March 12, 2008
As New York’s attorney general, Eliot Spitzer had broken up prostitution rings before, but this 2004 case took on a special urgency for him. Prosecuting an international sex tourism business based in Queens, he listened to the entreaties of women’s advocates long frustrated by state laws that fell short of dealing with a sex trade expanding rapidly across borders.
And with his typical zeal, he embraced their push for new legislation, including a novel idea at its heart: Go after the men who seek out prostitutes.
It was a question of supply and demand, they all agreed. And one effective way to suppress the demand was to raise the penalties for patronizing a prostitute. In his first months as governor last year, Mr. Spitzer signed the bill into law.
Now the human rights groups, which credit him with what they call the toughest and most comprehensive anti-sex-trade law in the nation, are in shock. Mr. Spitzer stands accused of being one of the very men his law was designed to catch and punish.
“It leaves those of us who worked with his office absolutely feeling betrayed,” said Dorchen Leidholdt, director of Sanctuary for Families Legal Services, one of the leaders of the coalition that drafted the legislation.
The law, which went into effect Nov. 1, mainly deals with redefining and prosecuting forms of human trafficking, which Governor Spitzer called “modern-day slavery.” It offers help to the women who are victims of the practice, rather than treating them as participants in crime.
But it also lays the groundwork for a more aggressive crackdown on demand, by increasing the penalty for patronizing a prostitute, a misdemeanor, to up to a year in jail, from a maximum of three months.
That was a key shift in approach for New York State, and one the governor and his top aides seemed to support wholeheartedly, said Ken Franzblau, now director of the law’s implementation at the State Division of Criminal Justice Services. Generally, the law and its enforcers focus on pimps and prostitutes, and treat customers as an afterthought.
“If you eliminate the demand, you eliminate the problem,” said Mr. Franzblau, who worked for years with Equality Now, a women’s advocacy and human rights group that had long urged prosecution of the Queens sex tourism business operating as Big Apple Oriental Tours.
“In fact, the demand is really the lower-hanging fruit,” he added. “The johns are really afraid of being caught. The idea is that if we get some real penalties, and get D.A.’s to insist on them, we really could create a deterrent to this.”
For Equality Now, and a core of high-profile supporters that included Gloria Steinem and Representative Carolyn B. Maloney, the Big Apple Oriental Tours case was a frustrated seven-year campaign for prosecution that became a turning point. Even after Mr. Franzblau posed as a would-be customer, gathering what was described as “smoking-gun evidence,” the Queens district attorney, Richard A. Brown, declined to prosecute.
Mr. Brown maintained that under state law he had no legal jurisdiction over acts of prostitution that took place in Thailand and in the Philippines, even if those acts were being promoted by a travel business operated in New York.
Mr. Spitzer disagreed. Newly re-elected as attorney general, he began an investigation, slapped the business with a civil action that shut down its Web site, and in February 2004, won a grand jury indictment of the two operators in Dutchess County, where they lived. He proclaimed it the first criminal charge against a sex tourism business based in the United States.
But the case stalled, and despite another indictment in 2005, it has yet to reach trial.
Efforts to clarify and overhaul New York’s penal code on prostitution and human trafficking seemed stuck in legislative gridlock.
“We had tremendous difficulty trying to get this law passed, year after year,” said Taina Bien-Aimé, executive director of Equality Now. “Our only hope was for Eliot Spitzer to be elected governor.”
“He understood,” she added. “He got it, unlike hundreds of other politicians and law enforcement officials that we talked to.”
She and Ms. Leidholdt said the governor put his muscle behind the legislation, detailing top aides to work with sponsors of piecemeal bills that had languished, to consult with a coalition of human rights and women’s groups, and to lobby labor unions whose support was won through provisions addressing the trafficking and exploitation of workers.
Peter Pope, one of Mr. Spitzer’s point people on the bill, declined to comment through the governor’s press secretary, Errol Cockfield.
The law explicitly made sex tourism and its promotion a crime, resolving the jurisdictional debate that had mired the Big Apple prosecution for so long. But more important, Ms. Bien-Aimé said, it demonstrated a comprehensive approach to the larger issues.
“One of the goals of the human trafficking law was the acknowledgment that demand is a critical factor in sex trafficking,” she said. “And as a result of that, it increased the penalties for patronizing a prostitute across the board, whether or not the person is trafficked.”
Too often, Ms. Bien-Aimé maintained, the public imagines a huge divide between the kind of glamorous call girl depicted in a movie like “Pretty Woman,” and the lurid, violent world of trafficked women in a film like “Eastern Promises.” But they are all part of a commercial sex industry that buys women’s bodies, she said, citing studies that put the average age of entry into prostitution in the United States at 14.
“There’s no sliding scale in the exploitation of women,” she said. “Either you exploit a woman in the commercial sex trade or you don’t.”
Because Mr. Spitzer seemed to agree, she said, “he was our hero.”