Sunday, May 9, 2010

Babes in Scandal Land

When a public figure is caught in a sexually compromising position, media coverage commonly takes on world-historic proportions. Terrorist Plot Foiled! European Economy Collapsing! Environmental Disaster Raging! Even in ordinary times, stories like these would struggle to hold the notoriously fickle attention of the American people-—but they don’t stand a chance amid reports that a rabidly anti-gay, self-righteous Christian crusader spent a 10-day European vacation with a paid companion he found on

Sex scandal coverage these days follows a predictable arc, and so the likely trajectory of the Rekers scandal seems pretty clear--at least at first glance. We know from experience that the initial phase of a scandal arrives as a tsunami of "this just in" reports, when breaking news of juicy details drowns out coverage of virtually anything else. Once every last drop of trivia has been lapped up, however, 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 all of us who made the spectacle possible just by watching it unfold. During this remorse period, the mainstream media scrambles to justify its frenzied descent into the scandal underworld by self-importantly posing The Big Questions: Has America lost its moral center? Is marriage under siege? Whatever happened to family values? And—if the sex scandal happens to involve prostitution—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 a sexual tryst in a Washington hotel room? A few days after the story broke, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof published an op-ed with the decidedly tabloidish title "The Pimps' Slaves" in which he argued:

...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 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, needs Kristof—or anyone else—to save him (Rekers already tried that, and we all know how that went.) What I am concerned about, though, 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. It is remarkable how respectful and restrained the media has been in its coverage of Jo-Vanni (at least relatively speaking.) Where are the lurid details explaining how this sweet young boy was waylaid into a life of sexual exploitation? Where is 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 but twenty tender years—-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 had an affair with a woman less than half his age, many Americans couldn't seem to believe a woman in her twenties really was old enough to make sexually autonomous decisions; even amidst reports of thong-flashing, Lewinsky insistently was described as a "young intern" star-struck by the sexual mystique of a powerful older man. But young Jo-Vanni agrees to sexually service George Rekers for a laughably meager $75 a day (plus expenses), and somehow we are spared the patronizing speculation that the guy might have been taken advantage of just a wee bit (Memo to Jo-Vanni: It's time to up those rates, my friend. Should a Nintendo Gameboy really cost more than a day with an actual Gameboy?)

Look, if I had it my way, everyone would be treated with the level of respect the media has shown to Jo-Vanni thus far. 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.

So here's the bottom line (bad pun, I know): George Rekers certainly deserves to be publicly chastised for failing to handle his own sexual luggage—make that baggage—responsibly. Turning self-hatred outward in the service of the campaign to deny gays, lesbians and others dignity and basic human rights is not just hypocritical-it's immoral.

But the media has some sexual baggage of its own to handle too—-in this case, an unacceptable double standard when it comes to thinking about the sexual agency of women and men.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Sex Scandal? What Sex Scandal?

How many times in recent years has the world’s attention been riveted by revelations of the utterly mundane: a man having sex with someone who doesn’t happen to be his wife? This is the unexceptional event at the heart of virtually every major sex scandal in modern memory, and yet the extramarital dalliances of politicians, celebrities and athletes can dominate headlines for days on end. But when a group of U.S. soldiers—while on duty—stage an elaborate video featuring our boys parading around half-naked while miming sex acts with each other, no one bats an eyelash. What gives?

Don’t get me wrong: I have no problem with a bunch of GIs slapping on cardboard chaps and grasping at each others packages while the infectious beats of Lady Gaga blare in the background. In fact, I think it’s kind of great. I’m just saying it makes me wonder about what does get coded as a sex scandal in our society, and what doesn’t.

It also makes me wonder about the woman who enjoys the title not only of reigning Queen of Pop, but also High Priestess of Vaguely Deviant Sexuality: Lady Gaga.

In March, Lady Gaga released her epic music video Telephone. Telephone is classic Gaga, and it has justifiably won her great critical acclaim and popular adoration. But like Lady Gaga’s earlier videos (e.g. Paparazzi and Bad Romance), Telephone gleefully glorifies violence. In the new math of pop feminism it would seem, female empowerment = females acting like violent sociopaths. Personally, Lady Gaga’s valorization of violence—even in its most Tarantino-esque moments of self-parodic excess—strikes me as a wrong turn. I mean, is feminism really just about a woman's right to be as dominating and dehumanizing as a man could ever be? I hope not.

