Christian Republicans find themselves once again in the midst of a great distraction, another sex scandal. This one involves David Vitter, Louisiana’s Republican senator, and concerns his apparent liaison with Deborah Jeane Palfrey, who the tabloids dubbed the “DC Madam.” The morally upstanding senator was outed by “Hustler” publisher, Larry Flynt.
Making matters harder to dismiss, revelations about the DC Madam come amidst still other disclosures that Vitter was a regular at the New Orleans’ Canal Street Brothel run by Jeanette Maier, a former madam, and had had an ongoing relationship for nearly a year with a New Orleans prostitute, one “Wendy Cortez,” with whom he allegedly had an out-of-wedlock child and which he vehemently denies. (As he insisted, “I think you know that that allegation is absolutely and completely untrue. … I have said that on numerous occasions.”)
These stories add to still others rumors circulating for years about Vitter’s questionable sexual practices. It is common knowledge that Louisiana’s former Republican governor, Mike Foster, encouraged Vitter not to run for governor in 2001 because of his extramarital affairs. In 2002, a Louisiana GOP official, Vincent Bruno, publicly raised questions about Vitter’s affairs.
Since then, this story had played out regularly in the local media. However, it has now broken out as a national scandal due to Vitter’s political alliance with Rudi Giuliani and his possible role as the vice president candidate if Rudi got the Republican nod.
The Vitter revelation comes just months after the original DC Madam scandal broke. At that time, Randall L. Tobias, the head of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) resigned abruptly for “personal reasons.” Our hardworking public servant was busted for calling in a “masseuse” from the DC Madam’s up-scale escort service, Pamela Martin & Associates.
Like the sex scandals that haunted the Republican party before last November’s election, those involving disgraced congressmen Mark Fowley (R-FL) and Don Sherwood (R-PA) as well as the defrocked Rev. Ted Haggard, this one also involves an upstanding Christian worthy who was revealed to have crossed the line between the acceptable and the immoral. Whereas his fellow Republican cronies were caught flirting (if not worse) with youthful congressional pages, in an adulterous affair and in an out-of-wedlock assignation with a male prostitute, senator Vitter acknowledges his sexual dalliances and claims that his wife and his God have forgiven him.
The Vitter disclosure, along with Tobias’ resignation, Madam Palfrey’s arrest and evolving media circus, has exposed the not-so-hidden dark side of Washington’s (and America’s) sex culture, the age-old male fantasy for the courtesan. The politically scandals involving Vitter, Tobias and who knows who else are common to Washington and will pass as so many others have.
However, the male fantasy for the courtesan, the symbol of up-scale erotic pleasure, is for a sexual relation with someone who overcomes the contradiction between sexual commerce and mutual affection. Traditionally, the courtesan functioned as the sex worker who was not a prostitute. While embodying the highest expression of the alienation of commercial exchange, she represented for her male patron the fantasy of a personal intimacy of mutual choice, one without obligation, without strings. The courtesan and her fantasy remains a defining aspect of patriarchy, heterosexual sexual culture.
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Senator Vitter is a model conservative Christian Republican, with a pure pedigree: He is white, attractive and articulate, married famly man, a Harvard graduate, attended Tulane law school and was a Rhodes scholar. Most importantly, he has long taken strict moral positions.
As a Republican state representative in 1998, Vitter spoke out forcefully in support of the impeachment of President Clinton for lying about his illicit sex affair. Writing an opinion piece for the New Orleans Times-Picayune, he argued that impeachment “is a process of removing a president from office who can no longer effectively govern; it is not about punishment.” [Times-Picayune, October 29, 1998]
While running for the Senate in 2004, Vitter issued a position paper, “Protecting the Sanctity of Marriage,” decrying the impact of gay marriage and other social “ills” on society. As he stated, “The Hollywood left is redefining the most basic institution in human history, and our two U.S. Senators won’t do anything about it. We need a U.S. Senator who will stand up for Louisiana values, not Massachusetts’s values. I am the only Senate Candidate to coauthor the Federal Marriage Amendment; the only one fighting for its passage.” He went so far as to compare the effect of gay marriage on society as to the devastation inflicted by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
In the few years he has been in Washington, he has been a model Republican foot-soldier. He opposed health care reform, opposed family planning efforts, opposed federal support for housing and education, resisted all calls for improved human rights and civil liberties, opposed labor rights and stalled all environment efforts. Most recently, he joined other right-wing Republicans in opposing Bush’s Immigration Bill. And, of course, he has steadfastly backed mad king George’s Iraq war folly.
