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2008-03-12

As Spitzer Prostitution Scandal Dominates Headlines, a Look at the Plight of Sex Workers

Guests

Juhu Thukral, Director of the Sex Workers Project at the Urban Justice Center.

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What happens to the escort? While the Eliot Spitzer story has dominated the news media for the past two days, little coverage has been paid to the plight of sex workers in this country. We speak with Juhu Thukral, director of the Sex Workers Project of the Urban Justice Center. [includes rush transcript]

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: While the Eliot Spitzer story has dominated the news media for the past two days, little coverage has been paid to the plight of sex workers in this country. Joining us in our firehouse studio is Juhu Thukral. She is director of the Sex Workers Project of the Urban Justice [Center]. The Sex Workers Project provides legal services and legal training for sex workers. In 2006, Thukral co-authored a report called "Behind Closed Doors: An Analysis of Indoor Sex Work in New York City." ...

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, Juhu Thukral, I’d like to bring you in on this and especially this issue of the Mann Act and what your organization was doing, especially even with Governor Spitzer and how he was — reacted to some of the reforms you were trying to bring about.

JUHU THUKRAL: Last year, New York State passed anti-trafficking law, and it’s actually one of the toughest laws in the country. And Eliot Spitzer was very important in pushing the law through. We had been working on the law for the last couple of years. But there was a great deal of controversy around certain elements of the bill. And, for example, we opposed a provision that he pushed through — we and a numerous other advocates — which actually enhanced the penalties against clients of prostitutes.

And our perspective is, this is a trafficking law; let’s leave it focused on trafficking and on traffickers. And also, the more that you go after clients and customers of prostitutes, the less likely they are to actually come forward when you have knowledge, for example, of a woman that you’ve seen who’s in danger. We’ve actually had clients call us and refer women to us, so that we can help them protect their legal rights. And we’ve taken these women on as clients. So, really, it depends on what your goal is. Do you want to help people, and do you want to make sure that people feel comfortable coming forward when they have information?

AMY GOODMAN: Now, just to reiterate and just to understand, you’re saying you worked with the Governor, there were other groups involved with this, like —-

JUHU THUKRAL: Numerous other groups, yes.

AMY GOODMAN: Some of them were?

JUHU THUKRAL: There was Safe Horizon. There was Equality Now. There was, you know, the Bar Association of New York.

AMY GOODMAN: Working to -— and Eliot Spitzer took on a crusading role here —-

JUHU THUKRAL: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: —- pushing through laws that would increase penalties against johns —-

JUHU THUKRAL: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: —- against the client.

JUHU THUKRAL: Yes, yes.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And this happened last year.

JUHU THUKRAL: This happened just last year. The law went into effect on November 1st.

JUAN GONZALEZ: So, presumably, he was pushing toughening penalties at the same time he himself was being a client of some of — according to what the reports we’ve heard so far.

JUHU THUKRAL: I mean, that’s what it appears to be, you know. And our biggest concern is really the fact that the more that you push the sort of pressure of arrest on customers and on prostitutes, they’re much less likely to actually come forward when they need help. So our concerns are when a prostitute is assaulted by somebody, by a customer — not all customers are violent, but when they are, we want to make sure that they’re willing to come forward and say, “Look, I’ve been a victim of a crime.” And we get a lot of calls from women saying, “I’ve been a victim. I was assaulted.” Sometimes the customer is a police officer himself. And they are terrified of going forward. When we are able to go forward, we often find that the police don’t do anything. So the reason that we oppose these kinds of enhancing penalties against customers is that in the long run it just drives people further underground. And there have been studies that have shown that this doesn’t work very well.

AMY GOODMAN: Though you’re in the minority of the women’s rights groups on that, because they were pushing for —-

JUHU THUKRAL: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: —- instead of the woman being the one who’s constantly rounded up, picked up, arrested and thrown out, the sex worker, that the johns would be focused on, the people like, well, presumably Eliot Spitzer.

JUHU THUKRAL: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: And he may now be subject to his own law that he pushed through.

JUHU THUKRAL: There were a number of women’s rights groups who agreed with Eliot Spitzer, obviously, but there were also a lot of groups that didn’t agree with that position, because, again, you know, it sounds like it’s a good answer — let’s go ahead and arrest everybody, and that’s going to end prostitution — but the truth is, people go into prostitution most often because they’re really desperate for money or they are looking around, they’re not able to make enough money. A lot of our clients have jobs in the mainstream and then supplement it with sex work, because they don’t have enough to live on.