I may not like Lady Gaga's glamorization of violence, but it has definitely made her a fave femme fatale among the U.S. troops in Afghanistan. And hey, what soldier these days wouldn’t love a video starring two American-flag-clad hotties unleashing a murderous wrath upon anyone who dares to disrespect them? (Trust me, Telephone is sooo much more fun to watch than Hurt Locker.)

For all its edginess, then, there is something predictable about the appeal of the Telephone video. But what to make of the viral video sensation Telephone: The Afghanistan Remake? Watching America wrap this video in a warm embrace (as of this writing, it has almost 4 million hits on youtube), I feel like I'm the only one surprised that the popular reaction hasn't been a completely homophobic one--although CBS’s Harry Smith did try his best to bait Sgt. Gaga in a recent interview:

Smith: “… And is there, ah, have you had any sort of, ah, negative repercussions? I mean you are a mechanic in the motorpool there in, in Western Afghanistan—has anyone given you the business for, ah, your ah, portrayal in the, in the music video”?

Sgt. Gaga: “No sir, not at all, ah, work has been normal…”

How’s that for the power of “don’t ask, don’t tell”? While I am no fan of the policy, perhaps one surprising effect of homophobia’s code of silence has been to push the boundaries of socially acceptable masculinities to places they might otherwise not have gone (see sociologist Michael Kimmel’s Guyland for a brilliant account of the in's and out’s of being a "guy" in today’s world.) It's almost as if the prohibition against acknowledging same-sex sexualities has enabled these guys to act in ways that otherwise would be marked as “gay”(except that it’s the military, so we can’t talk about “gay.”) As a result, military officials and the viewing public alike seem content to treat the Telephone remake as an innocent spoof and to ignore what otherwise would surely register as a major act of gender transgression.

In this respect, it’s kind of interesting to compare Telephone with the recent SNL spoof of Beyonce’s Single Ladies video. In that skit, Beyonce finds herself contending with a band of backup dancers who turn out to be three men (including the always delightful Justin Timberlake). The guys camp it up—and the audience laughs, one suspects, because in our homophobic society we tend to think it is hilarious when straight guys mockingly act “so gay.”

But the Telephone spoof is different. The guys aren’t acting gay exactly: they’re acting like Lady Gaga...who is a woman, not a man. Or is she?

If you want a quick index of the state of existential angst in the world, go to Google and type the word “is” followed by a space (my thanks to Law Professor and cultural critic Paul Campos for coming up with this ingenious exercise.) A helpful drop down menu will magically appear, revealing the most common web searches beginning with the word “is.” Now, you might not be all that surprised to find that “is santa real” and “is the world going to end in 2012” make the list. But did you really expect the top two queries to be 1) “is lady gaga a man” and 2) “is lady gaga a hermaphrodite”? That’s right: uncertainty about whether or not Lady Gaga is packing a Y chromosome tops the world’s list of most burning questions (a fact apparently not lost on Lady Gaga herself, who winks at the controversy in the scene in Telephone where two prison guards strip off her clothes. One guard comments to the other: “I told you she didn’t have a [bleep],” to which the other replies, “Too bad.”)

The point of the prison sequence in Telephone, however, is not to establish that Lady Gaga is really a lady--rather, it is to highlight how utterly meaningless the question of whether one has a [bleep] has become. The Telephone sequence features some magnificent performances of queer femininity, working with familiar archetypes of female masculinity and even creating some new ones.

All of this strikes me as pretty scandalous—but in a good way. Gender roles and expectations remain a real source of regulation and restriction in all of our lives, and Lady Gaga deserves a lot of credit for challenging those roles and expectations. And hey, the same goes for Sgt. Gaga and his crew in Afghanistan. I just wish they all didn’t have to do it by glorifying (in the case of Lady Gaga) and committing (in the case of the U.S. military) acts of senseless violence. Oh well.