacy, and express themselves authentically during their sex work when possible. Yet they still distinguish their work from the sex they have outside work—while there may be friendship and fun at work, there isn't romance, commitment, or deep intimacy. Says Grant: "For me, sex with clients is very different from sex with people I am in a relationship with. In fact, I had to cut loose a client who was becoming too close and relying too much on me." For others, both the definitions and the lines between sex and work sex are much more nuanced. These folks may be swingers, sexually adventurous, and/or exhibitionists, and for them, their work is ideally (although not always) an extension of their sexuality. One cannot be easily separated from the other.

It seems like Kristen had clear boundaries and harbored no romantic notions about her work—in one of the wiretapped phone calls, discussing her date with Spitzer, she said: "I'm here for a purpose, I know what my purpose is." Rather than continue to criminalize and stigmatize sex work, we need to see sex workers as people performing needed sexual services in our society.

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