The Nation | posted March 17, 2008 (web only)
1. Make sure this doesn’t happen to you. Having exhausted the news out of the Spitzers’ troubles but impelled to sustain the morning talk-talk, television producers turned their attention to the lessons the sex scandal might hold for the prols. Fidelity experts, infidelity experts, relationship experts, psychologists, all trooped into the studios to coach women at home in their bedroom slippers on how to keep their man. “Work,” they say. Work at your makeup (and for God’s sake, close the bathroom door!), your cooking, your clothes, your sexual performance. Work to avoid “getting too comfortable.” Work to have “a new mental experience.” A high-end call girl on the Today show tells wives to “put more effort into having a good relationship.” The notion that one might play at a relationship, at intimacy, sex, conversation, is nowhere broached. Play, or at least its illusion, has been relinquished to the realm of the actual working girl, the prostitute, while the wife–whose only claim to uniqueness lies in marriage’s relative freedom from commerce, from the exchange value of worker to boss, servant to client–is urged to labor at love. She is given no useful tips on, say, skull fucking (relax that throat and just keep telling yourself, “I am not going to die”), an effort that might chip into the call girl’s business. Rather, the most detailed advice nudges her toward police work. An expert in body language suggests that a wife gauge her spouse’s “base-line behavior” early on: what is his normal blink rate? his sweat rate? how often in conversation does he shift from foot to foot? Armed with those innocent numbers and comparative measurements, she later will be able to discern–as he tells some preposterous story while standing there a blinking, sweaty, fidgety heap–when he is lying, when he is cheating. “Is it OK to wiretap?” the host of a local New York Fox TV show jocularly asks the panel of experts assembled for a quick lesson in “Relationship 101.” Certainly check the e-mails, scan the phone records, monitor the credit card bills, check where he’s going on the Internet. “You can’t wait for something to turn up,” one of them warns. See something, say something. No longer shelter from the storm, marriage equips itself for surveillance.
2. The bed is bugged. For a country awash in sex scandals, it is rare that anyone admits the scandal is actually about sex. “It’s not the sex, it’s the lying,” people would say in explaining what upset them so about Bill Clinton’s romp with Monica. It’s always something else: the cover-up or the hypocrisy or the outrage upon the taxpayer. Because Eliot Spitzer had run stings on prostitution outfits when he was New York’s Attorney General, the hypocrisy claim had more heft than it had when Pastor Ted Haggard was discovered to have been a friend, no a Samaritan, no a drug buyer, no a massage client, no a regular john to a male prostitute. His preachments against homosexuality notwithstanding, Haggard’s dalliances were so richly detailed, his church so bedecked in homoerotic art, his Christianity so engorged with brotherhood and temptation and every man’s battle against lustfulness that it was absurd not to regard his life story, much less his fall, within the thick weave of sex. In different colorations the same was true for Clinton. But Spitzer was caught in an entrapment scandal, and the twist was that within twenty-four hours virtually everyone was crying, “It’s the sex!” as the initial details of wiretaps and search warrants; bank monitoring and wire transfers; 5,000-plus intercepted phone calls and text messages; 6,000-plus seized e-mails; travel records; hotel records; $4,300; the undercover officer; the confidential informant; the IRS, FBI, US Attorney; and an opportune disclosure–that is, the full fetish bag of the public dick–gave way to more primitive obsessions. Whereas on Monday, March 10, we knew only vaguely of a transaction with “Kristen” in Room 871 of the Mayflower Hotel, by week’s end we knew Kristen’s face, her breasts, her tattoos; we knew her name, Ashley Alexandra Dupre, her singing voice and ghetto pose (“Whatever doesn’t kill me only makes me stronger”), the competing narratives of tough stuff and cozy privilege between which the truth of her life probably falls; we knew that her Client No. 9 would have had other numbers on different occasions with her and other women for whose services he had paid a total of $80,000. After five days, FBI agent Kenneth Hosey was less well-known than he had been when his leaked affidavit formed the basis of the scandal. Newspaper columns and letters to the editor now flick at expectations of privacy with a sneer: Spitzer should have known better, and so should the rest of us low-rollers. How quaint to assume that one’s life isn’t in some respects a peep show for the state.
