Emily Bazelon and Josh Levin take readers' questions about prostitution.

Real-time discussions with Slate writers.
March 13 2008 4:57 PM

Sex Sells

Emily Bazelon and Josh Levin take readers' questions about prostitution.

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

(Continued from Page 1)

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Arlington, Va.: I don't buy the argument that every woman (and man) who sells sex for money is being exploited. Is it any different from selling any other kind of labor? Sure, an abusive pimp changes the calculation, but legalized prostitution can get rid of the pimps and better ensure the health and safety of prostitutes. Other than Nevada, have any other states ever come close to legalizing prostitution?

washingtonpost.com: Bill to close prostitution loophole(Providence Journal, March 13)

Emily Bazelon: I think that Rhode Island has legalized some acts of prostitution that take place indoors. (If I'm wrong about that, someone write in to correct me.) Here's my question: Assume you're right that selling sex for money isn't necessarily exploitation. After all, plenty of women come forward to say just that, and it seems a bit much to accuse them all of false consciousness. But would legalization really improve things for them? That's not the report from Amsterdam, where trafficking has increased. The most intriguing alternative I've heard about is Sweden's, where it's legal to sell sex but not to buy it, johns are actually arrested, and the level of prostitution in Stockholm has significantly fallen.

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Did I miss this part?: When were Mark Bruener, aka "Michael," and Cecil Suwal aka "Katie," aka "Kate," actually arrested? Cecil seems to be a strange name for someone known as Kate. Is that a man or a woman?

Josh Levin: There does seem to be a fundamental gender disagreement here. But keep in mind that guys have pretended to be women (and vice-versa) since about four seconds after the Internet was invented. Like that famous New Yorker cartoon says, "On the Internet, nobody knows you're a Cecil."

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Anonymous: I don't want to be insulting, but how do people end up in this line of work? That's the part that scares me as a parent. I mean, the story of the woman working corners is pretty much generalized and understood, but this lady's story does not seem much different than that typical scenario, and she ends up as a $1,000-an-hour call girl. How do they recruit and find these ladies? This one seemed to know consciously what she was doing and referenced the need for money. Are model searches and escort searches code words of which I am not aware?

washingtonpost.com: Wiretaps, Rookie Hookers and Client No. 9(Post, March 13)

Emily Bazelon: I imagine that as with every line of work, there are multiple paths in. Because of the stigma involved (and I do think the stigma remains strong), some women fall into prostitution out of desperation. They're addicted to drugs or broke or depressed (a majority of prostitutes have been sexually abused, studies show), and they need money. I imagine, though, that other women might dip a toe into the sex trade more out of titillation or curiosity.

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Burke, Va.: Any theories on how Spitzer got hooked up with QAT Enterprises (or whatever they're called) to begin with? Seems like there'd need to be an intermediary (unless he just stumbled across their Web site).

Emily Bazelon: I don't think we know the answer to that yet, but if I had to guess, I'd say he didn't have an intermediary. If he'd had help, he might not have chosen what seems like the riskiest way to buy sex in terms of getting caught—through an escort service rather than a top-price independent operator, to which he had to wire payments. Sudhir Venkatesh has a great piece in Slate today about the NY prostitution market that makes Spitzer's methodology seem sort of bumbling.

Josh Levin: Agree with Emily. My best guess is that he Googled the term "escort." Or perhaps he searched for "private club for those accustomed to excellence." (One of many instant-classic quotes from the Emperors' Club website.)

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Start-Up Costs: How do these people start a prostitution ring? Creating a Web site would be cheap, but how are the girls recruited? Are there security costs? (If my computer is being bugged, I do not have the resources or inclination to be involved. I'm just curious.)

Emily Bazelon: It's a black market enterprise that runs according to the rules of the underground economy—lots of word of mouth, proving that you're worthy of trust, getting to know the people who can set you up with the supply you're looking for. This service didn't seem to have had any high-tech security that got in the way of the federal wiretap.

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Credit Cards: Do Visa, Master Card or American Express do any background checks when a new business requests to use their service? I would think they would want to avoid being involved, except in Nevada where prostitution is legal. How about the bank where the money was deposited?

Emily Bazelon: It was the banks that caught Spitzer, or that alerted the feds to him. They noticed that he was making a bunch of deposits right up to the legal limit, and they flagged it for the IRS. The original investigation was for public corruption and bribery, not prostitution.

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