Following Larry Flynt’s disclosure, Vitter issued a public apology that stated: “This was a very serious sin in my past for which I am, of course, completely responsible. Several years ago, I asked for and received forgiveness from God and my wife in confession and marriage counseling. Out of respect for my family, I will keep my discussion of the matter there — with God and them. But I certainly offer my deep and sincere apologies to all I have disappointed and let down in any way.”
The question not addressed, of course, is not whether Vitter has been forgiven by his wife or his God, but by his Louisiana constituency. In 2000, Vitter’ wife, Wendy, was asked by a reporter: If her husband was as unfaithful as former president Clinton, would she be as forgiving as Hillary Clinton? “I’m a lot more like Lorena Bobbitt than Hillary,” she replied. “If he does something like that, I’m walking away with one thing, and it’s not alimony, trust me.” It remains to be seen, whether the latter-day Lorena Bobbitt will slice and dice her adulterous hubby.
If the scandal continues to unravel and further indiscretions revealed, Vitter may well be forced to resign. However, his possible role on the ticket with Guiliani seems all but lost. And the recent revelation that Giuliani’s South Carolina state campaign chairman, Thomas Ravenel, who was the South Carolina Treasurer, was charged in a federal cocaine-possession indictment, only further compromises Guiliani’s campaign efforts.
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The Vitter scandal revels something about a darker side of American sexual culture: It’s been a tough time for would-be madams. In addition to the travails of the DC Madam, a host of other madams, courtesans and high-class sex workers have recently faced considerable legal challenges.
In the tony Westchester, NY, town of New Bedford, the hometown of Martha Stewart, Ralph Lauren and George Soros, the police recently arrested Sandra Chemero. This 46-year-old woman was busted for running a successful sex club, “The Sovereign Estate,” at a mansion owned by K’hal Adas Kashau, an ultra-Orthodox rabbinical school. (A school’s representative bemoaned, “It’s against our religion. It’s against the Bible. We’ve never even heard of such a thing.”)
On her website, Chemero identified herself as an upscale sex worker, a professional dominatrix catering to men seeking (and more than willing to pay for) a highly specialized kind of pleasure or, as she advertised, “where submissives and slaves are immersed in training.”
In Greenburgh, NY, Erik Ward, a local police officer, was fired after being acquitted of having a tryst in the woods with a 32-year-old dominatrix, Gina Pane. On her website, she called herself “angelabella” and offered her services for a variety of sadomasochistic fantasies. Ms. Pane had been stopped for marijuana possession, but the officer was willing to exchange favors for services rendered. Ward insisted his actions were above suspicion; all he was trying to do was “turn” Pane into a confidential informant in order to get to her dope supplier. Pane testified that she and Ward drove off to a secluded spot and that he masturbated while she squatted on a tree branch and defecated to satisfy his sexual fetish.
In Boston, wife, mother of two and dominatrix Paula Webb was arrested following disclosures by her husband, who was upset with her after a fight. Mrs. Webb’s website listed services to include corporal punishment, humiliation and role-playing. According to the police, a detective posing as a customer responded to one of the ads and, when the detective and Webb met, she told him that she offered oral sex for $150. Her basement dungeon was equipped with an assortment of whips, chains, ropes and other items.
In San Francisco (only San Francisco!), a former dominatrix and current employee at the U.S. Treasury Department, Susan Peacher, won a sexual harassment and retaliation lawsuit against her office manager who was a former client. She complained that he wouldn’t leave her alone. She went to court to stop him from sexually harassing her, attempting to kiss her in the elevator, telling her she had “luscious lips” and repeatedly asking for “sessions.”
A Columbus, Ohio-based dominatrix, “Lady Sage,” ran a website and private service, “Through the Looking Glass.” Sessions cost $275 an hour and, according to the site, “are about good people having great fun.” She was the subject of a federal embezzlement case involving Abraham Alexander, an accounts-payable executive at the Manhattan Cardiovascular Research Foundation. He was sentenced to two-to-six-years for stealing $237,162 to cover Lady Sage’s unique services.
In Enfield, CT, the police arrested Michelle Silva, 44, known on her website as “Empress M,” for running a members-only bondage club, a “BDSM playground.” She was charged with prostitution, permitting prostitution and promoting prostitution; she was also charged with violating a town-zoning ordinance. The charges against her carry the combined maximum penalty of 17 years in prison and $19,000 in fines. Silva insists that the charges against her are “absolutely false” and that she was never involved in any exchanges of sex for money. She claims that the many people observed coming in and out of her home were models or participants in the video programs she posted on her website.