3. Forbede us thing, and that desiren we. No one was a victim on Friday, March 7. Not Silda Wall Spitzer. Not her daughters. Not Ashley Dupre. That’s the day Eliot Spitzer learned the whip would be coming down on Monday. He told his family on Sunday. The next day the women were instant victims, humiliated in varying degrees, degraded, ashamed, pitied, scorned. What was more titillating in those initial hours of the scandal: the frisson imagining the apparatus of surveillance, or the spectacle of a public shaming? Those who took to the airwaves or the keyboard justified gorging on the pain or anxiety of the women by fabricating histories of exploitation for them. Silda had been a victim all along, the many testimonies to her bubbly relationship with Eliot aside, because her marriage was “a lie.” By one remove, the daughters had also been victims without knowing it, imprisoned in a girlish love that their Daddy betrayed with every furtive text message. Ashley was a victim, naturally, because every woman in the sex business is. Her spectacular wage scale, substantial negotiating power and fast track to a seven-diamond pussy were all incidental to the cut-out of likely drug-user, abuse survivor, low-self-esteem sex slave into which the various experts sought to press the then-unknown Kristen. We are meant to believe that nonstop mortification by media chatter is good for all these women. The truth shall set them free–and make a nice little egg for the therapists that the Spitzer girls are predicted to have to see for years. That the Spitzers might truly have had the happy marriage they displayed to the world, and that Kristen and her co-workers at Emperors Club might have had something to do with that, is unthinkable. “He had a double life”; he had secrets. We seem incapable of accommodating a practical upside to secrets. Maybe he actually needed something sexually and emotionally, something he didn’t want to ask of his wife, a fantasy achievable only with a stranger, a release valve that would stabilize the rest of his intimate life and be safer, simpler, less threatening than a girlfriend. That he himself had scant generosity toward others who are drawn to the forbidden need not compel us all to be prosecutors.
4. Gotcha! The lie detector, the interrogation, a figure sweating in the glare of lights, the suffering spouse, all have become common fare in the public square. Silda Spitzer’s tensed stand by her man at his news conferences, compared to waterboarding by a writer in the New York Post, is distant competition to The Moment of Truth for putting married life in the stocks. Fox TV’s game show, in which ordinary people submit to a polygraph test and then take the hot seat to answer a series of increasingly aggressive questions, proceeds from the premise that people have secrets, little lies they tell or truths concealed for the sake of harmony, which, however, they will freely give up on national television, exposing their loved ones and themselves, for cash. “The only thing that might temper your jealousy,” the host tells a reeling husband, “is that she’s three questions away from $100,000.” He nods, remembering their debts, the fresh start all agree the money represents, and gives a clown’s smile. “Question 14: Do you have any secrets that you believe could end your marriage?” The wife could have stopped the interrogation at $25,000. Only what in old days was called “larceny in the blood” keeps it going. The answer from her earlier polygraph test hangs like a sword of judgment to be delivered as soon as she gives her public response. “Yes,” she finally says, and an echoing robovoice takes its time pronouncing, “That answer is true.” Her husband curls into himself, but she is still in the game, and he insists he doesn’t want to know that secret. The host steps in as the voice of responsibility before posing the final question. “You have to weigh the money against those things which quite honestly are the value of your marriage,” he says. “You’re free to quit…but you’ve gone this far.” They press on. “Question 15, for $100,000: Do you believe you will be married to Darren for the rest of your life?” Darren now appears a broken man, his pain stretched into luxurious agony by a commercial break. Less than a week later there is not a newspaper or TV “analyst” who is not cluck-clucking because Eliot Spitzer, Silda at his side, has called his dealings with Kristen “a private matter.”
5. Now don’t you ask yourself who they are. The wives may work, and work it; the paid professionals require rescue, therapy, a hand up from the dungeon of their trauma or false consciousness. But, first, one last self-exposure. Audacia Ray received a phone call from MSNBC’s Dan Abrams show after the scandal broke. “Have you been a whore?” the pre-interviewer asked. Ray corrected him; she has worked in the sex industry, which her questioner knew because she contributes to a blog for sex workers called Bound, Not Gagged and is the executive editor of $pread magazine. “They were casting for someone to talk about how to find a client, what happens in a session,” personal stories with the nitty gritty of sex for hire and the presumed tragic arc of degradation, says Ray. She wanted to talk about working conditions, harm reduction, variable rates of pay, danger, legality and choice in the work. Sex as labor; “trafficking” as, most commonly, an element in the larger story of poverty and migration or, in the case of Kristen, the professional travel of a consenting adult. Ray was not what the show was looking for. The next day, March 11, her site carried a joint press release by herself and representatives from Sex Workers Action New York (SWANK), Sex Workers Outreach Project NYC (SWOP-NYC), Prostitutes of New York (PONY) and the Desiree Alliance. They pointed out the discrepancy of Spitzer’s standing up “for workers’ rights in certain capacities” but not others, enhancing penalties for clients like himself, and otherwise applying additional legal veneers to “the deeply-rooted corruption that is associated with the prohibition of prostitution.” Their notion of prostitution, lap dancing, pole dancing, porn acting and myriad other erotic services exchanged for cash as jobs–not the worst jobs in the economy, not always the most risky or exploitative jobs, certainly not the lowest skilled–evokes a dignity-of-work argument as old as Adam and as familiar as the latest union campaign. Its obvious rationality largely eludes the nation, right to left, for which shame is the game.