Sex work and the Senate: Swedish meatballs

Ny spännande möbel från IKEA! Med IKEAs nya PERVERS ställning kan man hotta upp sitt sexförhållande. Go ahead, translate that.

Ny spännande möbel från IKEA! Med IKEAs nya PERVERS ställning kan man hotta upp sitt sexförhållande. Go ahead, translate that.

There was a time when “the Swedish model” meant either some girl who was dating Leonardo DiCaprio, or a literary anthology of IKEA assembly instructions. Those were innocent days. Now it’s all about sex, and not of the unthreatening DiCaprio variety. Specifically, it refers to what Swedes call the Sexköpslagen or Sex Purchase Law, a 14-year-old act saying that no man kan hotta upp sitt sexförhållande with the use of money. The provision criminalizing the buyer but not the seller of sexual services has become a pattern for pushing legal repression elsewhere, including Canada, England, Scotland, and most recently Ireland. Now even the US Senate is under its influence.

David Vitter is a boringly conservative Louisiana Republican. For the most part, he’s there to vote for whatever the oil industry tells him to, though he spikes up the monotony a bit by fighting same-sex marriage, crusading against gambling, and getting lewd women to dress him up in diapers.


Vitter in adult clothing

The latter propensity started to make headlines during his first term in the Senate, in 2007. First his phone number appeared in the records of Deborah Jeane Palfrey, the “DC Madam,” a former paralegal who ran an expensive Washington escort service. Vitter more or less admitted things, in ritual fashion: the press conference, the sobbingly supportive spouse, the claim that “I asked for and received forgiveness from God and from my wife in confession and marriage counseling.” Back in New Orleans, another madam claimed him as a client going back to the 1990s, and another source said he was known around the House of the Rising Sun for his diaper fetish. This wasn’t the first time such stories had surfaced. In 2002, he dropped out of a race for governor, citing “marital problems,” in the face of a magazine story detailing his relations with a sex worker.

When I was 18, I stayed for a week in Metairie, Louisiana, a suburb of Noo Awlins where the Vitters (David, Wendy, and four kids) maintain their happy home. (Mrs. Vitter once told the press about the possibility of an extramarital affair: “I’m a lot more like Lorena Bobbitt than Hillary. If he does something like that, I’m walking away with one thing, and it’s not alimony, trust me.”) A heterosexual friend of mine had moved down there, ostensibly to teach school but actually for the thriving sex scene. I helped him fill his waterbed, something I have never done before or since, and then he proceeded to max out five credit cards on wide varieties of illegal escapades while I read all of Tennessee Williams on the back porch. There were so many sex shops and massage parlors in the neighborhood that I saw neon even with my eyes closed. There’s a reason they call New Orleans the Big Easy, and that’s probably also a reason Vitter got himself re-elected, and still sits in the Senate lubricating things for Big Oil. Despite Wendy’s unsubtle threat, she doesn’t even seem to have made meatballs of his genitalia.

Vitter’s latest crusade is that obsession of the Republican right, defunding Obamacare. For the last week he’s been on the Senate floor full-time, demanding a vote to strip Senate and White House staffers of federal contributions to their health care coverage. In retaliation, Senators are discussing a draft law targeting him. It would prohibit any federal contribution being given to a lawmaker or an aide if a congressional ethics committee has “probable cause to determine” that the person has “engaged in the solicitation of prostitution.”

This is, although the Senators probably don’t know it, the Swedish model in action: punishing what proponents like to call “the demand side of prostitution.” And you have to admit it’s delicious in the case of Vitter, whose time spent on the demand side has been so long and so hypocritical. The man is really shameless. Just a few months ago, he introduced an amendment to strip certain classes of convicts from the right to receive food stamps ever in their lives. He said it would keep the Federal government from helping “convicted murderers, rapists, and pedophiles” not to starve. Oddly, the crime of solicitation of prostitution was not on the list. Even if David goes to the Stockholm slammer for his excursions someday, he can always rely on welfare.

This comes, moreover, just days after another guy has been punished again for taking a walk on the demand side once too often. Eliot Spitzer, formerly known both as Client No. 9 and as Governor of New York, tried to resurrect his political career by running for Comptroller of New York City. He had resigned the governorship five years ago, if anyone doesn’t remember, after he was discovered to have patronized another DC escort agency during repeated visits to the nation’s capital. He lost the race: redemption denied.

But not the Governor: Poster shaming accused johns in Nassau County, NY. Please ignore the fine print.

