Law in Contemporary Society


Former Governor Eliot Spitzer was exposed as a john and identified as Client #9. His entanglement with the prostitution ring known as the Emperor’s VIP Club and the coverage of the scandal that ensued, focused almost exclusively on the presence of Silda Spitzer during his press conference, the full birth name and MySpace profile of the prostitute involved, and his devastating “fall from grace.”

This paper focuses on the structure of the Emperor’s VIP Club’s bargaining process, with specific attention to the diamond-rating system used to rank and price the women prostitutes. It is my contention that this particular type of commoditization allows the john to forget or at least distance himself from what it is that he is buying and the less-than-glamorous realities of prostitution and sex trafficking. In this sense, both Spitzer and the public at large have fallen for the same distraction. Both Spitzer, engaging in such a system (albeit knowingly) and the public’s fixation on the “high-priced” factor of his indiscretions, keep the conversation of the marginalized on the margins and miss a rare and crucial opportunity to discuss sex work and exploitation in the United States.

Whore Diamonds: Part Leff, Part Veblen

To characterize prostitution, or any kind of sex work for that matter, as something worthy of being demonized, legalized or something in between is not an objective of this particular discussion. Regardless of the one's particular viewpoint, prostitution has the stigma of being morally or socially depraved. The transformation from this generalized connotation into one of elite luxury begins with a strong pricing scheme. The Emperor’s VIP Club has a diamond rating scale. Women are rated from one to seven diamonds; however, the club is quick to boast that they only carry women worthy of three diamonds or higher. The rates are separated by diamond status and include dawn-to-dawn or hourly rates. Mr. Spitzer’s companion was allegedly ranked at four diamonds and cost $4,300 for the evening. It is noteworthy that, without going to graphic detail, what is purchased with the regard to the diamond scale is not related to the specific services provided. Rather, the ranking and cost are supposedly correlated with the “quality” of the woman including, pedigree, education, and recreational interests. The Elite Emperors Icon women are “carefully selected based on quality and level of education, family background, intelligence, personality, ability to create an enjoyable atmosphere and physical beauty." The valuation of the prostitutes in this manner, the design of the website and frequent self-identification as an “elite” service, all contribute to the conspicuous consumption. Prostitution exists everywhere in the Unites States, but this service sells more than sex; it engages its johns to participate in a “luxury” bred by the air of exclusivity. Johns become “clientele,” further classified by the service as “90% comprised of international CEOs, partners or owners of large companies and firms.” Prostitutes become “Elite Icon models.

Is this just a simple Squaresville sales pitch? No. Though, this particular type of "elite service" may be seen as an explicit offer (paid for sex) with what could be construed as a particular market advantage (organization and service), wealth is not to be gained from this service and there are more salient operatives at work. It is packaged and sold as a well-deserved indulgence, despite it's illegal nature and potential risks. There has yet to be any insinuation that there were female johns or male prostitutes at Emperor's VIP; the power differentials in gender and class (men with disposable income and no aversion to purchasing sex) are at play here, tugging at the strings of particularly classic masculine hyperbole. The men participating in this service are fully aware and intend to purchase sex and seek out these particular types of services. Is there a difference between johns who call from a phone book, make arrangements on a website or drive to a dark corner for prostitution? Surely, they are all purchasing sex. Is it simply a difference in price?

  • The use of "johns" has the effect of "otherizing" or distancing the participants as actual men. This use is intentional. The use of simply referring to "men" has the effect of normalization and overgeneralization. Both terms may be seen as problematic.
There is no real correlation between “safety” and price, as it is especially common to pay an exclusive service more money for riskier sex. Mr. Spitzer was apparently no different. Here, saftey refers to risky sexual behaviors. A common misconception is that use of "elite" sex services results in greater access to medical care and less risk of venereal disease. There may be some obvious correlation between what is perceived as class status and greater agency to health. However, this same perception of risk often results in non-elite status prostitutes having an extremely rigorous safer sexual practice regimens and access to regular testing. Anecdotal evidence provides the knowledge, as in Mr. Spitzer's case, that people are willing to engage more regularly in unsafe sex practices with prostitutes who are seen as "high-class." This is no different than mainstream sexual practices. Of course, all of this becomes compounded with larger notions of agency, personal safety and negotiation.

Using a Leffian approach, the importance here is not what is being purchased but how it is purchased. Once in this venue, the up-sell is also part of the lure and the scam. The business of purchasing sex through the Emperor’s VIP was conducted entirely via email and telephone contact. Imagine a sales pitch that sounds something like this: “All of our girls are rated from 1 to 7 diamonds. All are happy to provide full-services. For three diamonds, you can date Ashley. For five diamonds, Kelly. And for the most-elite, Veronica for seven diamonds.” Ashley, Kelly and Veronica are, of course, the same person. The imbalance of knowledge is as much a part of the up-sell as the drive for conspicuous consumption supporting the rationale that if you pay more, you must be getting more.

