Saturday, March 15, 2008

Legal, moral debates linger in wake of Spitzer scandal

(Originally published 3/15/08)

Political watchers were stupefied this week by the meteoric downfall of New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer, who resigned in disgrace after being linked to a high-dollar prostitution ring.

Spitzer’s scandal opened the door to all sorts of moral and legal debates, among them the criminalization of prostitution. Harvard University uber-law professor Alan Dershowitz led the way with the “prostitution-is-a-victimless-crime” argument.

Betrayed, and with her personal life exposed before the world, Silda Spitzer stood beside her husband twice this week as he faced the hungry press. Pundits exhorted her to take the couple’s three teenage daughters and leave Spitzer. They speculated about how much she knew about his indiscretions and when she knew it. Would Silda Spitzer consider prostitution a “victimless crime?”

And what about those daughters, ages 13, 15 and 17, ashamed by their father, embarrassed before their friends, thrust into a scandal of someone else’s making? Their relationships with their dad will never be the same. Are they not victims?

As for the call girl herself, within 24 hours of Spitzer’s resignation, New York tabloids had tracked down ‘Kristen,’ a 22-year-old aspiring singer who says she left a broken home at 17.

A 22-year-old woman making $1,000 an hour, a victim? Ludicrous, Dershowitz said.

Long Island journalist and broadcaster David North said it best: “Spitzer has three daughters … Did it cross his mind that ‘Kristen’ is also somebody’s daughter? As a former Manhattan district attorney and state attorney general, he knows firsthand not just that prostitution’s profits frequently support organized crime, but also that it can enslave women.”

Indeed, said Equality Now Executive Director Taina Bien-Aime, far from being a “victimless crime,” prostitution is “just another form of gender apartheid.”

Policy debate aside, Americans couldn’t get enough of the story:

  • Media outlets breathlessly reported the salacious details of Spitzer’s alleged tryst, one even providing video and still shots of Spitzer’s room, 871, at the Watergate Hotel in Washington, D.C.
  • New York State Lottery Officials had to close down betting on 871 Tuesday when wagers on it hit $5 million.
  • Spitzer, the call girl ring and ‘Kristen’ herself dominated Google search trends throughout the week.
  • ‘Kristen’s’ social networking page got tens of thousands of hits before it was taken down, and cable news networks analyzed her vocal abilities and discussed the possibilities of book and movie deals in her future.
  • Late-night talk show hosts feasted on the story with off-color jokes of all kinds; David Letterman used the story for Top 10 lists three nights in a row.

Perhaps just as disturbing as Spitzer’s downfall and the personal humiliation of his family is what Americans’ fascination with it says about us.

Also this week, the CDC released stunning findings that 1 in 4 teenage girls in America has a sexually transmitted disease, and nearly half – HALF – of African-American girls ages 14 to 19 have an STD. These numbers alone are “overwhelming,” in the words of one physician. But it gets worse: The study only included teen girls, and it only accounted for four diseases, leaving out other prevalent STDS like HIV, syphilis and gonorrhea. The stark and underreported reality of this story is that the STD infection rate among American teens is much higher – and much scarier – than anyone seems willing to accept.

On the blog this weekend, how the Spitzer scandal relates to the CDC study, and the Incredibly Stupid Statements File.

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