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 rentboy.com.
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.