Why Men Do Stupid Things: The Psychological Appeal of Prostitutes
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There will no doubt be a lot written about Eliot Spitzer's ethics, his hypocrisy and the damage done to his family, as well as discussions of the degradation that most prostitutes experience. He will be tarred and feathered for seeing a prostitute. And perhaps he should be, having broken vows to his wife, supporters and the citizens of New York State. As Spitzer takes his place with other politicians who have been busted for seeing a hooker, questions invariably arise: What is up with politicians screwing up their careers by visiting prostitutes? How can smart men do such incredibly dumb things? Does the attraction have something to do with power? Escape? Self-sabotage? For the moment, I want to put on my psychotherapist hat and try to explain what goes on in the deeper recesses of the minds of men like Spitzer.
The appeal of prostitutes to politicians is, in fact, identical to their appeal to "ordinary" men. On a psychological level, it doesn't matter if the women come from the Emperor's Club or a sleazy strip joint. It doesn't matter if they cost $2,500 an hour or $40. The appeal of hookers lies in the temporary psychic relief they supply to men struggling with conflicts about guilt and responsibility.
Having studied the dynamics of sexual arousal for almost 15 years, and having treated dozens of men who find prostitutes irresistible, I have found that for the overwhelming majority of them, the appeal lies in the fact that, after payment is made, the woman is experienced as completely devoted to the man -- to his pleasure, his satisfaction, his care, his happiness. The man doesn't have to please a prostitute, doesn't have to make her happy, doesn't have to worry about her emotional needs or demands. He can give or take without the burden of reciprocity. He can be entirely selfish. He can be especially aggressive or especially passive, and not only is the woman not upset, she acts aroused. He is not responsible for her in any way. She is entirely focused on him. He is the center of the world. Now, of course, these interactions are scripted. The prostitute is acting. But it doesn't matter. For men who like to go to go to prostitutes, the illusion of authenticity is enough.
If a man is compelled to use a prostitute because it makes him feel free of guilt, responsibility, and worry, then those feelings must be a special burden to him. Such men feel psychically weighed down by the belief that they're supposed to take care of women, that they have an obligation to make women happy, to please them. Such beliefs are often exaggerated and based on a belief and perception that women are high-maintenance, helpless, or disposed to be unhappy and dissatisfied. These beliefs are formed in childhood and are reinforced by our culture. They are often false, but they can inhibit such men in their sexual relationships. In real relationships, they feel that there is always a hidden quid pro quo, that they can't get much unless they give a lot, that they have to pay a high price for getting what they need. Of course, intimate relationships then suffer.
For these men, a prostitute is sought as a relationship in which the man can "let go" and freely express his most selfish desires without feeling guilty and worried about the effect of these desires on his partner.
For male politicians, these issues are likely heightened. It is argued that they're accustomed to wielding power, using others and expecting others to serve their narcissistic needs. But in the quid pro quo world in which politicians live, no one gives anything without expecting something back. Everybody wants a piece of them. In the healthiest cases, they can be themselves at home with their families, feel loved without conditions. But too often their marriages and family lives have taken a backseat to their careers and no longer function as havens of reciprocity, connection, and love.
With a prostitute, the arrangement is also instrumental, but during the time that he is with her, the politician can enjoy the fantasy that he doesn't need to do anything for anyone. Spitzer paid for his time in advance. When he entered the door of that hotel room, he and "Kristen" enacted a fantasy in which, whatever its sexual specifics, his immediate pleasure was her sole aim, an aim that she appeared to pursue happily and with abandon.
Many of us will weigh in on the social, political and psychological meanings of this sordid but common story. We can condemn Spitzer's hypocrisy, criticize his stupidity, and decry the cultural pathology and victimization surrounding male-female sexual relationships and prostitution. But it's important also to peek into the anxiety, conflict and longings that actually motivate individual men to do the things that we call stupid and that are destructive to themselves and others. Explaining behavior like Spitzer's does not mean condoning it. But it can deepen our understanding of each other without mitigating either our moral or political passions.
Michael Bader is a psychologist and psychoanalyst in San Francisco. He is the author of "Arousal: The Secret Logic of Sexual Fantasies" and the forthcoming book "Male Sexuality: Why Women Don't Understand It -- and Men Don't Either." He has written extensively about psychology and politics.