Leslie Cannold: Writer, Commentator, Ethicist, Researcher
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Stripped bare, Spitzer affair raises big question

The facts are simple. Elliot Spitzer, who fought organised crime and corruption on Wall Street, resigned last week as New York’s Governor after Federal wiretaps caught him arranging to meet an out-of-town hooker in his DC hotel.

It was the Mann Act of 1910 that brought Spitzer down. In its current incarnation – the US Congress amended it in 1978 and again in 1986 – the statute prohibits the transportation of people across state lines for the purpose of prostitution.

Out of a job, his chance at a future run at the Presidency dashed, and facing 20 years jail if convicted, you have to ask: what was the man thinking? I’m not sure, though one thing he did make clear during the press conferences clocking his demise was that the answer was none of our business. His behaviour was a “private matter,” and his “failings” were private, too.

I couldn’t agree more. If Spitzer says – which he does – that he failed his Harvard-trained attorney wife Silda, his children and his entire family by sleeping with a prostitute, who am I to disagree? But I once lived and worked in New York and if I still did, I wouldn’t think for a moment that he had failed me.

I would feel the same about an Australian politician in Spitzer’s shoes, though in New South Wales and Victoria it would be unlikely that such an official would ever be charged. Indoor commercial sex was decriminalised n NSW, and partially legalised in Victoria, years ago. Among the reasons why is the distaste small-l liberals feel for the state sticking its beak into people’s private affairs. What two consenting adults get up to in bed is no one’s business but their own.

Those on board – or should I say in bed? – with this philosophy may feel that Spitzer’s exit from public life is a shame, given all he had given to it. So he had sex with a prostitute. How exactly does this impact on his ability to do his job?

Americans may be wondering about this, too. Throughout the semen stains, cigar speculations and impeachment proceedings that constituted the Lewinsky affair, roughly 75% told pollsters they thought Bill Clinton was fit to govern, and should remain as President.

But isn’t it wrong for those meant to uphold the law to break it? Absolutely. Doesn’t Spitzer’s behaviour show a failure of judgment or an arrogant belief that he wouldn’t be caught? Yep. Doesn’t his zealous pursuit of those running brothels – in the US and abroad – make him a hypocrite? Possibly, though he only prosecuted operators, never “johns.” What about Spitzer’s repeated use of the name of a friend and donor – George Fox – to book the hotel room? Ai Carumba! With friends like that, who needs enemies?

But to assertions that Spitzer’s behaviour goes to character, I need to ask, whose? In Australia, 19% of men have paid for sex at some point, with reasons and situations varying. To my mind, it’s those who cast aspersions on all these men’s’ characters without knowing a thing abut them or their situation – some cancer-stricken wives give their husbands their blessing – who have character questions to answer.

Spitzer broke the law and for this he will rightly be made to pay. But his story reminds us why laws that make commercial sex behind closed doors between consenting adults a crime really need to change.

Publication History

Stripped bare, Spitzer affair raises big question, Sun-Herald (Sydney)
23 Mar 2008

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