But not the Governor: Poster shaming accused johns in Nassau County, NY. Please ignore the fine print.

All the same: why exactly are these guys being punished? After all, in the simple act of paying for sex, Vitter and Spitter injured no one — with the possible exception of their wives, whose long-suffering loyalty is a private matter, not a public one. Much as one appreciates the Democratic Senate’s sense of irony, if you routinely punished every Congressmember, or his member, for “improper conduct reflecting discreditably” on Congress, there would be no Congress. The only hurt they did was in their hypocrisy. And the true lineaments of this hypocrisy, alas, are the last things for which they’ll face consequences.


Spitzerfreude: Wardrobe malfunction

We expect right-wingers to be two-faced; but the left-wing strain of progressive Puritanism running Spitzer’s career was arguably more dangerous — and popular. He had long tied himself to anti-trafficking militants committed to making life miserable for both sex workers and clients. As state Attorney General, he let the eradicationist group Equality Now goad him into a years-long campaign of harassment against a travel company that marketed sex tours. He drove the firm out of business, but a trail of frivolous, dismissed indictments and acquittals left the case looking like a huge waste of time and taxpayers’ money. As Governor, he signed an extra-tough “anti-trafficking” law, with the Swedish model in mind, that massively increased penalties for purchasing sexual services (exactly what he was doing at the time) while maintaining penalties for sex workers as well. But what folks hate Spitzer for is having bought sex, not the repressive policies he promoted. Paying women is offensive; persecuting them, fine. Called out for “immorality” during his last campaign, he actually had the nerve to cite his crackdown on consensual activities in his own defense.

All this brings to the fore two facts about the Swedish model. 

First: It doesn’t work. It doesn’t “discourage demand.” If public exposure did that, then David Vitter, who was first accused of frequenting sex workers in 2002, would have stopped then, long before his political career almost crashed to a halt in 2007. God knows what he’s doing now — his wife sounds like the kind of woman who’d charge for her tearful endorsement by making the man wear a permanent ankle monitor. But the very fact that he continues unrepentant on his moral crusades indicates some basic lesson hasn’t been learned. And as for Spitzer, Melissa Giri Grant notices that his anti-trafficking law “didn’t stoke enough stigma to stop even the man who signed it from going to a prostitute.”

There is, in fact, no evidence that Sweden’s own Sexköpslagen has brought down the demand for prostitution, or saved people from trafficking. A recent official evaluation of its results, as Laura Agustin has demonstrated, produced no credible evidence on either score. It’s a classic law that enables legislators to feel good about themselves, while leaving the situation that initially disturbed them undisturbed.

The good wife: David Vitter with Wendy in press conference, 2007

The good wife: David and Wendy Vitter in press conference, 2007

Second: The people the model hurts are sex workers themselves. As Grant says, stigma “can’t be harnessed and directed, or isolated only to the men who buy sex. Under ‘end demand’ policies, sex workers are as stigmatized as they long have been, and they still face violence from the public and from police.” The Swedish government’s own report acknowledged: 

The people who are exploited in prostitution report that criminalization [of clients] has reinforced the stigma of selling sex. They explain that they have chosen to prostitute themselves and feel they are not being involuntarily exposed to anything. Although it is not illegal to sell sex they perceive themselves to be hunted by the police. They perceive themselves to be disempowered in that their actions are tolerated but their will and choice are not respected.

Women are still swept up in police stings targeting their clients, publicly humiliated and detained. Yet, the report said, this negative impact “must be viewed as positive from the perspective that the purpose of the law is indeed to combat prostitution.” There’s the rub: Combating prostitution means combating prostitutes. It always does.

Fighting back: Sex workers rally in Kolkata, India, July 24, 2012. They participated in an alternative International AIDS Conference in protest against US visa restrictions that prevented attendance at the main conference in DC.

Fighting back: Sex workers rally in Kolkata, India, July 24, 2012. They participated in an alternative International AIDS Conference in protest against US visa restrictions that prevented their attendance at the main conference in DC.

Spitzer suffered some for his deeds, but the women underwent far worse. As it happens, Kristin Davis, a madam arrested in a crackdown that followed the Spitzer scandal, wound up in the race against him for Comptroller this year, running as a Libertarian. She said she wanted to ask him

If he thought it was fair that he was never charged as a john under his new felony law but that I spent four months in Rikers Island from which I returned penniless, homeless, and forced to take sex offender classes for five months with pedophiles and perverts while he returned to his wife in his Fifth Avenue high rise without ever being fingerprinted, mug shot, remanded, or charged with a crime under the very law he signed.

