The latest Washington scandal revolves around the so-called “D.C. Madam”, Deborah Jean Palfrey. She is facing prostitution charges for running an escort service in Washington D.C. Recently, Palfrey released her phone records, which touched off a stampede of press muckrackers looking for prominent politician clients.
The one they turned up was David Vitter (R-LA). As so often seems to be the case with these kinds of scandals, Vitter is a social conservative who was an enthusiastic proponent of impeaching Bill Clinton over a blow job. And now he says he has “sinned” but refuses to resign over the scandal.
In cases like this, it’s easy to lose sight of the bigger picture in the interest of scoring cheap political points. The temptation for Democratic partisans is to accuse Vitter of hypocrisy, call him a criminal, and demand his resignation. Unfortunately, this impulse reveals that many on the left have no coherent politics around sex work.
We’ve been down this road recently with the Ted Haggard and Jeff Gannon scandals. In the former case, a prominent evangelical leader was caught patronizing a male escort. In the latter case, a conservative operative was revealed to have worked as an escort. Both of these situations were opportunities to argue that 1) sex work is something that is much more pervasive than we acknowledge and 2) it would be good for sex workers and good for our society if we stopped stigmatizing sex work so much (which would mean, first off, that prostitution shouldn’t be illegal).
Instead, all too many people were eager to use the stigma against sex work to bash Republicans. See for example, this thread at DailyKos, where the author calls for Vitter’s prosecution and ridicules the idea that a madam could be a “character witness”. This kind of stuff is unprincipled, and in the long run it’s not good for the left. What we can and should say is that while David Vitter did nothing wrong (aside from mislead his wife), it’s hypocritical for Republicans to defend him while still upholding the same anti-sex positions. If Vitter’s behavior is truly, as he says, “a private matter”, then it stands to reason that the same should be true of prostitution in general, and so we should stop persecuting sex workers.
Most of the people reading this probably know someone who either is a sex worker, or patronizes sex workers. And many of you probably don’t know it. The fact that sex work is kept secret and not talked about makes it easier for people to openly stigmatize sex workers. And that, in turn, keeps sex work in the dark. It would be better for everyone if this stuff was legal and out in the open.
My belief is that sex workers–from strippers to porn stars to escorts–are first and foremost workers, and that socialists should stand in solidarity with them. The fact that some sex work is currently illegal shouldn’t stand in the way of our solidarity, any more than the fact that some immigrants are working illegally keeps us from supporting them. While we should obviously support the elimination of involuntary trafficking of people for sex work, that shouldn’t used as a pretext for targeting people who do sex work of their own free will.
This is far from an uncontroversial position. There many leftists and feminists who believe that sex work is inherently degrading to women, and that it should therefore be illegal under all circumstances. There are probably folks in YDS who take this position, and maybe one of them will write a rebuttal to me. But for more on the pro-sex worker position, I encourage folks to check out the excellent $pread Magazine.