May 2, 2008 -- Yesterday's suicide of so-called D.C. Madam Deborah Jeane Palfrey has again shown the great discrepancy between men and women when it comes to how the crime of prostitution is punished.
Palfrey, who was to be sentenced in July on federal charges stemming from operating a prostitution service, was found dead yesterday in a shed outside a mobile home owned by her mother. Police say she hanged herself with a nylon rope. Meanwhile, some of her best-known male clients continue to hold powerful and highly paid jobs and have not faced criminal charges.
Ambassador Randall Tobias, who resigned from the State Department after admitting he had been a customer of Palfrey's service, recently accepted a high-profile job as the head of the Indianapolis Airport Authority.
In April 2007, Tobias told ABC News he had several times called Palfrey's "Pamela Martin and Associates" escort service "to have gals come over to the condo to give me a massage." Tobias, who is married, said there had been no sex, and that he had since been using another service "with Central Americans" to provide massages.
"For that guy to have a landed in that kind of job is just ridiculous," Janice Shaw Crouse of Concerned Women for America told ABCNews.com. "That is the perfect example of the inequity," said Crouse who runs a think tank at CWFA, the Beverly LaHaye Institute. Crouse says the contrast between Palfrey and Tobias is not unique.
Crouse says the more successful a "john" is, the less likely he is to be punished. Indeed, another one of Palfrey's former clients is a sitting United States senator.
Sen. David Vitter, R-La., admitted to having been a customer of Palfrey's service and apologized. No criminal charges were ever filed against him.
Madams, however, are even more likely to be punished the more glamorous and successful they are, says Crouse.
The infamous "Hollywood Madam" Heidi Fleiss was sentenced to three years in prison. She served a little under two years. She catered to numerous celebrity clients, including actor Charlie Sheen, who testified at her trial that he spent as much as $50,000 on her call girls. Sheen was not criminally charged and today stars in the CBS sitcom "Two and a Half Men."
In stark contrast, Fleiss today reportedly runs a coin-operated laundromat, called Dirty Laundry, and was recently arrested for illegal possession of prescription drugs.
Some say that Palfrey's suicide should serve as a wake-up call to those that advocate the hard line prosecution of sex workers.
"Our government and community should think about the ultimate goal here," Juhu Thukral, the director of the Sex Workers Project, which engages in legal advocacy for sex workers, told ABCNews.com. "This prosecution has caused the death of two women and untold unhappiness for a lot of families including those of the customers whose names came out."
The second death Thukral refers to is yet another suicide. In February 2007, Brandy Britton, who ran an escort service from her suburban Maryland home and also worked for Palfrey, committed suicide after being arrested on charges of prostitution.
"What did this prosecution accomplish?" asks Thukral. "Look at the lives destroyed."