Deborah Jeane Palfrey, 1956-2008

Deborah Jeane Palfrey, 1956-2008

Even if the “Swedish model” ostensibly lets the hookers off the legal hook, a panoply of other laws are regularly used against them. Spitzer’s downfall started because the Patriot Act mandated tracing suspicious or potentially unlawful bank activity. That radically ramps up the surveillance of sex workers.  But money-laundering and related charges have been levelled against sex work enterprises for years. In 2008, a jury convicted “DC Madam” Deborah Jeane Palfrey not of prostitution, but of money laundering, using the mail for illegal purposes, and “racketeering.” The crimes carried a maximum of 55 years in prison. Palfrey killed herself before sentencing. One of her former employees, Brandy Britton, on trial for four counts of prostitution, had also committed suicide the year before.

And Vitter stays in the Senate. Another powerful man waylaid by the “DC Madam” scandal was Randall Tobias. He resigned as George W. Bush’s AIDS coordinator when his number turned up in the case — though he claimed he’d only called the girls for a massage or two. Tobias had been a key promoter of the Bush administration’s pro-abstinence policies. A year before his downfall, he said, in an interview about the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), that

The Congress I think very appropriately has put into the legislation that created this program that organizations, in order to receive money, need to have a policy opposed to prostitution and sex trafficking. I don’t think it’s too difficult for people to be opposed to prostitution and sex trafficking, which are in fact two contributing causes to the spread of HIV/AIDS.

Unindicted and not too badly damaged, Tobias — a former drug-company CEO –continues to circle through corporate boards. The evil that men do lives after them. The requirement that no organization sympathetic to sex workers’ rights could receive PEPFAR money remained securely ensconced under the Obama administration, until the Supreme Court finally overturned it this June. Sex workers around the world paid for Tobias’ hypocrisy with their human rights, their health, and their lives. That’s exploitation; that’s the raw deal.

In event of arrest: IKEA instructions

In event of arrest: IKEA instructions

ProstitutionSpeak, ideology, and death

"Moral Reform Directory" of 1839: This town is a horrible sump of abominable corruption, and here are the addresses

The God’s honest truth is, I get so depressed when I think about sex work.   Nothing ever changes. Or — well, let me correct that a little. Sex workers change.  The conditions of sex work change. The demographics of who goes into sex work change. The clients of sex workers change according to time, place, the economy, and other factors. The collective consciousness of sex workers changes. Even the laws around sex work change. But two things never change: The way the media reports on sex work, and the way Nicholas Kristof goes out in the wild to save some sex workers whenever there’s a full moon.   And the immobile persistence of these overwhelming facts cancels out all the other changes: the same way the occasional wobble in the earth’s axis, though it might produce an Ice Age or a mass extinction on the local scale, doesn’t alter the drone of the planet’s endless billions of rotations around the sun. The sun is a fixed fact; Nick Kristof is a fixed fact; and phrases like “Street Prostitution Keeps Its Wily Hold” are fixed facts that will last till every newspaper and every computer chip are shreds of superheated carbon inside a red dwarf. And so it goes.

“Street Prostitution Keeps Its Wily Hold” was in the headline of a New York Times article this month.

Two men dressed as women strutted in and out of the shadows cast by the moon, past the locked doors of residences, just off one of Brooklyn’s nondescript commercial strips.

One wore knee-high boots and jeans with flowery designs. He had the straightened hair, exaggerated lashes and thick lipstick of a drag queen. The other was a rocker type, the bright red tresses of his wig bouncing giddily off his leather jacket whenever he peered over his shoulder into the headlights of an oncoming car.

Eight months ago, it was not uncommon to see as many as 20 scantily dressed women shimmying along the side streets near this one-block stretch of Madison Street between Broadway and Bushwick Avenue, selling sex for cash or other gifts, like drugs or alcohol. But a recent police crackdown and an influx of transvestite prostitutes have sent most of the women elsewhere — at least for now.

Who writes this stuff for the Times?  (Answer: Al Baker and Tim Stelloh.)  Who edits it? On what other subject would the Newspaper of Record slip into such purple prose, as if it were donning its own flowery off-the-rack fuck-me hooker outfits? What does it mean to have “the straightened hair, exaggerated lashes and thick lipstick of a drag queen”? Does that mean she is a drag queen?  Or did he just mug a drag queen and steal his facial features?  Why isn’t the Gay and Lesbian Alliance against Defamation nailing the Times to the wall for this, instead of standing up for Ellen, who can probably stand up for herself?  Oh, I forgot: “transvestite” prostitutes aren’t respectable, unlike camera-coddled or drug-addled celebrities, and even Neil Patrick Harris could probably get away with calling them “drag queens” or, as GLAAD puts it, “tr*nnies.”

