3.12.2008

Eliot Spitzer and Male Sexuality

"It is told of Rabbi Eliezer ben Dordia that there was not one courtesan in the world whom he had not patronized. Once, on hearing that there was a certain courtesan in one of the cities across the sea who demanded a purse of denars as her fee, he took such a purse and journeyed forth, crossing seven rivers for her sake . . ." Avodah Zarah 17a

Eliot Spitzer, though no longer governor, could still be a leader and a brave man. Let him step up again to the microphone and apologize to his family for keeping secrets from them. Let him apologize again to the public for his law-breaking and his hypocrisy. Then let him talk honestly about his taste for prostitutes — and urge the decriminalization of prostitution in New York State. He wanted to be a reformer who shakes up the system? This is his chance to do it.

I’m seven years older than our 49-year-old ex-governor, and I’ve been married for eight years longer than the Spitzers, and I’ve never paid for sex for several reasons: a) I can’t afford it, at least not to hire really attractive, healthy women; b) I’d be much too intimidated to respond to solicitations (it’s hard enough for me to call out for pizza); c) it would distress my wife enormously, unless I kept secrets from her, which would damage the intimacy I cherish; d) I can’t comfortably participate in a criminal business that involves a lot of involuntary servitude, exploitation and dehumanization of women; e) I want to have sex with women who actually desire me. Sex for hire would probably not deliver the ego boost that I crave.

Obviously, not all of these are morally-grounded calculations; some are simply expressions of my cowardice. While they have kept my sex life fairly simple and well-sublimated, they haven’t granted me much claim to moral superiority over my several friends who have paid for sex — at least, they’ve paid the extra twenty bucks to have a masseuse deliver “the special” — or over Eliot Spitzer. The former governor may be a hubristic fool for indulging his desires and endangering so much, and a hypocrite for participating in a crime that he has loudly prosecuted — but I can nevertheless relate to Spitzer’s drive to have “power sex,” or whatever it is he was having through the Emperors Club, even if I feel deterred from seeking it myself.

When it comes to sex and monogamy, most heterosexual men seem to be in the same leaky boat. The great majority of the guys I know seem burdened by a sex drive that contradicts civilization’s rules. We want to have sex with more women than we have access to. We envy the bathhouse culture of the pre-AIDS gay community. We waste hours in idle and thwarted fantasy. We have an itch we can’t scratch, and it is stoked by the shamelessly sexualized commercial culture.

Those of us who settle into a monogamous marriage feel emotionally somewhat fulfilled and sexually somewhat thwarted — and we want our lives to contain fewer somewhats, to seem more extraordinary, which the feel and taste of a new sexual partner can certainly deliver.

So I would bet that most of the men I know would like to see prostitution decriminalized and the culture of sexual desire and fulfillment radically altered. Most of them would not go and consort with prostitutes, as they are truly committed to cultivating sexuality as a kind of sacred encounter between loving human beings. But there are men I know and love who probably would find it enlivening and therapeutic to pay for sex out of the context of romance or committed relationships, if they didn't feel shame about it; who would prefer to spend money on sex than on the movies or the opera or a health club or a restaurant or a therapist, if they weren't unnerved by the prospect of the paddywagon or the newspaper headlines; who would love to respond to enticing ads if they didn't believe the women on the other end to be the slaves of gangster rapists.

Of course, decriminalization would not instantly solve the problems of sex-slavery and trafficking, sexually transmitted diseases, or other elements of dehumanization and exploitation that hover over the sex trade. These problems persist, in varying degrees, in Australia, Canada, Germany, Holland, New Zealand, and numerous other countries that have decriminalized prostitution, and will persist as long as women have less power, wealth, status and freedom than men. Criminalization, however, only boosts the criminality and the suffering that surrounds the sex industry — and turns the “itch” of men into a plague.

These matters deserve to be discussed. If Eliot Spitzer were the leader I want him to be, he would redirect the spotlight that has had him squinting to cast light into the dark recesses of men’s sexuality. He would urge decriminalization, urge men’s consciousness raising, and set an example for full disclosure and personal growth — instead of simply falling on his sword like some disgraced, tragic king.

8 Comments:

Blogger Ralph Seliger said...

Thoughtful piece. You should immediately condense this to a suitable length and send it to The Times or The Forward as an op-ed.

5:28 PM  
Blogger Lao Qiao said...

