Money shot: Eliot Spitzer and the religio-economic politics of sexual silence

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This has nothing to do with good governance. This is about fucking and money.

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“New York Gov. Spitzer linked to prostitution ring”: If anything is clear from the reaction to Eliot Spitzer’s copping, on Monday, March 10, to having engaged the services of a high-priced prostitute while visiting Washington, D.C., earlier this year, it is the extent to which we have minimized and smoothed out the host of contingencies surrounding sex acts which fall outside the scope of both established Judaeo-Christian moral codes and our particular capitalism’s complementary established means of selling sex as a suggested, secondary effect of buying whatever else—which is far more lucrative (and in a self-perpetuating manner) than selling sex as such. Sublimating our sex into our advertising allows us to constantly preoccupy ourselves with sex without the compunctions that should, for those who consider themselves morally upright in the Judaeo-Christian tradition, come with such delightfully dirty preoccupations: if “sex” is in all spheres of culture besieging the subject, he need not assume that he is the generative source of his sexual impulses, and thus isn’t forced to confront any guilt attending them. Spitzer is but the latest in a string of such national lightning rods: our continued existence as a Christian capitalist nation and the persistence of our individual senses of sexual propriety (not to mention certain key bits of the edifice of identity politics—bits that distinguish the accepted sexual deviants from the unaccepted ones, forcefully integrating the former to the mainstream while sharply denying the validity of the former, perpetually redrawing the lines of the universal [in the Laclauian sense of the universal as an empty space under constant hegemonic pressures from all parties]) require that we force him to resign.

But why?

Most calls for Spitzer’s resignation have thus far been premised not on his sexual transgression as such, but rather on (1) his having broken the law by engaging a prostitute (Assembly Minority Leader James Tedisco [R-Schenectady]: “We’re all public figures here, and when you break the law, that becomes a public matter…. He must resign his position”) or (2) his being a hypocrite, based on his having spoken, as New York State attorney general in 2003,

with revulsion about prostitution after he brought suit against a Queens company suspected of planning sex tourism trips to Asia. The agency, Big Apple Oriental Tours, had been accused of arranging tours for men seeking sex with prostitutes, some underage, in the Philippines, Thailand and Cambodia. “The company purports to be a traditional travel agency, but through its actions promotes prostitution and the abuse of young women,” Spitzer said.

As Nora Ephron puts it in an insightful piece at the Huffington Post, “This is the problem these guys get into: they’re so morally rigid and puritanical in real life (and one some level, so responsible for this priggish world we now live in) that when they get caught committing victimless crimes, everyone thinks they should be punished for sheer hypocrisy.”
 
The suggestion that the governor must resign because he has broken the law—especially a law so manifestly inconsequential to the execution of his office (as Ephron points out, it was passed before women had the right to vote), a law broken repeatedly by a good half of American politicians of Spitzer’s stature, a law whose incessant violation by public officials is not only an historical fact but at times (it could be argued) a historical necessity, a law whose history is based as much in the expansion of aristocratic commercial interests as in attempts toward moral rigor—is without merit. The suggestion that he should resign on charges of hypocrisy is silly for similar reason of fairness and scope: shall we boot out of office all accused and probable hypocrites? Both resignation rationales are specious: they emanate less from expectations that public officials will be lawful and consistent than from an irreducibly ethical disgust—surely sincere for some but likely largely feigned by Spitzer’s fellow public-official patrons of ladies of the night—with the frank sexual nature of Spitzer’s transgression. That is to say that Spitzer is under especially intense pressure to resign not because he has broken a law or been proved to have been dishonest (regardless of the truth of those claims), but because, in the eyes of the public, he stands now as an embodiment of the collectively condemned, yet individually understood, base impulses toward promiscuity the masses seek to deny in themselves; and because, in the case of Spitzer’s legislative colleagues, his particular transgression is one common enough among them to warrant the swiftest and most zealous prosecution of the governor as a symbol of their own worst selves to be destroyed—and, relatedly, as a proxy for personal repentance. (The only individuals to whom Spitzer owes a thing in the wake of this scandal are his wife and children: those to whom he has broken personal, emotional commitments of the sort we all make to loved ones.) Spitzer is under fire from the media, his peers, and his constituents for reasons that have little to do with the justifications offered by those parties and everything to do with sexual repression and guilt from the individual subject to society at large.