In Santa Ana, CA, Betty Davis, a 60-year-old great-grandmother dominatrix won a court ruling that forced the Orange County Sheriff’s Department to return $20,000 worth of bondage items, including whips, chains and other toys, seized during a raid on her private dungeon. Davis, who says she has 12 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren, was arrested for allegedly soliciting prostitution after an undercover sheriff’s deputy answered an ad in a bondage magazine and was led, blindfolded, to her dungeon. According to Davis’ lawyer, she offered a therapeutic service that didn’t include sex.
In Dedham, MA, a dominatrix, Barbara Asher, 56, was acquitted of manslaughter charges in the death of Michael Lord, a man who allegedly suffered a fatal heart attack while strapped to a contemporary version of a “medieval torture device.” The jury found her not guilty of involuntary manslaughter and dismemberment. During his closing argument, the prosecutor, Robert Nelson, re-enacted the bondage session: Donning a leather mask and speaking to the jury through the zippered mouth, he said Asher did nothing to help Lord as he flailed about and died while strapped to the rack in a makeshift dungeon. “She did nothing, nothing for five minutes,” Nelson yelled, his voice muffled through the mask.
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As indicated by the Vitter revelation, the evolving story of the DC Madam, Deborah Palfrey, promises to capture headlines for some time to come. Palfrey, in a press conference held on the steps of Congress, announced that she had turned over some 40-odd pounds of her private billing records (including phone and credit card numbers) to ABC and Larry Flynt to ferret out high-ranking customers.
Randall Tobias was the first to fall. He was the former chairman and CEO of Eli Lilly and AT&T International as well as chairman of Duke University. He was also a Republican party stalwart and major fundraiser and his “ambassadorship” was awarded for services rendered. However, in his role as the first US Global AIDS Coordinator, he led the Bush-administration’s PEPFAR campaign insisting on abstinence-only sex education and opposing support for prostitutes. [See “Imperialism’s Second Front: Bush’s Foreign Sex Policy,” CounterPunch, December 22, 2006.]
In addition, Palfrey has identified two other Washington insiders. Harlan K. Ullman, an associate with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, whose main claim to fame was a scholarly paper he wrote more than a decade ago on the military strategy known as “shock and awe.” Ullman has rejected her claims: “It doesn’t deserve the dignity of a response.” Palfrey’s lawyer claims that the political consultant Dick Morris, Bill Clinton’s famous shoe fetishist, was also a customer.
The DC Madam got her start in the adult-sex business in San Diego. In court papers, she acknowledged that she was “appalled and disgusted” by how “seedy, lazy and incompetent” were the local escort agencies. An avowed teetotaler, she said she was most upset by the drug-related atmosphere promoted by the services.
Palfrey’s first escort service collapsed when she was arrested in 1990. She employed about a dozen women and would have made $100,000 that year, she said; however, an employee’s angry mother apparently tipped off the police. She served 18 months in prison after her 1991 conviction and, while on probation, started her Washington business, Pamela Martin & Associates, in 1993.
Palfrey’s website noted that services were pegged at $300 for a 90 minute session. A help-wanted ad published in DC-area college- and weekly-papers sought attractive women over 23-years-old with at least two years of college. According to court records, the women sent roughly 50 percent of the money they made to her PO box in Vallejo. Authorities claim that she amassed upward of 15,000 customers between 1993 and 2006.
In 2004, the Internal Revenue Service and the U.S. Postal Service launched a joint investigation into Palfrey’s business. In early March 2007, the feds seized Palfrey’s assets, including her home valued at $500,000. (Ironically, in October 2006, the Department of Homeland Security extended the contract of Shirlington Limousine, a service that catered to Washington-area call girls.)
Madam Palfrey has speculated that the federal indictment against her came as fallout from the investigation into former congressman Randy “Duke” Cunningham. While she does not claim a direct link to Cunningham, she suggests that federal investigators had been investigating charges that a defense contractor provided hookers to Cunningham as part of an influence-peddling scheme. Palfrey believes that the federal probe of her business “had solely to do with some Duke Cunningham-type bigwig client that got caught up in something and started to say, ‘Do you know this?’ and ‘Do you know that?’ And that he might have been able to lead them to somebody.”
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America is a highly variegated class society and no aspect of social life embodies class relations more than sex, especially prostitution.
Whether a guy picks up a streetwalker on the seedy side of Atlantic City or visits a message parlor manned by sex slaves trafficked from China, Latin America or Eastern Europe on a local strip-mall or is a guest at a dominatrix’s exclusive sex salon in a tony suburb, each exchange embodies the cash nexus. It is a relation of buyer and seller that hides not simply a profound inequity, but the history of patriarchy as well.
For centuries and across nearly all continents, certain particularly well-appointed women have served as courtesans. These upper-class sex workers provided more than sex. She suggested a certain type of refined self-indulgence, as much a service to the male customer’s physical pleasures as to his ego’s self-confidence.
