On behalf of the women and men who make their living in the sex industry, I'm horrified.
By now you've heard that the Republican National Committee signed off on a " nearly $2,000" bill incurred at Voyeur, a risque West Hollywood nightclub where bondage acts and bubbly are served up with fake lesbian sex. This is being clucked at by everyone from The Daily Caller to The Washington Post, but it turns out to be one of the cheapest items on the RNC's tab.
Would Rielle Hunter have found John Edwards "hot" if he had been staying at the Quality Inn?
Okay, there's a smaller one—$53.99 for office supplies from Staples in Bismarck, North Dakota, according to The Washington Post's Dana Milbank. But who's going to notice $2,000 for strippers? It's mere pocket change rattling around between $9,099 for hotel rooms, $17,514 for private planes, and over $12,000 for limos, all within a single month.
People want to know why a tab with an item called "Voyeur" in it wasn't flagged by the prudes at the RNC. I want to know why commercial sex lags so pitifully far behind ostentatious transportation. And why so much is being made of simulated sex in the first place? However embarrassing it may be for a Republican to be outed as a lapdancer's human ATM, it should be far less controversial than more expensive alternatives, such as keeping a mistress.
• Which Party Has More Sex Scandals?Four-star hotels and pricey limousines—those are the bi-partisan perks and trappings a guy might need to spend on to attract an ambitious groupie. (Would Rielle Hunter have found John Edwards "hot" if he had been staying at the Quality Inn?) Sex industry professionals aren't impressed with limos or nice hotel rooms unless there's a tangible financial benefit. (Former escort Ashley Dupre was quite willing to hop on the Metroliner to visit Eliot Spitzer in DC—as far as call girls are concerned, limos are for showoffs and amateurs.)
Jo Weldon, author of The Burlesque Handbook, out this spring from Harper Collins, says Republican guys trying to "expense" their trips to a sex-themed club are (surprise!) out of touch with America's changing mores. As a leading feature dancer, Weldon has toured the nation's clubs and says, "In the '90s, men who were courting each other for business purposes were putting their visits to dance clubs on their expense accounts." Strip club expensing enjoyed a brief period of respectability, but “these Republicans may have thought they were entitled to something men were doing in the '90s," she says.
As for the $1,946 reimbursement the RNC has demanded, buyer's remorse is all too common in strip clubs. From a hooker's perspective, these clubs promise a lot of nothing and deliver even less; dancers will tell you that the situation is more nuanced and that they earn every dollar. It's often part of the business model, just as it is in casinos, to help high rollers forget what's good for them. The last time a strip club spending spree caught my eye, the location was Scores in New York and the contested amount, as reported in The New York Times, was more than $240,000. But these are recessionary times for the sex trade.
You don't have to be a Republican to feel the partisan energy fueling this week's scandal. Compared to the $700,000 Bunny Mellon is alleged to have given the John Edwards machine for Rielle Hunter's upkeep, a few thousand spent watching half-naked working women looks less like decadence and more like old-fashioned middle-class thrift.
The expenses associated with scandal have not always been so immediate or nakedly monetary. The late Wilbur Mills could have told us that. The legendary House Ways and Means chairman (like Bill Clinton, an Arkansas Democrat) was handily re-elected to Congress after making headlines in the company of Fanne Foxe, who stripped at The Silver Slipper in Washington in the mid-1970s. Yvonne Dunleavy, who co-authored Fanne Foxe: The Real Story Behind the Headlines with Fanne herself, says, "It was a different climate of judgment. The scandal wasn't quantified in terms of money." Going to a strip club, in and of itself, wouldn't even have been scandalous for Mills or most men at the time; you had to be a lot more outrageous to turn that into professional and public failure.
Mills managed to do so after his re-election, by appearing on stage at a strip club in Boston where Fanne (the "Argentinian Firecracker") was performing. (Fans of that classic Marlene Dietrich vehicle The Blue Angel will recognize the tragic scene in which Lola's hapless love slave is humiliated on stage). Feminism wasn't yet mainstream enough to make strip clubs controversial, but the public was interested in what Dunleavy calls "the human side, the tragic and comic aspects of a drunken romp." Mills retired from politics and, pre-figuring modern rituals of absolution and recovery, spent much of his remaining time on this earth counseling fellow alcoholics.
Everything had changed by the time Monica Lewinsky arrived in Washington. The legal fees incurred by both Bill Clinton and Lewinsky as a result of their May-September entanglement are far more obscene and costly than anything that has ever happened at a sex industry venue. (Clinton's outstanding legal fees at the time he left office were reported to total $11.3 million.)
During Eliot Spitzer's fall from power, much was made of Ashley Dupre's four-figure fee. It may have been slightly higher than the hourly rates charged by the Monicagate attorneys, but there were a lot more of them, and they racked up more hours than even the randiest client and the happiest hooker could clock in a lifetime.
But that didn't matter—the bottom line for many in 2008 was whether Spitzer had used campaign money to pay for sex. Dunleavy says "people weren't as coldly calculating" in earlier decades. The financial side of sex was less openly discussed and attitudes were, she says, "less harshly judgmental because sex was coming out of that plain brown wrapper." It was a more hopeful time, before the MSM and the public became so utterly jaded about sexual liberation. But here we are, talking about how much money Republicans spend on watching simulated sex acts, while Rielle Hunter assures GQ readers that John Edwards (who may have appeared in a sex tape with her) is "not my landlord."
There has been way too much disclosure about Hunter's rent, her monthly allowance, and the source of this money. It's too much like knowing how a sausage is made, but that's how we live now. And whatever we might think about Republican hypocrisy, this week's scandal only proves that the sex industry is a more fiscally efficient outlet for those seeking adventure away from home.
While it's currently unfashionable (no: unfathomable) to praise Republicans for their sexual sense, maybe they deserve a pat on the head for this one.
Tracy Quan's latest novel is Diary of a Jetsetting Call Girl, set in Provence and praised in The Nation as a "deft account of occupational rigors and anxieties before the crash." Tracy's debut, Diary of a Manhattan Call Girl, and the sequel, Diary of a Married Call Girl, are international bestsellers. A regular columnist for The Guardian, she has written for many publications including Cosmopolitan, The Financial Times, and The New York Times.