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.

The first thing that grabs your attention about the sex scandal involving New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer is, of course, the client. But, there's another aspect to the story that should raise eyebrows: $4,300. That's the bill Spitzer incurred for his dangerous liaison at the Mayflower hotel. Who would pay that much, and could you ever really get your money's worth?

In fact, $4,300 is not an altogether alarming sum of money in the high-end sex market. Spitzer got a bargain—and that may have been his downfall.

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In many so-called global cities, like New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago, sex is part of a lucrative service sector that has developed for those with expendable income. Soliciting a prostitute can be as pricey as hiring a personal chef or finding a private school for your kids. In New York, it's not hard to find sex workers who charge $10,000 per "session," which can last for 15 minutes or two hours (jokes aside).

Although you can still drive through neighborhoods where prices aren't nearly so high—in New York, the average rate for intercourse is around $75 if you find a street-based prostitute—the biggest changes in recent years have occurred at the upper end of the market. Cities that cleaned up their red-light districts, like Chicago's West Side or Hell's Kitchen in Manhattan, pushed the sex-work trade indoors—to the Internet, to strip clubs, to escort services. These indoor sex workers created a larger, less publicly visible market that tends to serve the middle and upper classes.

I found this world by accident in 1999, when I started interviewing sex workers in Hell's Kitchen, Spanish Harlem, and other New York neighborhoods that were points of entry for newly arrived immigrants. I expected to hang out on the streets, but in fact I had to enter apartments, public-housing projects, strip clubs, bars, and brothels to locate subjects. What I found was women checking voice mail or sitting behind computers watching their online ads and e-mail accounts. This was the sex world that New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani helped to create when he drove prostitutes off the streets as part of his effort to make the city hospitable for upper-end residential development and tourism. While it's hard to say whether the total number of prostitutes increased, the Giuliani strategy did expand the indoor market: the white-collar workers who may have visited a street prostitute now and then quickly discovered a discreet, online, and referral-based world of higher-priced sex workers. The higher end of the market exploded.

The new "indoor" sex worker differs from the older prototype. In the past, sex workers tended to view their role as part-time "survivors"—selling sex to keep up a drug habit, to pay rent, or to eke out a living until something better came along. Pushed indoors, some became "careerist." They were professionals offering a legitimate service, like nursing or counseling; they looked at their work as partly therapeutic. These indoor workers stay in the game for longer periods of time because they find a level of autonomy and flexibility that the legitimate economy often does not provide. They're also less likely to be targeted by cops, social workers, or clergy, all of whom work to get street-based prostitutes out of the profession. The street-based prostitute tends to leave the job after six to nine months, returning when money is tight or drugs need to be purchased.

At the lucrative end of the market, I have found it useful to think of three tiers of women (men constitute only about 10 percent of high-end prostitutes). Spitzer was paying for "Tier 1" sex workers: Fees usually range from $2,000 to $5,000 per session; women come in all ages and ethnic stripes; they rigorously guard their health and watch for STDs; and most have a high-school degree but have limited work experience. They can promise you discretion, but most work through escort services that are routinely under surveillance. In practice, this means buyer beware.

"Tier 2" includes women who charge up to $7,500 for a session. These women tend to be white, they may have a college degree (or be actively enrolled in school), and they usually require a referral before they will take on a new john. They also have a small, exclusive clientele, sometimes as few as a dozen men whom they service. Unlike Tier 1 workers, they do not rely on escort agencies, so they keep all of their money.

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