The courtesan symbolically represented the overcoming of the divide between the alienation of commercial exchange (the prostitute) and the personal intimacy of mutual choice (the lover). This representation was a social fiction, but a fiction reserved for only the few.
For the men who could afford such a fiction (both financially and psychologically), these women held out the promise that he, the male customer, could break out of conventional sexual inhibitions and indulge his deepest, most passionate, most private sexual fantasies. Simultaneously, the courtesan held out the equally compelling promise that this pleasure could be achieved without the moral trappings of ordinary heterosexual life, i.e., outside the restraints of monogamous marriage. Thus, sexual fantasy could be experienced without a feeling of sin, a sense of shame, apology or recrimination.
At the heart of this fiction was the belief that sexual relations between a professional courtesan and a client could be shorn of the alienation that has been substantially removed from other, equally if not more intimate, commercial exchanges. A patient’s relationship with a doctor, especially a psychotherapist, can be as profoundly intimate, freeing the patient from enormously burdensome inhibitions. A novice’s relationship with a master craftsperson to learn, for example, sculpting, tai chi, cooking or a foreign language can be as instructive, making the novice feel more self-assured, confident. A customer’s physical contact with a skilled masseuse can be as physical fulfilling, especially in terms of non-genital pleasures. Nevertheless, commercial sexual intimacy remains something fundamentally different.
The history of most of the patriarchal world, but especially the developed nations, is replete with tales of the courtesan. They are characters with roots stretching back to the earliest days of European and Asian sexual lore. In America, however, the courtesan has had two faces, the privately sexual and the public celebrity.
Among the former are such recent figures as Polly Adler, the legendary pre-WWII madam, and Syndney Biddle Barrows, known as the Mayflower Madam. They recall the glory days of old when sexual fantasy was rich with the bourgeois trappings of the finest decor, seductive indulgence and exquisite erotic pleasures.
Among the latter are such notable public figures as Claire Boothe Luce and Pamela Digby Churchill Hayward Harrison. Their potency as much sexual as political. They recall the legendary female temptresses who, for centuries, were familiar figures of European court life and intimates (in every sense of the word) with kings, prime ministers and other grandees.
However, in today post-sex revolution America, the grand courtesan has been replaced by the banality of the escort service and the oh-so-conventional dominatrix. Sexual fantasy has not merely become the cannon fodder of marketing and advertising, but one can only wonder if the quality of pleasure has accordingly degraded. One need only consult google, craigslist or a free local newsweekly to find the sex worker of one’s (male) choice.
Today, Heidi Fleiss, the so-called Hollywood Madam, represents high-end sexual indulgence. Unfortunately, while the popular media has presented her as a mysterious sex charmer, closer examination reveals her to be a far less grand figure of style and taste and more like a switchboard operator with a rolodex that could supply a caller with a female prostitute who would service his specialized fantasy or fetish.
Once upon a time the courtesan’s allure, her claim to overcome alienation, might have been believed like so many other social fictions. While never true, it was wrapped in enough mystery and social stigma to suggest a different value system. The courtesan’s fiction was a negation to the dominant Christian value of de-eroticized sexual propriety, a sexuality that defined America’s heterosexual patriarchy. But as its mirror-image otherness, the courtesan’s fiction only served to reinforce sexual repression.
Those days, however, are long gone. Some truly upscale female courtesans operate quite anonymously in Washington, New York, Las Vegas and other cities. But these very discreet sex workers don’t have website advertising their services and their fees are, as the old saying goes, if you have to ask you can’t afford it.
The sexual pleasure promised by Deborah Palfrey, Sandra Chemero and their innumerable sisters operating throughout the country is no longer a negation or subversion of the dominant sexual mores. Rather, it is part of the marketplace, an acceptable social wink-and-a-nod fiction of cash exchange. As a “victimless crime,” prostitution (like most illegal drugs) continues as a social “vestigial organ,” retained out of a need to placate a powerful social constituency but serving no useful purpose.
The unfolding sex scandal involving the DC Madam is less about sex and fantasy and pleasure than the failure to pay taxes and the moral hypocrisy of Christian, Republican men of means like Vitter, Tobias and who knows how many other. Their exposure is welcome, as their sexual hypocrisy is likely to be no different that their moral hypocrisy concerning Bush’s imperialist wars. These hypocrites need to be shamed. Unfortunately, the most interesting question will likely never he addressed. One would like to know, from Vitter, Tobias, Ullman, Morris and the many more men who are likely to be revealed as clients of the DC Madam, what was the nature of the pleasure they experienced and was it worth it.
DAVID ROSEN can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org