Friday, March 14, 2008

The Natashas

"No, seriously - the guy's a total spitzer."
Disgraced ex-NY governor Eliot Spitzer may be out of a job but he may be providing a new word for us all. According to Kaganoff's Dictionary of Jewish Names and Their History "Spitzer" simply means "from Spitz, a town in Austria". But it has the sound and feel of a word from last century, a Yiddish word in the same neighbourhood as shlemiel (a loser), shlep (someone unkempt), shmo (a fool) and of course shmuck* and putz* (a fool, a jerk). Already the online slang dictionary, the Urban Dictionary has a few suggestions for spitzer, including my favourite:
"To unexpectedly -- and spectacularly -- destroy your career in a single act so obviously wrong that having someone tell you "you should know better" would be blatantly redundant."
Missing from the above definition is any reference to the specific "single act" that destroyed Spitzer's career, namely hiring a prostitute. And Mr. Moral Crusader hiring a prostitute! Oy!

Despite the yawning chasm between his words and his deeds, Spitzer has defenders. Harvard law professor prostitution is a victimless crime. He argues that "these may be sins, but there are no real victims..." in a piece entitled "Spitzer Has Sinned, But It’s Our Sex Obsession That’s Criminal" in the Jewish Daily Forward.

Dershowitz enjoys the role of iconoclast I think, and his opinion is outnumbered by those who may not care so much as to the criminality of the situation, but certainly do care about a man holding high office that apparently considered the buying of women no big deal - just another object to be packaged and shipped.

One of the strongest pieces in this respect was "The Myth of the Victimless Crime" by Melissa Farley and Victor Malarek in the NY Times. They noted:
"Whether the woman is in a hotel room or on a side street in someone’s car, whether she’s trafficked from New York to Washington or from Mexico to Florida or from the city to the suburbs, the experience of being prostituted causes her immense psychological and physical harm. And it all starts with the buyer."
And Victor Malarek knows what he is talking about. He is the well-known Canadian investigative journalist, with years as reporter on CBC's The Fifth Estate. In 2003 he published the results of four years of research into the global prostitution business in his book, The Natashas: Inside the New Global Sex Trade. The Natashas is an angry polemic about the thousands of young women from Eastern and Central Europe lured and forced into prostitution with the economic chaos following the collapse of the Soviet Bloc in 1991. Malarek focuses on the buyers and traffickers of these women, and decries the complacency of western governments in this widespread abuse of human rights.

In Canada, especially in Vancouver and Edmonton, we are well aware that prostitution is not victimless, with the number of missing and murdered women in both cities. Maggie de Vries gave one of these women a face in her award-winning 2003 memoir of her sister, Sarah de Vries - Missing Sarah: A Vancouver Woman Remembers Her Vanished Sister. Elizabeth Hudson's 2004 memoir Snow Bodies: One Woman's Life on the Streets describes her years as a prostitute in 1970s Calgary and Vancouver.

Variants in the so-called oldest profession are described in other recent books. Legalized prostitution is covered in Brothel: Mustang Ranch and its Women by Alexa Albert (2001). Albert spent years interviewing and researching the lives of the women at the now-closed Las Vegas brothel, and in this book presents the women as real people with lives and dreams like the rest of us. The high-priced "call girl" world of Mr. Spitzer is covered in Jeannette Angel's 2004 memoir, Callgirl: Confessions of an Ivy League Lady of Pleasure.

While the Alberta boom must be pulling more people into the trade, James Gray's ground-breaking 1971 book, Red Lights on the Prairies shows that it goes back a long way. The settlement of the Prairies was not all "peace, order and good government" presided over by upstanding Mounties. Gray's social history looked at the unspoken-of side of the early history of cities such as Winnipeg, Regina, Saskatoon, Calgary and Edmonton, focusing on alcohol and prostitution. I wonder if the map of pre-First World War Edmonton, showing the brothels in Old Town, around Jasper Ave and Kinistino (96th), Nayamo (97th) and McDougall (100th) streets might still be accurate here in 2008?

* Yes, I realize that the origin of these two words makes them vulgar, even obscene, to some. But I think here in 2008 they have become normalized and have lost some of their offensive power. Or at least I hope so! Check out Leo Rosten's Hooray for Yiddish! for a discussion of this.


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