Slumming: A resembles-a-drag-queen and her manner-of-a-pimp

The arbiters of what’s Fit To Print, I suspect, fall back on such adj.- and adv.-filled language because they still think sex work would be unprintable in bald noun-verb phrases. The reigning ideology is all about hiding the fact that something very simple is happening, the exchange of sex for money. Instead, sacred horror and legal revulsion must cast their nebula over the scene, made up of purple rain and red-tressed wig and elaborate lighting effects to allow fantasies of rot and exploitation full play. Nothing in ProstitutionSpeak (or Pr*st*t*t**nSpeak) simply is itself. Everything resembles something, everything is like something, as if the jism of metaphor spills over and obliterates the outlines of thought. It’s all swept up in the “vibrancy and persistence of the old-fashioned street hustle, which in the predawn darkness of Bedford-Stuyvesant on Thursday spilled forth in all its crafty, competitive mercantile ways”:

As the transvestites walked up and down Madison Street looking for clients, a man, who had adopted the dress and manner of a pimp, followed them, sometimes at a close distance. Their parade was interrupted by a Mercedes sedan that pulled up to a traffic light; a door opened and a prostitute bolted out. The Mercedes sped away.

Is this guy a pimp?  Or did he beat one up, like the drag queen, and make off with his dress and manner? How do you know that’s a prostitute? Maybe she just stole a prostitute’s profession. Jesus, it’s a dangerous neighborhood.

And now it’s even more dangerous. Why? Well, there’s the police. Wheeling their attention briefly from the omnipresent Muslim threat, the cops, over three days in January, “made 195 arrests and seized 55 vehicles in what police officials called Operation Losing Proposition.” (That’s almost as good as Infinite Justice.) It’s hard to tell how they even identify the sex workers underneath all the metaphors, but in their hard-boiled wisdom, they manage. Here’s my favorite sentence from the entire piece:

In a separate case underscoring the ubiquity of streetwalking, a 32-year-old Pennsylvania man was arrested on Feb. 6 after impersonating a police officer to extort sex from prostitutes, the police said.

Hilarious. But why does it show the “ubiquity of streetwalking”? Doesn’t it really underscore the ubiquity of … cops? Of real cops and fake cops alike, swarming everywhere, the greatest danger to prostitutes’ health and integrity? As Raymond Chandler wrote at the end of his greatest novel:

I never saw any of them again—except the cops. No way has yet been invented to say goodbye to them.

So true. But then if you’re a cop, you probably don’t even notice that no one can get rid of you, or that anyone is trying.

The general gist of the article is that while “other crimes recede” in greater New York, prostitution-related arrests stay steady. But this isn’t surprising.   Those arrests, a fertile field for extortion, have always provided supplemental income for the police; and since streetwalkers are exposed pretty much by definition, it’s easy to nab them — and their clients. As it happens, Governor Eliot Spitzer (before he was brought down by the scandal over his patronizing a DC sex work ring) signed a bill changing the laws on prostitution in the state of New York. Selling sex remained a Class B Misdemeanor ( worth three months in jail or a $500 fine); but patronizing a prostitute, the crime and associated hypocrisy soon to topple Spitzer, went up to Class A, carrying one year in jail or a $1,000 fine. For cops, the clients have always represented a readier source of bribes, since they have both more money to offer and more reputation to save. Now they also face more risk. So it’s not surprising that Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly’s chief target in Operation Losing Perspiration was the johns.

Protest against Raymond Kelly: We don't just spy on Muslims anymore

The article tries to put the best gloss on this by suggesting the notoriously un-cosmopolitan Commish was in fact mimicking the famous “Swedish model” — a Nordic effort to target “the point of demand” rather than the prostitute herself. For Head Cop Kelly, the guy who goes to Bed-Stuy looking for a blow job is now engaged in “human trafficking”: the slave trade in women, or in “drag queens” or “transvestites.” All this, the writers claim, “occurred after Mr. Kelly took part in a series of meetings, beginning last year, with advocates from Europe and others aiming ‘for a fairer approach to prostitution.'” But:

Some advocates for prostitutes noted that 10 prostitutes were included in the mid-January arrests, which sends a mixed message. Others, including one former call girl, said it was wrong to focus on johns because it could make those clients more nervous and less likely to share the kind of personal information prostitutes rely on to ensure their safety.

