Here They Go A-Whoring: Media Pander Prostitutes, Pimps

In the wake of revelations that New York Governor Eliot Spitzer was involved with a prostitution ring, the mainstream media have seen fit to offer countless breathless features on high-priced call girls.  It has taken three days for the press to stop glamorizing the world's oldest profession and start telling some of the hard truths.  Kudos to ABC's World News with Charles Gibson for being the first evening newscast to get real.

Until the March 13 broadcast of World News, the network news stories on prostitution painted very rosy pictures about the lives of women who choose to sell their bodies for sex. Because prostitution is illegal in every state except Nevada, the networks have in fact been promoting criminal activity.

March 12 was a banner day for prostitution.  The two days of coverage of the scandal up to that point dealt primarily with the shock of the allegations, Spitzer's political career, speculation about resignation and armchair psychology about why powerful men cheat.  But on March 12 every network changed focus and featured stories on high dollar call girls.  Every network interviewed current or former prostitutes.  The feature stories dealt lightly with legality and completely ignored issues of morality, danger or the social costs of prostitution.

On CBS's Early Show Maggie Rodriguez interviewed Tracy Quan, a former call girl and author of Diary of a Manhattan Call Girl.

RODRIGUEZ: It's, you know, rare that we get a chance to talk to somebody who's done this for a living. Why did you do it?

QUAN: Well, for me it was a way to be independent, to have a livelihood. I was a teenager when I started, and I wanted to be able to support myself. I had a boyfriend who was taking care of me, but I wanted to make my own way in the world.

RODRIGUEZ: Do you eventually get to the point where you see the same guy over and over again, especially when it's these powerful men who crave privacy and discretion?

QUAN: Well, that is considered to be for most call girls, that's the best, is to have, like, maybe 10 regulars who are -- or 15 regulars, who are kind of trustworthy. You know that they're not cops. You know that they're not Eliot Spitzer. And you know, they're not, like, going to get you in trouble.

RODRIGUEZ: Does it ever get to the point where it feels like you're dating?

QUAN: Not really, because in the dating game, especially if you're a hooker, you never feel that the guy can take for granted that he's going to go to bed with you, you know?


QUAN: It's more of -- it depends on your mood. Whereas, obviously, in the sex industry it's a professional decision.

On NBC's Today Show, Peter Alexander reported a feature with prostitutes at a Nevada brothel, and host Meredith Vieira followed with an in-studio interview of a madam and former escort. 

PETER ALEXANDER: Brooke Taylor is one of the newest members of the world's oldest profession.

TAYLOR: I'm not just laying on my back. I'm having intelligent conversations and that's what's going to get a man to spend money on you.  

ALEXANDER: Brooke is 26, college educated and a star of the HBO series Cat House. A revealing look inside Nevada's Bunny Ranch, where prostitution is both legal and lucrative.

CAT HOUSE CLIP: We can do it by time or we can do it by activity.  (Video shows topless prostitute on bed as john comes in and lays what appears to be cash down on the bed.)

TAYLOR: We have one common bond. We all like sex. So we like sex and money.

ALEXANDER: Lots of money. Brooke's services run clients up to $3,000 an hour.   For $3,000 an hour, what does someone get?

TAYLOR: Whatever they want.

ALEXANDER: She makes up to $10,000 for an entire night, much more than she was earning as a social worker just two years ago.

TAYLOR: The beauty of America is I can do this. I can become a businesswoman and I can use the best asset I have, me.

After the adventure in the brothel, NBC returned to the studio, where Today host Meredith Vieira interviewed a former madam and escort.  Vieira displayed remarkable liberal tolerance to the prostitute.

VIEIRA: Natalie, you were a call girl for -- and I know you don't like to use the word prostitute. You say you're a call girl making $2,000 an hour. I don't know quite what the difference is there. But you're also somebody, you come from Canada, middle class family. You wanted to be an actress. You get involved with this man who says he's the king of all pimps. What happened to you?

