Full Comment: Barbara Kay's Spitzer-Kristen Rebuttal: When it comes to hookers, let's keep it hypocritical (National Post March 13, 2008)

Full Comment

Barbara Kay's Spitzer-Kristen Rebuttal: When it comes to hookers, let's keep it hypocritical

Reacting in his March 13 column in the Post to the recent scandal around New York Governor Eliot Spitzer’s public disgrace as a member of an elite prostitution ring, Jeet Heer makes a calm and — on the surface — reasonably constructed argument for decriminalizing prostitution.

Heer states the obvious as a foundation for his argument — that women selling their bodies for sex has always been with us and doubtless always will be. He then leaps to the seemingly obvious conclusion that since commercialized sex is a given of the human condition, we must normalize it.

Decriminalization, he says, will remove the squalor associated with this profession, for it will lead to our acceptance of sex workers as normal human beings worthy of our protection and concern.

“In a better world, being a prostitute would be seen as a job, no better or worse than being a plumber, a miner, a doctor or a politician. Legalized and made respectable, prostitutes will be able to safely keep company with politicians.”

But prostitution is not like every other job. Prostitutes are doing something that is fundamentally dehumanizing in order to accommodate instincts that in a truly “better world,” would be channeled into more fruitful and dignified relationships. Prostitutes are not the moral equivalent of dental hygienists. Selling your body is not a behaviour to take pride in, for as we humans are psychologically constructed, a woman’s sense of self-respect is invariably tied up with her sexual behaviour.

As for squalor being reduced when prostitution is legal, has Jeet Heer been to Amsterdam lately? There both drugs and prostitution are well tolerated, but the squalor around the areas in which both are a feature have escalated dramatically.

Heer is confusing the kind of prostitutes frequented by the likes of Eliot Spitzer and those who sell themselves at Hastings and Main in Vancouver’s chemical gulag. The lower-end prostitutes sell themselves for drug money — they’re the ones who need society’s protection. High-end prostitutes are artful and self-reliant businesswomen. The whole point of their attraction for men who can afford them is the mystique of doing something illicit without the danger associated with streetwalkers. Take away the thrill of transgression and there would be little point to the adventure.

One does not pay $5000 for a legal service that can be had for $100 unless one feels one is getting very special value for the money. I suspect that the special value for Spitzer was the same feeling one gets in eating a $100 hamburger made with truffles or some other ingredient not available to the proles. If you asked both Spitzer and "Kristen ” — his preferred sex kitten — if legality would have added to their pleasure or reduced it, the answer is obvious: the trangressiveness of the transaction was the whole point of the exercise for Spitzer. And for Kristen, like the chef who understands foodie status-seeking, the point was as much money as one can extract from the vanity and moral weakness of others.

Jeet Heer, like so many others of the chattering classes, reflexively believes that hypocrisy is a bad thing, and that society should strenuously exert itself to reduce hypocrisy as much as possible through the normalization of behaviours that cannot be suppressed by laws or appeals to moral ideals. But he is wrong.

Hypocrisy is a bad thing in an individual, and Spitzer’s is a particularly egregious example of the disparity between public pontifications and private behaviour that is hypocrisy’s defining characteristic. Curiously, though, what is a bad thing in an individual can be a good thing for society.

As the poet said: “A man’s reach must exceed his grasp, else what’s a heaven for?” In the same way, a society’s ideals must exceed the moral capacity of many of its individual members, or what’s a culture for? Presuming that legalizing the behaviours which we have designated as shameful will launder those behaviours is illogical.

What legalization will do is to dumb deviancy down, validating the behaviour of those least committed to a high quality of family and civic life, and demoralizing those who struggle to meet that ideal. When you inform the most aspirational people in a society that their discipline, rectitude and honour are no more socially desirable than venality, promiscuity and duplicity, then eventually a loss of social confidence will follow.

Prostitution is a shameful way to make a living. We’ll never be rid of it, for we are human beings, and many human beings will always do shameful things. But when we stop calling shameful behaviour shameful and call it normal, we are in trouble as a society. Public hypocrisy is our best hope for keeping society healthy.


[PHOTO: Ashley Alexandra Dupré, the prostitute known to New York Governor Eliot Spitzer as "Kristen." Taken from her myspace.com page. myspace.com / Reuters.]