The report that we released — but we’ve released two reports in the last few years on sex workers in New York City. Two-thirds of them say that they can’t make a living wage in jobs that they’ve had. The jobs that they have are things like waitressing, working in an office, doing retail sales, that type of thing. And so, we’re finding people are pushed into sex work often for economic reasons. And so, going after customers, what that often does is even put people in even more dangerous situations, because they are then going and agreeing to meet with customers that they may not otherwise see, because there aren’t as many customers around.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And what about the Mann Act? It’s been rarely used, but there’s also some discussion of possible expansion or changes in it. Could you talk about that, as well?

JUHU THUKRAL: The Mann Act is often used in trafficking cases. There’s the federal trafficking law, and sometimes charges are brought under the Mann Act, as well, just to sort of make it a very complete prosecution. But right now, Congress is in the middle of reauthorizing this anti-trafficking law, the federal law, and they are looking at an expansion of the Mann Act. And again, that’s what we — we’re opposing that, as well, because what they’re trying to do — currently, the Mann Act prohibits transporting people across state lines for the purposes of prostitution. What they want to do now is also have this federal law prohibit transportation within states. But a lot of organizations have come out, because this is a state’s rights issue. This is a local crime that’s best dealt with local police and with local district attorneys’ offices. And DOJ, the Department of Justice, has actually opposed this provision. A lot of members of the national anti-trafficking organizations have opposed it, and a lot of policing organizations have opposed this expansion, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s interesting, the Mann Act was called the White-Slave Traffic Act of 1910, and the people most famously prosecuted under it — rarely used — are people like, well, heavyweight boxing champ Jack Johnson, first man prosecuted under the act for having an affair with Lucille Cameron, whom he later married, the prosecution manifestly an effort to get Johnson, who at the time was the most famous African American. 1944, Charlie Chaplin, prosecuted for having an affair with actress Joan Barry. Prosecution again provided cover for a politically motivated effort to drive Chaplin out of the country.

Now, the significance, Wayne Barrett, of these laws and the negotiation that’s taking place behind closed doors right now at Eliot Spitzer’s house? You’ve got the laws, the possibility of indictment, fierce Republican federal prosecutors right now, and you’ve got a governor who, if he were just to resign, he could then be indicted. But if he makes it a package, maybe all they want is to get him out of office.

WAYNE BARRETT: I doubt that that’s all they want. I think they want a plea to something. And they have a problem, though. They have nine other johns that are in this case, and who knows who —-

AMY GOODMAN: Number one through eight and then ten?

WAYNE BARRETT: Yes, and -— right. And who knows who they are and what – you know, whether or not — I mean, I have no doubt in my own mind that had the same situation developed where there were unusual financial transactions and a Republican governor and the Bush administration were in precisely the same set of circumstances, that we’d have never seen the light —- this case would have never seen the light of day. I have really no doubt in my mind. I mean, if you -—

AMY GOODMAN: Michael Mukasey is the Attorney General, who comes from New York.

WAYNE BARRETT: Yes. Now, Michael Mukasey — now, you start talking about Giuliani, and I’m telling you, I think this is, in some ways, a very relevant Giuliani story. When Michael Mukasey recused himself as a federal judge on five or six cases, saying he was too close to Rudy Giuliani and Rudy Giuliani had an interest in this, well, there’s all kinds of speculation now that Rudy Giuliani is going to run for governor of New York. I don’t know whether or not Michael Mukasey should be handling this case. And clearly, he is personally involved in this case.

The hatred for Eliot Spitzer within the inner circle of Rudy Giuliani is profound. Ken Langone, who was involved in the investigation of the Stock Exchange, was the finance chair of Rudy Giuliani’s campaigns. And Jack Welch, the head of GE, says that Eliot Spitzer came up to him at the DNC and said, “Your friend, Ken Langone, I’m going to put a spike through his heart.” And Ken Langone hates — hates — he said yesterday something about, that no hellfire is good enough for Eliot Spitzer. Well, now, that’s just one example. The inner circle of the people around Rudy Giuliani hate Eliot Spitzer, and Michael Mukasey is part of that inner circle. I think he should recuse — he should have recused himself a long time ago from this investigation. I don’t think he should be involved in it. And, you know, I don’t think Eliot Spitzer is likely to get too fair a shake, even in these circumstances, from this Justice Department.

