In New York State, patronizing a prostitute is a Class A misdemeanor. Theoretically, offenders can get up to a year in jail, but most are issued a desk ticket and walk away with a small fine and maybe some community service. (The crime becomes a felony only if the prostitute is under 14.)
Among Eliot Spitzer’s one-time comrades in the effort to shut down human trafficking is Norma Ramos of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women. Ms. Ramos, who works out of a serene, unmarked office not far from the Korean brothels in the 30s, is a self-described “product of the New York City foster care system” who equates prostitution with slavery and calls herself an “abolitionist.”
Ms. Ramos was one of the advocates who arranged for Mr. Kelly to meet with what they call “prostituted women”—placing the responsibility on the traffickers and customers, a distinction that has rankled advocates for the rights of “sex workers.”
“I say to them, ‘Why should anyone have to give a blow job to eat a sandwich?’” Ms. Ramos said. “They stopped inviting me to debates, because they can’t answer how that is empowering.”
For their part, supporters of sex workers, like the writer Melissa Gira Grant, assail the new abolitionists as prudish “moralists” who don’t get that sex work is just another part of the service industry. “There’s nothing feminist or new in the current wave of antiprostitution reformers who say … that all sex work is ‘sexual enslavement,’” she wrote last year in The Guardian.
Ms. Ramos and her fellow abolitionists frame prostitution as a gender-bias issue. “We live in a world where the whole enforcement apparatus around prostitution is constructed in a hugely, chokingly gender-biased manner,” she said. “Those who are sold are overwhelmingly female. And the buyers and sellers are overwhelmingly male. And resources always go toward arresting the victims. But if we stand a chance of putting the trafficking industry out of business we have to end the demand.”
Melissa Farley, director of Prostitution Research and Education in San Francisco, produced a 2003 study based on interviews with 854 prostituted women around the world. She found that 68 percent of them met the criteria for PTSD. “The most severe damage of prostitution is not physical, it’s psychological,” she said. “The rates of PTSD are among the highest of any group ever studied.”
Prostitution, Ms. Ramos argued, has created “a class of human beings that are not allowed to say no.”
Former diplomat and Texas oil heiress Swanee Hunt has poured millions into the antitrafficking movement. Her Demand Abolition project surveyed 202 johns in Boston and found some disturbing attitudes. “I’ve never had emotional encounters with a prostitute,” said one unnamed survey respondent. “You tell a girl, like, can I put it in your ass and she’s like, ‘Oohh, I really like that.’ That has a good physiological effect.” More crucially, the survey found twice the level of criminality among the sex buyers it interviewed as among the nonbuyers.
The study recommended that police departments like Dallas, which have started to take DNA swabs of prostitutes they arrest—claiming that such women are more likely to be the victims of homicide—should start swabbing johns instead, since they are more likely to be involved in criminal behavior.
The “50 beauties” employed by Ms. Gristina, as the New York Post put it, were said to be a different type than the women enslaved by sex traffickers. They weren’t hookers, they were “escorts,” who come at a higher price and provide services that go beyond sex. Chief among such premium services is what Canadian journalist Victor Malarek, who has written a book on the john culture, calls the “Girlfriend Experience” or GFE (the basis for the Sasha Grey movie).