The suggestion that Spitzer is hypocritical as such with respect to prostitution (as opposed to the suggestion that he should resign based upon that hypocrisy) is similarly and instructively questionable. His hypocrisy supposedly consists in his having engaged the services of one or more professional East Coast call girls after having, five years earlier, denounced and prosecuted companies with ties to foreign sex trade operations. The speciousness here should be obvious: are we prepared to conflate the Southeast Asian underage sex-slave trade with the multimillion-dollar industry of high-priced prostitutes catering to the wealthy and powerful? Such a conflation is necessary if we want to call Spitzer a hypocrite. Does not such a conflation not mischaracterize the prostitutes (who, while certainly not living the good life by most conventional standards, are unlikely to have spent weeks in transit stuffed into wooden crates, etc.) and trivialize the forced relocation, sale, and rape (though this last charge is more complicated) of young girls and boys? Other than the fact that both (1) luxury domestic prostitution and (2) sex with minors abroad are both sexual and illegal, what precisely do they share that could legitimately open Spitzer to charges of hypocrisy?

My point here is not that Spitzer is not a hypocrite, but simply that if we’re going to make claims of that sort, we need to be quite frank and precise about our evidence for those claims—unlike most of those calling for Spitzer’s resignation. Any conflation of sexual situations as radically different as those of high-priced American call-girls and Asian sex slaves, regardless of whether it is intentional, is irresponsible: as are any number of other facts and factors relating to sexual issues of public import that go unenunciated or, worse, are obscured or ignored. Indeed, the most solemn hypocrisy here is not Spitzer’s, but that of those who would condemn him without acknowledging the extent to which that condemnation is motivated by a misunderstanding of, revulsion toward, and fascination with sexual transgression.

This has nothing to do with good governance or a lack of it. This is about fucking: how much we like it, how much guilt it occasions, and how uncomfortable we are talking about it. Our national skittishness toward sex has fostered the poisonous public discourse in which we’re currently stuck, in which prudishness is allowed to masquerade as morality and honesty and frankness are demanded—but only to a critical threshold, at which silence becomes mandatory. (Samantha Power, the human rights expert and Obama advisor who was forced to resign after accurately calling Clinton’s tactics monstrous and Clinton “a monster” for employing them, knows the perils of crossing that threshold all too well.) It’s also about money. Spitzer will be forced to resign not because he has broken a law or shown himself to be a hypocrite, but because if he does not resign, the taboos that keep sex out of the market as such—that keep it out of the market as sex—but everywhere in the market as everything else, as a sublimated, exploitable desire, will weaken ever so slightly. If (to narrow our scope to the group most susceptible to advertising playing on sexual desire: young, straight men) the erections occasioned by buxom ladies in beer commercials could be relieved with a compunction-free visit to a skilled, well-compensated prostitute—in other words, if having frequent, phenomenal sex in the real world were as simple as it is made to seem in commercials—the rarity and value of those buxom ladies, and with them the commercial success of the beer, would plummet. Allowing Spitzer to retain his position is, in this sense—which is absurd if we limit our thought to Spitzer alone but undeniable at the societal level—a very serious threat to not only American morality but also the American, and increasingly the global, market. (For international examples one need look no further than the global gag rule: an influx of American money and an imposition of American morals go hand-in-hand.)

Near the end of this year’s Superbowl, Victoria’s Secret aired an ad in which a gorgeous young brunette in something black and lacey sits in a chair large enough, with some strategic repositioning of the brunette, to accommodate both her a second occupant. She plays provocatively with a football, her fingers titillating its tips while her tongue moistens her pouting lips. “THE GAME WILL SOON BE OVER” flashes across the screen—the brunette, finished with the football, drops it to the floor and locks her eyes on you as the screen fades to black—then to “LET THE REAL GAMES BEGIN.” “So,” I said to the gathering of 15 or so friends I was watching the game with, to a mostly silent room, to no one in particular, “the idea is now that you’re finished watching the game you get to fuck her?” I was met with a nervous titter or two, an overemphatic guffaw, a dirty look. “What?” I asked. “That is the idea.”

I was wrong. The idea is not that you get to fuck the brunette after the broadcast. The idea is that you will want to—and so, after the game and for the rest of your life, will go out, spend thousands of dollars on clothes and cars and in restaurants and bars pursuing any number of similarly alluring ladies who just might, if you buy them gifts from Victoria’s Secret, let you fuck them. That’s the American dream—the pursuit of material goods and sex buttressed by their interdependent, mutually beneficial silent regulation—and if Eliot Spitzer has to go down to keep it alive, good riddance!
 
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