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.”
-Foes of Sex Trade Are Stung by the Fall of an Ally