I’m originally from New York State, and the first election I ever voted in was when beloved Governor Mario Cuomo was defeated for re-election by George Pataki, mostly because Pataki promised to reinstate the death penalty in New York, and all those “pro-life” Catholics in Upstate New York really seem to like the death penalty. That election broke my little teenage heart.

I was registered to vote in Washington, DC, and not New York, for the 2006 election, but I was pleased that not only did the Republicans lose control of the US Congress, but Pataki lost the New York governorship to Eliot Spitzer. I don’t follow my home state’s politics too closely – I leave that to my dad, for whom Albany is like a second home – so I really didn’t know much about Spitzer or what he’s been up to until the news broke this week that what he’s been up to is cavorting with very expensive prostitutes.

Between this and reading Natalia Antonova’s excellent blog, which often deals with issues of human trafficking and sex-worker rights, I’ve been thinking a lot about prostitution: whether it should be legal or illegal, its effect on society and women in particular, professional sex workers who don’t feel coerced but actually like their jobs, and the fact that they don’t call it “the world’s oldest profession” for nothing – that is, prostitution is not going to disappear, ever, so we might as well figure out how best to deal with it.

Part of me buys the notion that prostitution should simply be legalized. What consenting adults do is a matter of concern to themselves and maybe family and friends, but not society as a whole. The biggest problem with prostitution is that some women are forced into it, mistreated by their pimps and customers, and don’t get the medical care they need to make sure that everyone involved is safe. Legalizing prostitution, in theory, can minimize these problems because sex workers would have the right to form unions, contest their working conditions, and insist that clients use prophylactics, among other things.

But then I read this interesting article, which compares the Dutch model (legalization) with the Swedish model (selling sex is legal, buying sex isn’t), and says that the former has resulted in a booming sex industry which actually encourages the trafficking of unwilling, and often underaged, women, while the latter has reduced trafficking. This line hit me like a punch in the stomach: “the bottom line is that if you want to rape a 13-year-old girl imported from Eastern Europe, you’ll have a much easier time in Amsterdam than in Stockholm.” This guy has a way with words. The point of the article is the irony that Spitzer was pushing for legislation similar to the Swedish model, criminalizing himself.

So maybe the Swedish model is the best solution (isn’t it always?) but what about the question of criminalizing consenting adults? I mean, we all feel a little sick when a family man like Spitzer publicly admits to sleeping with prostitutes while his lovely wife is standing by his side, but that’s their problem to work out, not ours. What about a guy who doesn’t have a family? Whose business is it then? You might judge him on a personal level, but is it necessary to do so on a legal level?

I suppose I still think that legalization is the answer, but a government has to remain vigilant about monitoring the trafficking and mistreatment of sex workers. I’m not sure what the Dutch government is doing (or not doing), exactly – I guess I ought to do some research.

This doesn’t mean that I don’t think Spitzer should step down. Whether or not you agree with certain laws, a public official should obey them unless s/he is participating in some form of principled civil disobedience, which hypocritical Spitzer clearly wasn’t. He obviously wouldn’t have any political capital left if he stayed in office. So, he has to go.

The silver lining is that New York is going to have its first African-American governor. It’s unfortunate that it had to happen in such a roundabout way, but if he does a good job he’ll get re-elected and nobody will care how he got there. Good luck, David Paterson!