Did Eliot Spitzer get caught because he didn't spend enough on prostitutes?

The search for better economic policy.
March 12 2008 6:53 PM

Skinflint

Did Eliot Spitzer get caught because he didn't spend enough on prostitutes?

Read more of Slate's coverage of the Eliot Spitzer prostitution scandal.

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Finally, there are the "Tier 3" sex workers, who can charge in excess of $10,000 per rendezvous. They may have only four or five clients, and they typically charge their clients an additional monthly surcharge for their various needs—rent, clothing, medicine.

Both Tier 2 and Tier 3 workers can typically do more to safeguard a client's privacy. There are no guarantees, of course, but they tend to shun contractual relationships with agencies that advertise their services. There is less of a paper trail. They typically will only take a john via a referral, and even then, they may require that the john "date" them for weeks before deciding to offer up sex. I have heard of Tier 2 and 3 sex workers who vet prospective clients for months, sometimes hiring a private detective to see if the john is stable—psychologically and financially. As a former attorney general, Spitzer must have known all this.

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What high-end clients pay for may surprise you. For example, according to my ongoing interviews of several hundred sex workers, approximately 40 percent of trades in New York's sex economy fail to include a physical act beyond light petting or kissing. No intercourse, no oral stimulation, etc. That's one helluva conversation. But it's what many clients want. Flush with cash, these elite men routinely turn their prostitute into a second partner or spouse. Over the course of a year, they will sometimes persuade the woman to take on a new identity, replete with a fake name, a fake job, a fake life history, and so on. They may want to have sex or they may simply want to be treated like King for a Day.

Melissa is a 38-year-old white woman living in Hoboken, N.J. (She asked that I not use her full name.) I met her in 2002, when she was in Hell's Kitchen trying to get her sister to stop turning tricks in local bars. Instead, she ended up entering the sex trade herself. She felt unable to advance in her corporate job and grew tired of watching men with less experience receive promotions. In the words of elite sex workers, she is currently "on retainer" to a partner at a Manhattan law firm—I love the irony of the phrasing. She receives $10,000 per month, which usually translates into three meetings. "The last time I met him, I gave him a bath," she told me. "I told him he was the most sensitive man I'd ever met. I never tell him he's a piece of shit; I make him feel like superman." Melissa estimates that she has sex with him about once a month, but as often he will simply masturbate in front of her.

Although women may charge more for their services in New York, there is a burgeoning high-end sex market in most global cities, and men from the financial sector are an important part of the clientele. Spitzer got caught, but it is actually quite rare for either sex worker or client to be apprehended; usually, it's the low-end folks who get their pictures on the police department's Web site. While the street-based prostitutes I study report getting apprehended four to six times per year, the majority of higher-tier women seem to have relatively little trouble with the law.

This doesn't mean the elite women have a great life. Melissa and other high-end workers routinely experience physical abuse at the hands of their clients—on average, they report getting abused twice per year, which is better than the six times a year that street-based workers report but still, clearly, troubling. Escort services (usually owned by men) often charge Tier 1 prostitutes various fees that reduce their take-home pay. If they work as independent contractors, as Tier 2 and 3 women tend to, they have to fight their clients to get paid on time. Plus, their lives are cash-based—they can't plan for the future or make any real investments.

The moral of the story, I suppose, is that even in the black market, you can find a glass ceiling.

Sudhir Venkatesh is a sociology professor at Columbia University and author of Gang Leader for a Day.

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