Media Fixations: We all bought the scam, too.

For lack of a better term, I refer to the frenzy and scandal presentation on radio, blogs, and “trusted news sources” collectively as the media. Unintended is the connotation of a big, bad “other” separate from public participation. The media, while not always reflective of public opinion (or truth for that matter), is representative of a collective response.

In addition to whatever elements drive the market for prostitution, another important role is played by the distinction of prostitution as an “elite” service. Consumers of these so-called “elite” services not only do so due to invidious or conspicuous consumption or as marks victim to swindling tactics, they do so in part because it allows the false understanding of their consumption as fundamentally different from other prostitution. Where there is prostitution, homelessness, child abuse, sexual abuse, or other violence and extreme poverty often trail not too far behind.

There is the suggestion of something dank and trashy about picking up an anonymous whore from a street corner. This is not how Spitzer engaged in prostitution. To avoid such connotation, in every major news report of the then-breaking story of Spitzer’s demise, he was consistently referred to as being involved with a “high-priced prostitution ring.” His arrogance and hypocrisy were highlighted. Little was made during initial coverage of the replication of selling one's body in exchange for some (monetary) gain, when he stepped down from office criminally unscathed. Once the prostitute’s identity was released, there was frenzy about Ashley Alexandra Dupre, aka “Kristin.” Her MySpace page became front page. Her life story, with little emphasis on the allegations of abuse and short homeless period, was framed as a perverted tale of the American Dream “from rags to riches.”

This whole process has already been replicated by the recent news of Thomas Athens, who was caught having relations with a prostitute for a mere $150. You may not recognize his name, as he is rarely identified by it. He is the husband of U.S. Senator Debbie Stabenow.

  • Wrong punctuation. There are, as you know, 100 U.S. Senators.
  • This was, of course, a typo. Thank you for the correction.

The prostitute involved is Alycia Martin (her MySpace page and middle name are readily available as well). The convergence of public fascination for scandals and the focus on individuals operate to quash any discussion of how insidious prostitution is in some parts of society. The pictures in the headlines feature both Senator Stabenow and Ms. Martin. Thomas Athens is nowhere to be found and little mentioned. Prof. Moglen contributed:

  • As A.J. Liebling famously pointed out in 1935, quoting an editor of the Hearst Features Syndicate, three things sell newspapers: blood, money, and the female organ of sexual intercourse. The male counterpart doesn't sell newspapers.
However, this would account for the attention paid to Ms. Martin and does not fully justify the focus on Debbie Stabenow (except, the obvious ties to politics). That incident has already been calculated publicly as worth about “.046 whore diamonds.” This prostitute is referred to as a hooker. Conversely, Ms. Dupre was continously referred to by her name or the "high price prostitute involved in the Eliot Spitzer scandal" during the initial two weeks of news coverage.


As an American public, the mainstream surface-level discussion has shown that we bought into the notion of “elite” services as separate from the world of commonplace prostitution. Interestingly, this has occured in the face of broadening dialogue among established sex workers and advocates. Similar to white women with respect to women's rights, affluent gay men in LGBT rights, and several other movements continously fought that incorporate an intersection of identities, an elite group has begun to dominate the conversation and emerge as the center of the discussion of sex workers rights and working conditions. While this is an expansion from what newsmedia and the American public has generally welcomed to dinner-table conversation, there is something valuable missed. The fascination with elite prostitution services and other manifestations of sex work has been dominated by a particularly privileged group of participants. This discourse is necessary but not encompassing of the many different realities attached to prostitution and sex work. The limited conversation, specifically in the wake of the Spitzer scandal, is detrimental as it has the effect of characterizing prostitution as completely represented by this group (and does not discuss where, if or how imbalance of power and marginalization occurs).

The discussion of the status of prostitution in America in the short time of the Spitzer scandal frenzy centered on what happens in “elite” brothels, featuring interviews with porn stars, other “high-priced prostitutes” and Heidi Fleiss. There are no "hookers" interviewed. There is little connection made to the systems of oppression that operate, of the millions of U.S. children prostituting themselves. Little mention of power differentials supported by the U.S. legal system is made, as evidenced by the structure of laws pertaining to johns and prostitutes. Interesting discussion could have been had about other types of structures, for example Sweden's System. There are several alternatives and much rich discussion to be had that, like so many other instances, fail to be mentioned in mainstream media. Though this is expected, it does not detract from the harmful consequences of such myopia. Mainstream public discourse has arguably been swayed by similar factors to see Mr. Spitzer’s purchase as something different than exploitation.

  • -- MiaWhite - 07 Apr 2008 - revised 16 May 2008


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r8 - 12 Jan 2009 - 23:00:03 - IanSullivan
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