The Lurid Absurdity of Eliot Spitzer’s Prostitution Scandal

I think by now, everyone has heard about the news that Eliot Spitzer is implicated in a prostitution ring.

Slate has obtained some legal documents, among which are the website that fronted the prostitution ring, and part of the wiretap transcripts that between two prostitutes that referenced Spitzer, known here only as “Client 9.”

First, you have to admit that there is something hilarious about the fact that Spitzer was referenced as “Client 9”: this is like his secret spy name or something.

Second, for someone whose political career is built on a reputation of nailing other people, mostly corporate white collar criminals, Spitzer got nailed himself. And the ironic thing is that while he was a state prosecutor, he went over prostitution rings himself.

Third, Eliot Spitzer, if he were to be prosecuted, would be prosecuted not for a state crime, but for a federal felony, for violating the Mann Act, or more commonly known as the White Slave Act. Passed in the early 1900s, the Mann Act was Congress’ attempt to regulate morality in the states through the interstate commerce clause. The Mann Act has an interesting history, because it was used to convict Jack Johnson, a black boxer who married a white prostitute. Eventually the Supreme Court ruled that the act was constitutional in Hoke vs. US.

I mean, what a weird turn of events if you really think about: Eliot Spitzer now faces possible prosecution based on a 100 year old law whose constitutional basis rests on the interstate commerce clause. Unbelievable.

But the deeper philosophical issue for me is the legality of prostitution. I have been doing a lot of reading on this very topic, in order to write a 15 to 20 page seminar paper. Looking at the debate around legalizing prostitution, most of it either centers around an utilitarian discussion of the benefits of legalizing prostitution. Those who oppose legalization do so on vaguely Kantian grounds.

I am not entirely satisfied with the state of the debate, and I think that a more philosophically rigorous approach is needed. Thus, my project is to see if prostitution can be morally defended on non-utilitarian grounds. Namely, I will be looking to see if prostitution inherently violates the formulation of Kant’s categorical imperative, both its autonomy and dignity variants.

So far, my thesis is that there is nothing inherent in prostitution (defined broadly and roughly as the selling of services that produce sexual pleasure for the buyer) that violates the categorical imperative. I tend to agree with Martha Nussbaum that it is the context of prostitution that makes or breaks, so to speak, the moral case against/for it. Therefore, if it is the context that is the salient difference, then there is nothing “inherent” about prostitution that suggests that prostitution will always violate the categorical imperative a priori.

Having made this argument, then one can go back to the utilitarian debates and ask what kind of laws/policies/regulations can and should be enacted in order to shape the context of prostitution in such a way that protects sex workers’ welfare, autonomy, and dignity.

Of course, this is a very early and very rough outline of the argument that I will be making in the seminar paper, and a lot of details still need to be worked out. But that is, in a nutshell, the bare skeleton of my argument.


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