Back when Scott Stringer was first running for comptroller in 2013, consent and sexual harassment were not the reigning feminist issues in Democratic politics. Prostitution was much higher on the list: Less than a decade ago, you could still campaign for office in New York City as a champion of women’s rights while dismissing the rights and sovereignty of sex workers—say, by exploiting them to embarrass your rival, ex-governor Eliot Spitzer. Stringer was eager to rile up the public about Spitzer’s lack of “integrity,” thumping his chest about how he would’ve fired the former prosecutor: “He couldn’t work in my office.”
He could never run that race today, given the mainstreaming of sex-worker decriminalization as a labor and human rights issue for the left.
Post-#MeToo, sexual misconduct—particularly in the workplace—is now the metric the mayoral hopeful finds himself up against. After a woman made a public declaration of being forcibly touched by Stringer when she was an unpaid volunteer on his public advocate campaign 20 years ago, much of his institutional and coalition support evaporated within 48 hours.
The merits of the claim aside, the role reversal of sex work and consent as disqualifying issues have seemingly turned 2021 and 2013 into mirror images of each other.
In those heady days, now-disgraced figures like Harvey Weinstein and fashion photographer Terry Richardson were assaulting women at work, calling it a day, and showing up at political fundraisers with no problem. Whereas Weinstein’s predation was still mostly an intra-Hollywood open secret without much of a public record, Richardson’s was well documented. Nevertheless, Stringer gladly took money from and pictures with Richardson, who was then his press secretary’s boyfriend. What we knew about his exploits at the time would be completely disqualifying for any politician to be remotely associated with today.
As early as 2009, a writer named Ana had described her experience of being photographed by Richardson in a letter to Jezebel: “I felt a dick pressing into the side of my face. Terry Richardson’s semi-hard penis was plunged into the outside of my cheek, and he was jabbing it into my face.” That same year, a 19-year-old model discussed her experience of being coerced into giving Richardson a “violent” hand job on set, during an interview with the now-renowned labor rights activist and model Sara Ziff for her documentary Picture This. A subsequent 2010 story in the New York Post quoted a model describing Richardson’s MO in gross detail: “[He] takes girls who are young, manipulates them to take their clothes off and takes pictures of them they will be ashamed of. They are too afraid to say no because their agency booked them on the job and are too young to stand up for themselves.”
Which didn’t block Richardson from attending a fundraiser for Stringer’s comptroller run where Lena Dunham—ever eager to pitch herself as a feminist icon—preached to the glittering crowd about electing someone with “a record of respecting women.” Since then, still more has come to light, and Richardson has been mostly blacklisted by his industry. Stringer has remained mum, hoping that the whole mess would disappear into the recesses of our Twitter-length memories.
His opportunistic attacks on Spitzer as being anti-woman because he paid for sex have similarly faded to black. But as his defenders bemoan the fact that he’s been unfairly maligned by a misguided feminism, it’s worth remembering when Stringer was willing to do the same.
I wrote about this particular nonsense at the time, pointing out that the women Spitzer slept with were well-paid and willing sex workers, and that supposedly standing up for women in their name was incredibly condescending. These were fully consenting adults, not trafficking victims, and some of them were pushing for legalization. Stringer ignored all that, buoyed by the dominant feminist narrative dismissing sex workers as incapable of agency and in need of saving. It was an unbelievably shallow and craven play that worked like a charm. The New York City branch of the National Organization of Women (NOW) invested in an anti-Spitzer PAC, and the political director of Planned Parenthood, Sasha Ahuja, panned Spitzer in favor of “candidates that don’t just give a nod to women’s issues.” For what that’s worth, Ahuja is now the comanager of Andrew Yang’s campaign for mayor. No one for a minute bothered to consider decriminalization of sex work as a valid issue for political discourse.
Recently, I spoke to Caroline Andrews, a former sex worker and contributor to the trailblazing $pread magazine, as well as a close political observer. Her 2008 story about Spitzer and the media framing of sex work is included in the magazine’s anthology of seminal articles, published by the Feminist Press at the City University of New York.
“I had a huge problem at the time with how that was dealt with,” she said, reflecting on the narrative around the prostitution scandal. “You will find that Scott has been pretty consistently with the NOW folks, and therefore pretty consistently into slut-shaming. That’s what that means—it means being that brand of feminist who is not in favor of women’s sexual autonomy, who are not socialists, who certainly don’t care about the material reality of non-privileged, nonwhite women. I don’t think he’s ever shown that that’s a politic he’s interested in. I don’t think he’s a progressive hero, or a feminist.”
She went on: “I’ve always thought of him as a knee-jerk liberal populist that doesn’t have any depth and could easily change his position to a different one tomorrow.” And so he did, coming around to decriminalization just in time for the mayor’s race when he scooped up support from the young, lefty women in the legislature driving the discussion.
Many observers are now uncomfortable with the idea that one woman’s unconfirmed claim could destroy a man’s prospects for mayor. But the fact is that Stringer himself has already deployed the kind of surface-level attacks that caused real-world harm in the name of women against many more.
That casual use of feminism for political gain is and was offensive.
Eight years later, it’s catching up with him.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Nation readers should be aware that Eric Adams, one of the candidates on the mayoral race, is a client of Pythia Public, where Grenell is a partner. However, his account is handled exclusively by Grenell’s partner. Grenell does not work with any mayoral campaign, and she and her partner do not discuss his work for Adams as a matter of policy. She has consistently written and commented about Stringer and Spitzer on the topic of sex work going back to 2013.