Stop that man! Marketing the Swedish model

Predictably, in letters to the Times’ editor, advocates of the Swedish model call it a “human-rights, women’s-rights-based approach.”  Is it — even in Sweden? There, one analyst reports that, since the system began in 1999,

Police harassment of prostitutes has increased – they can be forced to appear in court to provide testimony against the client (they can refuse to witness, but they are still summoned and sometimes escorted to courtrooms), and whenever they are caught with a client, their belongings are searched and they may be frisked. Anything that police think they can use as evidence against clients (such as condoms) are confiscated. In those cases where a man was caught with a condom on his penis in the back of his car, police have used that fact to argue that he was breaking the law. This practice clearly has consequences for condom use among sexworkers. It provides both them and their clients with strong incentives to avoid using them. The law has been a catastrophe for non-Swedish sexworkers – if the prostitute found with a client is not a citizen or legal resident of Sweden, she is immediately deported; in fact government prosecutors complain that in a number of cases they were unable to gain convictions against clients because the prostitutes they were found with had been deported before they could even give a statement. This fact affects the willingness of non-residents to report on violence.

But the model’s goal is not actually to defend the rights of sex workers — in or out of the trade. It’s to pursue a project both chimerical and, in its infatuation with the radical absolute, Stalinist: the eradication of sex work altogether.   We “must work to end it — in our lifetime and forever,” Nora Ramos, of the Coalition against Trafficking in Women (and “drag queens”? and “transvestites?”), instructs the Times. 

Prostitution won’t end. But the fantastic dream of its elimination will continue to inspire brutality in the inquisitional name of an erasing justice.  Since the crime leaves neither victims nor evidence behind, the quest to find and eradicate it breeds deep intrusions into personal and physical privacy, and torturous semantic reinterpretations of proof.  In Kathmandu, Nepal, in 2007, I listened to a police inspector try to justify the arrest and beating of several metis (a local Nepali term for effeminate men) the night before. The cops had inspected their penises by the light of mobile phones in search of numinous sex traces. That didn’t work– but “Of course they were engaged in immoral activity,” he shouted. “We found condoms on them!”

The same inquisitive spirit animates police from Bed-Stuy to Stockholm.  In a miraculously more sympathetic article this week, the Times writes:

When she worked the streets, Yvette Gonzales said, she frequently saw other prostitutes working without condoms. But they were not having unprotected sex at the request of their customers.

Often, Ms. Gonzales said, the police would confiscate condoms when making a prostitution arrest so they could be used as evidence. And as soon as the prostitutes were released from jail, she said, they would go right back to work without protection; or refrain from carrying condoms at all, for fear of being arrested. …

In a recent survey of 35 prostitutes conducted by the Sex Workers Project, 16 said they had not carried condoms at times because they were afraid it might lead to trouble with the police. Fifteen said their condoms had been destroyed or taken away by the police. Three of those 15 said they had engaged in sex afterwards without a condom.

Don't take the C train

For thirteen years, lawmakers have tried to push a bill through the New York legislature that would bar prosecutors from using possession of condoms as evidence of criminal conduct. For thirteen years, it’s died in committee. Now, it may have a chance of passage. The Times waffles characteristically on the rights and wrongs here: “Excluding certain types of evidence from criminal court is rare, but not unprecedented,” it intones. But that’s not the point: condoms aren’t evidence of criminal conduct. Even where prostitution is penalized, a woman, a man, a “drag queen” or a “transvestite” may have condoms in their pocket simply because they want to protect themselves, and be ready for opportunities. They should have them. As one judge in Manhattan Criminal Court said, “In the age of AIDS and H.I.V., if people are sexually active at a certain age and they are not walking around with condoms, they are fools.”

The New York Police Department did not respond to questions about the proposal, but prosecutors said they wanted the option of including condom evidence at trial.  “I oppose any law that would restrict our use of evidence,”  said Charles J. Hynes, the Brooklyn district attorney. “Prosecutors in my office assess evidence on a case-by-case basis, determining what is appropriate in each situation.”

It’s a wrenching misuse of language for the anti-trafficking crowd to claim that those officials are bent on a “human-rights, women’s-rights-based approach.”   Only the vagaries of ideology can allow such a distortion. The police and prosecutors are on the side of death.