AMY GOODMAN: They knew all this. Eliot Spitzer knew all this.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, the Wall Street Journal was reporting that the biggest celebrations were on Wall Street —-

WAYNE BARRETT: Sure.

JUAN GONZALEZ: —- as soon as the news broke, in terms of the reaction and the hatred that many of the CEOs in New York have toward Spitzer.

WAYNE BARRETT: That’s why this is such incredibly reckless conduct. If you’re going to take on these kinds of forces, I mean, show a little discretion.

AMY GOODMAN: And what Eliot Spitzer was doing on Monday, when they talk about the business — I referred to this yesterday. Democracy Now!

was broadcasting from Albany, because there was a huge reproductive health summit put on by Family Planning Advocates. A thousand reproductive rights advocates, legislators were there to really talk about pushing forward on an Eliot Spitzer bill that is perhaps the most progressive abortion rights bill in the country. Ironically, yesterday was Catholic Church Lobby Day in Albany. On Monday, it was Reproductive Rights Day in Albany. And interestingly, David Paterson, who could become the first black governor of New York, the first blind governor in the country, spoke also — the Lieutenant Governor — and talked about being a Catholic who is pro-choice. Clearly, he will take on this issue in as fierce a way as Eliot Spitzer has. But it’s not talked about as much, you know, what was happening on that day and the significance of — well, it’s hard to talk about it as a sex-and-politics summit, but very ironic it took place on that day. What do you think is going to happen?

WAYNE BARRETT: Well, he’s going to have to step down. And I can’t imagine that they’re going to get a conclusion to this negotiation in short time. In some ways, the Daily News said this morning that he was holding the state hostage to this, and in some ways that’s true. It’s only been a few hours. It’s been a couple of days. I mean, I think the negotiations probably started on Monday. But I don’t see how the feds cut a deal at this point, unless he pleads to something that they regard as reasonably serious. I mean, the way they are — he was clearly the target of this investigation. They’re clearly, I mean, in a position to probably flip several people around this case. You know, they’ve indicted four people from the agency, from the Emperors’ Club. They can flip those people. I could see this case going on for a while before the feds will agree to some kind of a resolution of it.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Juhu, what will happen to — well, they talk about the woman, Kristen, the woman that Eliot Spitzer was with. What will happen to these women?

JUHU THUKRAL: It really depends. I mean, often in these situations where the customer is arrested or the people who are running the ring are arrested, women who are working are put in positions where they’re going to be asked to testify and really cooperate with law enforcement. So it depends on how much they need her. I mean, I think our concern is really making sure that in situations like these, if there are instances of violence, if there are instances of coercion, women and men who are involved in sex work know that they can come forward and feel safe and feel that the police are actually going to help them.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you both for being with us. Just in political terms also, by the way, this means that Hillary Clinton loses a superdelegate, right? You have Eliot Spitzer. David Paterson becomes the top superdelegate, and that’s very significant for Hillary Clinton, because he will be one of the only African American governors in US history really rising to prominence. But it doesn’t do very well for the Democrats overall, does it, Wayne?

WAYNE BARRETT: No, it’s a disaster for the Democrats in the state. And look, it’s still a very Democratic state. It’s possible in November a Democratic Senate will get elected. Maybe David Paterson can make that happen. But the unusual thing about Eliot Spitzer was that he could raise the money that would convince really electable Democrats to leave the Assembly, as just happened in late February, and run for these seats. And it was a combination of the money that he could raise and the candidates that he could round up, and I don’t know whether David is going to have the same magic.

AMY GOODMAN: We’ll leave it there. I want to thank you, Wayne Barrett, senior editor at the Village Voice, and Juhu Thukral, director of the Sex Workers Project at the Urban Justice Center.

[...]

Juan, your phone has been going off nonstop, and it is because we see the latest news, just looking at the New York Post: Governor Eliot Spitzer has decided to resign and will begin notifying top state officials of the decision right after we go off the air. Word has been circulating of his decision, as Silda Wall Spitzer, his wife, and the Governor’s lawyers go over a possible plea deal. Lieutenant Governor David Paterson, who has remained at his suburban Albany home for the past three days, expected to be notified of Spitzer’s decision within the hour. Sources said Paterson has told friends if he does become governor, he’d like Spitzer to hold off his resignation ’til Monday to give him enough time to prepare for a transition.

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