The economics of exploitation

The outrage over former NY governor Eliot Spitzer hiring an A-list hooker makes me feel like throwing a gigantic, crippling pile of super-heavy biology and economics books at everyone in the United States and possibly the world. Are we still so Victorian in our thinking that we think it’s bad for somebody to pay large amounts of money for a few hours of skin time with a professional? Have we not learned enough at this point about psychology and neuroscience to understand that a roll in the sheets is just a fun, chemical fizz for our brains and means nothing about ethics and morality?

The sad fact is that we have learned all that stuff, and yet most people still believe paying money for sex is the equivalent of killing babies on the moral report card. And yet nobody bothers to ask why, or to investigate past the sensational headlines. As far as I’m concerned, the one unethical thing Spitzer did here was to hire a sex worker after prosecuting several prostitution rings. That’s hypocritical, and undermines my faith in him as a politician.

But let’s say Spitzer hadn’t prosecuted so-called sex crimes before, and all he was doing was hiring a lady for some sex. Here is what I don’t get: Why is this bad? On the scale of things politicians can do — from sending huge numbers of young people to be killed in other countries, to cutting programs aimed at helping foster kids get lunch money — hiring a sex worker is peanuts. And it’s a personal choice! It’s not like Spitzer was issuing a statewide policy of mandatory hookers for everybody.

What really boggles is the way so-called liberal media like National Public Radio and the New York Times have been attacking Spitzer’s morals as much as the conservative Fox News types have. In some cases, they’ve attacked him more. The reason given is always the same: Sex work is abusive to women (because male prostitutes don’t exist?), and being paid for sex is inherently degrading.

Let’s look inside one of those heavy economics books that I just beat you with and examine these assumptions for a minute, OK? Every possible kind of human act has been commodified and turned into a job under capitalism. That means people are legally paid to clean up each other’s poop, paid to wash each other’s naked bodies, paid to fry food all day, paid to work in toxic mines, paid to clean toilets, paid to wash and dress dead naked bodies, and paid to clean the brains off walls in crime scenes. My point is, you can get paid to do every possible degrading or disgusting thing on earth.

And yet, most people don’t think it’s immoral to wipe somebody else’s bum, or to fry food all day, even though both jobs could truthfully be described as inherently degrading. They say, “Gee, that’s a tough job.” And then they pay the people who do those jobs minimum wage.

The sex worker Spitzer visited, on the other hand, was paid handsomely for her tough job. The New York Times, in its mission to invade this woman’s privacy (though in what one must suppose is a non-exploitative way), reported that she was a mid-range worker at her agency who pulled in between $1,000-$2,000 for a job. She wasn’t working for minimum wage. She wasn’t having to inhale toxic fumes that would destroy her chances of having a non-mutant baby. She was being paid a middle-class salary to have sex. Sure, it might be an icky job, the way cleaning up barf in a hospital can be icky. But was she being economically exploited? Probably a hell of a lot less than the janitor in the hospital cleaning up after you.

Sure there are hookers who are exploited, and who have miserable lives. There are people who are exploited and miserable in a lot of jobs. But the misery is circumstantial: Not all hookers are exploited, just as not all hospital workers are exploited. It’s basic labor economics, people.

Audacia Ray, former sex worker and editor of sex-worker magazine $pread, has pointed out that the public doesn’t even seem to understand what exploitation really means. The woman who did sex work for Spitzer has had her picture and personal history splattered all over the media in an incredibly insulting way. Nobody seems to realize she’s being degraded far more now than she ever was when Spitzer was her client. And she’s not getting any retirement savings out of it, either.

Annalee Newitz ([email protected]) is a surly media nerd who once hired a prostitute for a few hundred bucks and had a pretty good time.

UP>> A PITHY GUIDE TO RIDING THE WEB Five pillars, five years too many: On March 19th, this movement will take direct, nonviolent action in Washington D.C. against the military, tax money, media, corporations, and security. Hoping to spread the buzz to communities across the country, details of a 24-hour collective action plan will call people together to “Rise up and End the War.” Bring the troops home now.

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