On East 11th Street between Fifth Avenue and University Place, there is a building with a plaque on it saying that Eleanor Rossevelt had moved there in 1933, the year her husband moved into the White House. Later she moved to Washington Square West, where there is another building with a plaque on it. She apparently was having a lesbian affair. Her husband died in the presence of a woman who was not his wife. Eleanor and Franklin must have know about each other's affairs since they had separate homes.

Hillary Clinton probably knew about Monica before Monica was born. Silda Spitzer probably knew about the $80,000 her husband had spent on prostitutes. if the spouses of politicians don't mind their extra-marital affairs, why should we?

Prostitution exists even where it is illegal. If it were legal, health problems could be more easily controlled, prostitutes would be less likely to be victimized by pimps, and prostitutes could pay their income taxes, like the rest of us, without worrying that doing so would land them in jail.

5:49 PM  
Blogger bookdoctor said...

your blog is interesting

what bothers me about all this, apart from the obvious, is how little
sympathy (none that i can see) there is for spitzer. everyone's so
happy to get him (for legitimate reasons - he is sanctimonious,
presents himself as above the crowd, indicted others etc.) But what
he did is extremely human. I don't judge him for it. Not really.
Everyone's sex life is so precarious, actually - so undisclosed and
particular to who we all are, and what we need. there are no
universals really in the sexuality realm. this is, in the end, such a
puritanical society. prostitution, of course, should be legalized.
and spitzer, of course, should resign. but i who struggle with
forgiveness, all the time, with the desire for compassion, believe in
the end that what matters here is how human he is, how human we all
are, and after the consequences, after the speeches, forgiveness
should be part of the picture we draw.

7:23 PM  
Blogger Leonard said...

Last night, at a memorial for Rabbi William Berkowitz at Congregation Habonim, where I was honored to be invited to accompany a number of distinguished cantors, Rabbi Henry Michelman gave a 30-minute talk on ethics without once mentioning Eliot Spitzer--except in private discussion afterwards, when he quoted a passage from the Talmud, which I hope I am remembering accurately: "If a man has an itch that he needs to scratch, he should do so in a dark place, far from anyone who knows him." (I just did a Google search for that passage and can't find it, but perhaps someone more versed in the Talmud than I can.)
In any event, Eliot Spitzer's very sad demise prompts a lot of thoughts:

1. It could be worse. New York State will now have its first Black governor; maybe it'll set a trend, and the country will now be ready for its first Black president. I certainly hope so, if only it will let us stop hearing and thinking about Monica every other minute.

2. Almost 23 years ago, I met a woman in the middle of the night in Berlin and drove to Torgau in East Germany for a 40th anniversary celebration of the meeting of the American and Soviet troops on the Elbe. We met through an organization called U.S. Americans for Peace that she helped co-found. On the way back she asked me if I had ever thought of having children. "Right now - right over there!" I kidded her. Her name was Kristin, and she was about 5'5", 105 pounds. Except she was blonde. And I really was kidding.

3. Most men do seem less naturally predisposed to monogamy than most women. Maybe the fact that they average about 10% more body weight (to throw around) than women has something to do with it. More likely it has to do with the expectations they're brought up with--and the power they have in society--along with their need to find release from the tensions that go with those expectations. But the hurt which men's infidelity causes their spouses ought to be enough to deter any truly caring husband. Yes, the culture constantly encourages indulgence of sexual appetite, but there are so many ways available to do that without hurting another person. Look at worldsex.com or any of hundreds of others sites - and never pay a cent for photos, trailers, etc., etc. Avenue Q asserts: "The Internet is for porn." So use it--as Ben Franklin wrote in his Autobiography: "Use venery... for health"--and in moderation!

4. Men, esp. married men, who pay for sex do not deserve contempt, but pity. And crimes which are victimless certainly do not merit jail sentences. Yes, prostitution should be legalized, regulated and taxed, as it is in most civilized countries, where health insurance is a right, and performing artists are civil servants. But somehow I don't think Eliot Spitzer is going to feel comfortable arguing for it publicly, any more than my cousin Sandy Berger is going to feel comfortable about arguing publicly for greater openness in matters of classified documents. Still, those arguments need to be made.

5. I'm also not sure they can be made very well by Jews at this point. Spitzer's case has unfortunately become a shande far de goyim. One expected higher ethics from a man representing tradition and honesty, who had in fact recently worked to strengthen laws against prostitution rings.

