According to the latest polls, it’s official: Disgraced former congressman Anthony Weiner and disgraced former governor Eliot Spitzer have come back — with a vengeance. Weiner has emerged as the frontrunner in the New York City mayoral race while Spitzer leads the city’s race for comptroller. Although Weiner’s opponent, New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, accused the two men of bringing a “Kardashian-like” atmosphere to the political process, their poll numbers indicate that plenty of voters are taking them far more seriously than some scandal-plagued reality star.
But the nagging question their ascents raise is would the same kind of comeback be possible for the women on the other side of their scandals. To put it bluntly, could a former prostitute ever run for office and have a real shot, the way that Spitzer, former patron of prostitutes, now does. The question is particularly timely, not just because of Spitzer’s candidacy, but also because of the candidacy of one of his opponents. Kristin Davis is also running for comptroller, and has touted her business experience as a primary qualification for serving in elected office. The business she previously ran? The escort service that Spitzer once used to procure prostitutes.
Yet Davis’s candidacy is not considered viable. In some corners her bids for office (this is not her first attempt) are seen as little more than publicity stunts. But others simply cannot get beyond her colorful past, or the conviction it earned her. (Spitzer, her former client, never served jail time for his role in their shared scandal.) Davis is not the first woman to see her past as a sex worker haunt her political career.
Earlier this year Linda Fondren was a candidate for mayor in Vicksburg, Miss., when it was revealed that she worked as a prostitute decades ago. Only unlike Davis, Fondren worked in a legal brothel in Nevada, so she broke no laws. Further distinguishing her from Davis, Fondren was a nationally recognized leader in the field of public health, having been named a CNN Hero for her anti-obesity campaign. She embodied many of the characteristics that political parties look for when recruiting a candidate: intelligent, articulate, telegenic and able to inspire people. Fondren lost the primary, coming in second.
In an interview with She the People, Tracy Quan, a former sex worker who reinvented herself as a bestselling author and Daily Beast columnist, said that while there is a stigma associated with those who work in sex-related industries, “I don’t think it’s a brand on your forehead that’s with you forever.” She did, however, stress that laws can have a significant impact on which sex workers are stigmatized and for how long. For instance, if Fondren had lived in a state in which prostitution was not legal, likely convictions would have made it virtually impossible for her to remake herself into a CNN-hero worthy citizen. “Decriminalization is key,” she said. “When something is legal it doesn’t necessarily erase the stigma but it gets you halfway there.”
But Quan acknowledged that even for legal sex work, such as exotic dancing, there is a double standard when it comes to stigmatization. She agreed that a woman who works her way through law school as a stripper would have a tough time being elected to the United States Senate but a man who visited strip clubs while in law school would not find that to be an obstacle to the White House.
Quan argued that feminists share as much of the blame for this double standard as misogynists, noting that it is often women who are dismissive and suspicious of other women who have used their bodies and their beauty to succeed in a professional capacity— whether it’s as strippers or professional models. By her analogy a former lingerie model might face similar ridicule as a former stripper in running for office. She also added that from her perspective there is an unspoken measure of classism and condescension the political chattering classes, and feminist leaders in particular, have traditionally held towards those who work with their bodies. So in the same way some may dismiss a ditch-digger who wants to be taken seriously, others may dismiss a woman who uses her body in the sex industry. Lastly, Quan noted that as great as our country is, we still lag behind many others when it comes to our attitudes about sex.
To her point, both Russia and England have elected women to higher office who are former Playboy Playmates. Though there have been more than 600 American Playboy playmates over the last half-century and some of them have become doctors, lawyers and teachers, none of them have managed to make it to the House or the Senate. If they did run they could anticipate seeing their pictorials plastered on posters by an opponent. When Ashley Judd inserted herself into a politically charged debate about coal mining in her home state of Kentucky, she was greeted with posters displaying a topless photo of her — not a titillating image from an issue of Playboy, but a tasteful pic from the women’s magazine Marie Claire. The tagline on the poster read, “Ashley Judd makes a living taking off her top. Why can’t coal miners?” Judd, a graduate of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, briefly considered a run for the Senate, before deciding against it.
Tracy Quan said she believes that one day a former sex worker will be elected to higher office in America, it just may not be the top office. “I think we’ll end up having a former stripper as a mayor. I think someone who worked in the sex industry will become a mayor or a governor.” Though she predicted we might see sex workers on a local level in 30 years or so, she was more cautious about federal office. “I don’t think a president will happen so quickly.”
Keli Goff is a Special Correspondent for The Root. Follow her on twitter @keligoff.