Babes in Scandal-land

Terrorist Plot Foiled! European Economy Collapsing! Environmental Disaster Raging! Even in ordinary times, headlines like these  struggle to hold the notoriously fickle attention of the American people-—but they don’t stand a chance against reports that a rabidly anti-gay, self-righteous Christian crusader spent a 10-day European vacation with a paid companion he found on rentboy.com.

Sex-scandal coverage these days follows a predictable arc: First comes a tsunami of juicy “this just in” reports, shunting coverage of everything else to the margins. Once every last drop of scandal trivia has been lapped up, a period of remorse sets in as we wrestle with the nagging feeling that the scandal has sullied not only the individuals at its center but the rest of us who eagerly watched it unfold. The mainstream media scrambles to justify its frenzied descent into the scandal underworld by self-importantly posing Big Questions, like Has America lost its moral center? Is marriage under siege? Whatever happened to family values? How can we protect our girls from falling into a life of sexual bondage?

Remember Ashley Alexandra Dupre, the woman Eliot Spitzer retained from a high-class escort service for sexual trysts in a Washington hotel room? A few days after the story broke, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof published an op-ed entitled “The Pimps’ Slaves,” in which he concluded:

…whatever one thinks of legalizing prostitution, let’s face reality: The big problem out there is the teenage girls who are battered by their pimps, who will have to meet their quotas tonight and every night, who are locked in car trunks or in basements, who have guns shoved in their mouths if they hint of quitting. If the Spitzer affair causes us to lose sight of that, then the biggest loser will be those innumerable girls, far more typical than “Kristen,” for whom selling sex isn’t a choice but a nightmare.

Where is Kristof now, I wonder, following revelations that anti-gay leader George Rekers’ consort was not one of “those innumerable girls,” but rather, a rented boy? It’s not that I think the boy in question, Jo-Vanni Roman, a.k.a. Lucien/Geo, needs Kristof—or anyone else—to save him. (Rekers already tried that, and we know how that went.) What I am concerned about is a sexist double standard which regards female sex workers by definition as vulnerable victims in need of rescue, while male sex workers are simply guys who have sex for money.

The case of Jo-Vanni presents a particularly striking instance of this double standard, especially when compared with the way the media treated Dupre.  Where are the lurid details explaining how this sweet young boy was waylaid into a life of sexual exploitation? Where is the hand-wringing over the conscription of another promising young man into a life of prostitution? And where is the outrage that Jo-Vanni is a mere lad of  20—not even old enough to drink alcohol legally in this country (though he is allowed to drive, vote, enlist in the military and, of course, administer nude massages.) When Bill Clinton was caught having an affair with Monica Lewinsky, many Americans couldn’t seem to believe a woman in her 20s was old enough to make sexually autonomous decisions. Even amidst reports of thong-flashing, Lewinsky was described as a “young intern,” star-struck by the sexual mystique of a powerful older man. But when young Jo-Vanni agrees to sexually service George Rekers for a laughably meager $75 a day (plus expenses), we are spared the patronizing speculation that the lad might have been taken advantage of. (Memo to Jo-Vanni: It’s time to up those rates, my friend—a Nintendo Gameboy shouldn’t cost more than a day with an actual Gameboy.)

If I had my way, everyone would be treated with the level of respect the media has shown to Jo-Vanni. A good place to start would be to stop assuming that men are always sexual agents and women are always sexual victims. Life is way more complicated than that.

Here’s the bottom line (hold the puns): George Rekers deserves to be publicly chastised for turning his self-hatred outward in a hateful campaign to strip gays, lesbians and others of their dignity and basic human rights. It’s not just hypocritical—it’s immoral. But the media has some sexual baggage of its own to handle: in this case, an unacceptable double standard when it comes to thinking about the sexual agency of women and men.

ABOVE: screen shot of rentboy.com.
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About

Dr. Juliet Williams is an Associate Professor of Women's Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. She writes the Feminist Takes on Sex Scandals Blog (http://sexscandalblog.blogspot.com). Her books include Public Affairs: Politics in the Age of Sex Scandals (co-edited with Paul Apostolidis, Duke University Press, 2004).