6. On the other hand, I was #273 of c. 137,000 people who signed a petition urging him not to resign. In 1998, Mark Russell quipped that politicians are always getting into trouble:
"With Republicans it's money; with the Democrats it's sex." So who has done more harm to society? FDR, JFK, RFK, Clinton, Spitzer? Or Harding, Nixon, Bush, Cheney, McCain?
How can the US Congress, and the NY State government, impeach or consider impeaching an executive for a private matter and not even consider impeaching a corrupt administration that has broken every other commandment imaginable? Remember the quipster who moaned, "Would someone please give Bush a blowjob so we can impeach him?" Or the journalist who, when asked why the Bobbitt case was receiving so much more coverage than Bosnia responded: "Did someone over there cut off someone's penis?" What is it with the American public's priorities!?

In Solidarity -
Leonard J. Lehrman

11:07 PM  
Blogger David said...

Right on. Decriminalization would certainly give birth to a new industry led by female entrepreneurs. It would smoke out our repressed fantasies, and possibly heal them or at least limit our bogus sublimations. And it would certainly reduce the income of gangsters.

Dave Tapper

11:09 PM  
Blogger Hershl said...

You may be interested in an op-ed in today's (3/12) LA Times.

A thought:
Spitzer rose to fame/office by going after greed and corruption in finance and banking circles. The probe that caught him (using the IRS, FBI and what-all) began in finance and banking circles. Possible moral? "You f**k with us, we'll f**k you!"

12:13 AM  
Blogger Sheldon said...

Larry, there is, I believe, a bit of confusion in your use of the term "decriminalization". What the European countries have that you listed is more properly termed "legalization", which means that the state is the pimp and oversees the sex industry in a more authoritarian way than it would any other industry or business.

Legalization is still betther than the status quo, mind you, but some of the problems with it are that even in Europe, thew pimps who lost out in the transition away from criminalization are not giving up their privileges easily and using their old contacts with rich but secretive johns to re-establish themselves in their usual, abusive manner and engaged in trafficking

But at least in Holland, native Dutch sex workers are unionized, so they won't likely be providing any horror stories to abolitionists of the missionary or Dworkinite variety.

Actual decriminalization is different and has not been tried in the modern era, to the best of my knowledge. It involves the removal of consenting adult sex work from the criminal code entirely and treating the sex industry just like any other industry / business / trade. Any special 'needs' arising from the existence of the industry would be administered with the co-operation and consultation with the workers therein. There would no longer be any institutional need for pimps.

That is what NOW supported in its pro-decriminalization stance taken in 1973, and what the current sex worker organizations (COYOTE, the Sex Worker Outreach Project of the Urban Justice Center) support at this time. That viewpoint has been largely ignored by the mainstream press, with Times columnist Bob Herbert, out of nowhere, taking up the cause of Melissa Farley and other anti-porn advocates who thought Elliot Spitzer was their hero. Serves them right!!

To counter the demonization of prostitution that occurs in general and sometimes even on the Left, let me throuw out these points:

a) In the Old Testament, the prostitute Rahab was key in helping Joshua smash the wall of Jericho and conquering it. Undoubtedly, that makes her a hero for the Jews. Legend has it that she married Joshua but no mention is made if she actually quit the sex trade.

b) It was in the bordellos of New Orleans that jazz music, much beloved by the Left, was born. 'Jazz' is the Cajun Creole word for 'sex'.

--> Sheldon Ranz

7:45 AM  
Blogger gretchen p said...

just want to say how glad i am to see some sense in this debate; naturally i had to come to larry's blog to find it. i think i might be the first female to respond here, so i'd like to say that as a happily married woman, i'd have no problem with my husband--or myself--going to a prostitute. i don't find the job description morally objectionable in the least. there are problems with the industry--pimping and exploitation come to mind--but there are problems with just about every industry in our capitalist world, and the fact that sweatshops exist doesn't make me want to boycott or criminalize clothing altogether.

human beings, like other animals, are complicated. what spitzer did was hypocritical, but show me a human being who isn't and i'll show you a human being on life support--or or one who should be. what spitzer did was dumb, but show me a human who isn't sometimes.

why we can't just admit to being animals with urges like other animals that need to be managed rather than repressed is beyond me.

in the meantime, the horrors that go on legally in this country, from the mass unnecessary slaughter of animals in our name to the mass unnecessary slaughter of soldiers and civilians in our name deserve fury, not a governor getting his rocks off away from home.

gretchen primack

10:15 AM  

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