NATALIE MCLENNAN, FORMER NY ESCORT: What happened to me? It's something that I just fell into and decided to do it for a short period of time. I saw it as a means to improve my own personal financial situation. And, you know, as a result, I'm now writing a book. So, you know, I've made something of the whole situation more than what it just seems or could be.

ABC's Good Morning America took a different tack, featuring a former pimp who described how to easy it is to set up an escort service.

JIM AVILA: Any traveling businessman can tell you, they are not hard to find. Pricey escort services advertise in the back of popular magazines and on the internet, offering normally out of reach women who don't look and dress anything like the stereotypical prostitute for hundreds, even thousands of dollars an hour.

JASON ITZLER:  No powerful, winner man in America wants to pay $4000 to be with a dancer or a stripper. They want a beautiful, debutante type. They really want a society girl.

JIM AVILA: In New York City Jason Itzler became infamous for running prostitutes out of his Manhattan apartment where he made $600,000 to $700,000 a month, he says, before police stepped in and arrested him, sending the man known as the “king of pimps” to jail for 2 1/2 years. Until then Itzler says he thought it was easy to set up one of these services. Virtually no overhead, a phone and advertising with lots of pictures. And key to the high-end business, an alias. So when your clients pay, the innocuous name of consulting company or restaurant appears on the billing statement. Jason's cover, Gotham Steak.

ITZLER: Either to fake out your wife or boss.

Later on March 12 The New York Times revealed the real name of “Kristen,” the prostitute involved in the Spitzer scandal.  The networks hopped all over that, running feature stories on her journey to becoming a prostitute. Some, like ABC, included interviews with psychoanalysts who noted that the young woman's history of abuse at home, running away and being homeless is typical for many prostitutes.  Finally, a kernel of reality.

Finally, at 6:45 p.m. on March 13, three full days after the scandal broke, someone got serious about reporting on prostitution.  Jim Avila, ABC's senior law and justice correspondent, used Ashley Dupre's (aka “Kristen”) personal history to dive into the real truth behind prostitution. He reported that 100,000 women are full time prostitutes in America and laid out the harsh reality.

AVILA: Studies show 75 percent of prostitutes report homelessness at some point. And as many as 95 percent want to stop selling sex. And prostitutes are 18 times more likely to be murdered on the job.

Avila also introduced a former prostitute who now helps other women get out of the world's oldest profession.

There is still much of the reality of prostitution that the mainstream media are not reporting.  In an excellent column for the Portland (ME) Press Herald, Mike Harmon writes:

The home page (for the Emperors' Club) is a block of photos of women in various stages of undress, about as revealing as you'd see in a Victoria's Secret TV ad or catalog (there's a point there, too).  But the photos all have one thing in common that is far more revealing than the women's scanty attire: They are all cut off at the neck.

That's right, no faces. Why would men be interested in who these women are?
That's not what they're looking for.

If the word “dehumanizing” has popped into your mind, there's probably a
good reason. Yet, it gets far worse than that.

Some experts say that slavery is more prevalent now than it has been for centuries. And most people, the estimates range from 700,000 to 2 million per year, ­forced into bondage all over the world are sex slaves, many of them young
teens or even younger children, girls and boys alike. Even when prostitutes are “free,” they are where they are because of their past.

… Prostitution is a particularly vile branch of Organized Crime, Inc., and its
core idea is that women are a commodity who can be bought and sold.
Interestingly enough, this means the worst criminals involved here aren¹t
the prostitutes but the pimps and johns, who often escape prosecution.
Buying and selling people was wrong in the pre-Civil War South, and it's
wrong now.

Harmon is spot-on.  The mainstream media would be well advised to take these points and do some real reporting, rather than filling air time with mindless features that serve no other purpose than to titillate viewers.

Kristen Fyfe is senior writer at the Culture and Media Institute, a division of the Media Research Center.