Whenever you see the mainstream media talk about “helping” sex workers, it almost invariably involves the police in some way. If you didn’t realize that was bullshit before, the last couple of years of news stories should have given you some kind of inkling. Just this week, Oklahoma Daniel Holtzclaw was convicted for raping at least 13 black women while on duty. It should be painfully obvious to all but the most obtuse that going to the police is helpful for only a small fragment of United States citizens, and to many, it’s highly risky. The answer to the question “Who guards the guardians?” is a plaintive “No one.”
As is true of a lot of people in the sex-positive community, I’ve been thinking a lot about Deborah Jean Palfrey’s death this past week. I didn’t know her personally, and never met her in person, so I can’t speak of her death in terms of personal tragedy or grief. But grief and anger are what I’m feeling, because Deborah Jeane Palfrey’s fate could have been written onto the lives of so many women and men. And the anger comes from the fact that it has, and it will be.
The real tragedy of her death, from where I’m standing, is not anything extraordinary about her story, but how common and familiar it is, to the point of being clichÃ©. If the story of Deborah Jean Palfrey had been laid out in a novel or play or screenplay, I would be angry at having my time wasted by a writer who was unable or unwilling to rise above cheap hackery that was old and worn out in the days of the Victorian penny dreadfuls. But Palfrey was a real person, and it makes me sick and angry to think how often the lives of people who should live peaceful, untroubled lives are forced into old patterns.
The last couple of weeks have brought more news coverage and public discussion of sex work than you usually get in a year. When Eliot Spitzer got nailed because of his hot dates with “Kristen,” the press swarmed onto the story like flies on shit. The beauty of a scandal like the Spitzer story is that it lets the media have the best of both worlds: they can use the sex to sell product as enthusiastically as Joe Francis having a fire sale, but at the same time, they get to stake the moral high ground by pointing an accusing finger at both the client and the sex worker. If Eliot Spitzer’s sin was the hypocrisy of hiring call girls after building a career for himself by putting their fellow sex workers in jail, it was little more than an insignificant blemish compared to the behavior of the press. A good chunk of the editors and writers at the New York Times should just get over their pretensions of respectability and hop on a plane for California, where they can become honest, hardworking pornographers.
As is typical of American discussions of sex, the Kristen/Spitzer scandal didn’t turn into an opportunity to talk about the realities of sex work, or the ways that our private desires diverge from our public declarations, or anything resembling a forthright discussion of sexuality. It was just another opportunity to obsess about sex as if it were a particularly ugly scab that just won’t stop itching. Nothing demonstrates that better than Audacia Ray’s recent post about her interview with MSNBC. The first question the interviewer asked her, point-blank, was: “Have you been a whore?” The supposedly more genteel, public-radio intellectual Brian Lehrer wasn’t much better in his treatment of Dacia when he interviewed her on the radio. The entire show had a leering tone to it, as if he too couldn’t wait to get the juicy details. And Renegade Evolution got pretty much the same treatment when the media showed up on her doorstep:
In the last 24 hours, there’s been a lot of discussion about Eliot Spitzer, trying to divine his motivations for visiting high-priced call girls and to look into whatever future he has politically. The feminist blogs are filled with speculation about what the hell his wife was doing standing behind him at the press conference and a lot of very predictable moral outrage over Spitzer’s “complicity” in the oppression of women by hiring a prostitute. In all the madness, there’s little talk of the woman who Spitzer hired. Below is a press release from four sex workers’ rights organizations asking the question that seems to get skipped over in all the chaos.
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Shakti Ziller, Sex Workers Action New York (SWANK), firstname.lastname@example.org 877-877-2004 x 2
Audacia Ray, 718.554.1714
Sarah Bleviss, Sex Workers Outreach Project NYC (SWOP-NYC), email@example.com
Prostitutes of New York (PONY), firstname.lastname@example.org
Desiree Alliance, http://www.desireealliance.org/
WHAT ABOUT KRISTEN?
New York Sex Worker Organizations Respond to Spitzer Scandal
New York, NY – In the last few days, Governor Eliot Spitzer has publicly admitted to being associated with an escort agency and is considering resignation. As sex worker advocates, we are concerned about the representation and fate of “Kristen” and sex workers who are being thrust into the spotlight because of the investigation into the Governor. We also share the widespread concern for Governor Spitzer’s family.