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Post Magazine: Kiss and Blog

Post Magazine Cover Story

April Witt
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 16, 2004; 1:00 PM

After Capitol Hill staff assistant Jessica Cutler put the secrets of her sex life on the Web -- she lost her job, signed a book deal, posed for Playboy -- and raised a ton of questions about where America is headed.

Post staff writer April Witt, whose article about Cutler and her Washingtonienne blog appeared in yesterday's Washington Post Magazine, was online Monday, Aug. 16, at 1 p.m. ET to field questions and comments about the article.

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April Witt:
Good afternoon. There has been a huge outpouring of response to this story, and I don't think it's just because sex sells. I think Jessica's tale touches on a lot of issues of gender, sexuality and power that the culture is still trying to work through. When Brandi Chastain ripped off her jersey after she scored the decisive penalty kick against China to give the U.S. victory in the Women's World Cup final, it sparked a national debate about women's empowerment and body image. Now we have female Olympians posing nude - or scantily clad - in men's magazines and nobody is much complaining. That surprises me. Personally, I cringe at the notion of female Olympians posing in Playboy. Why would women who have real power and accomplishment in their lives want to pose for the sexual gratification of strangers? To me that is undercutting your power. Yet in yesterday's New York Times swimmer and sportscaster Diana Nyad opined that these women are redefining what it means to be sexy "They are both athletic and sexy - the new sexy," Nyad writes. Granted, Jessica's chosen sport seems to be an event we can't name in The Washington Post, but I do think the reaction to her touches on some of the same questions about what it means for women to be sexually empowered. I doubt we'll come up with any answers today. But I suspect the conversation won't' be boring.

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Dupont, Washington, D.C.: While I find Jessica's behavior incredibly immature and sad, I also think it is interesting that her critics do not seem to take umbrage with the men she slept with - particularly those who gave her money.

While Jessica may be indicative of the amorality of some young women today, I think the men's willingness to have an affair with a much younger woman who may (or may not) be a subordinate and their tendency to give her money says a lot about today's men - particularly rich powerful men. It is not a flattering picture of morality on either side.

April Witt:
You have jumped right in on my favorite topic. What about the men? There were several reasons I wanted to do this story. But one of them was that I was fascinated that so many people were attacking Jessica and giving the men a free ride, so to speak. If Jessica is a skank for having hotel quickies with a married Bush official who gave her cash in an envelope, then what is he? Might he be someone who in his day job preaches that gay unions are a major threat to the institution of marriage, then skips out at lunch to cheat on his wife? His behavior is not only a threat to the institution of marriage, it's a threat to the health and life of the mother of his children. The reaction to Jessica's blog proved this if nothing else: the double sexual standard for men and women is still pervasive. I'd be interested in hearing people's thoughts on why that is. I see that as one of many very depressing aspects to this story...

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Raleigh, N.C.: I agree that it is wrong for anyone to be critical of the young woman, and then fail to criticize/find fault with the men who participated with her (It really does take 2 to tango..) I did,however, take issue with the notion that the young woman was "pimped out" by other people she worked with into these trysts. Unless she was unwilling, forced, threatened, etc.. into these situations,I don't think she was "pimped" and I don't think that is a fair description. It almost tries to make her seem victimized in one sentence, and then she is sexually empowered in the next sentence. I don't think you can have it both ways

April Witt: Do you think somebody has to dress like superfly to be a pimp? I think Jessica's use of the word pimp to describe the older, more powerful woman in her office who set her up to sleep with an older more powerful male is pretty interesting. After all the high-profile scandals, and all the politically correct workplace policies and training, I found it amazing that any professional woman thought it was a good idea to hook a powerful male coworker up with a mail clerk. Does the phrase "power differential" ring a bell? Jessica clearly wasn't saying this woman was coercing her into a sexual relationship. But this older woman certainly did seem to be procuring this hot young thing for her coworker. Doesn't that fit the definition of pimp?

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Capitol Hill, Washington, D.C.: While I don't agree with everything Jessica has done, I completely agree with her statement that looks matter on the Hill. This couldn't be closer to the truth for young women. As such, I have found that looks are not only key to obtaining a job, but also to making contacts and moving up. That is not to say that I don't benefit from this, I do and many of my friends do as well. Male friends will comment on how much easier it is for attractive females in this city. Why do you think that in 2004 women are still judged more so based on their looks than men? What is it about politics that accentuates this?

April Witt: I think it might be DNA-encoded. The cave man looked for visual clues to indicate that a female was healthy and fertile, a suitable receptable for his seed. I think men with power - be it the biggest club in the cave neighborhood or the highest-paying lobbying job on K Street - have always used it to gain access to good-looking young women. I also suspect that there is a DNA-encoded element to the hatred so many men obviously feel for Jessica. If men sleep with a woman who turns out to have been sleeping around, then they are at risk for unwittingly raising another man's child. Could it be our social/sexual behavior is not as far removed from the caves as we'd like to think?

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Fairfax, Va.: A comment more than a question...

People who say that the guys in this mess are not getting blamed are completely wrong. While Cutler's identity is more public, the guys she slept with are getting plenty of their share of the blame, albeit not as publicly as Cutler since she has chosen to be the face of this controversy for personal gain.

Sure, the guys haven't been officially "outed" but their identities and pictures are well-known for the people on the Hill and if you ask around, they are being treated as pariahs and lepers.

April Witt: That's interesting.

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Alexandria, Va.: I don't see where this is an issue of double standards, frankly. A married man should not be cheating on his wife, but not everyone's perfect. A woman should not be sleeping with a married man, but not everyone's perfect. What sets the bar apart here is that Jessica had no qualms with posting her frequent and numerous outings with numerous men on a public site. I would like to think that if this were a young male staffer acting the same way, that there'd be a similar reaction (i.e. firing him) and a likewise public disgust to the behavior. I think that, clearly, Jessica needs to grow up and seek some psychological assistance to help her determine why she felt the need to act the way she did, privately and publicly.

April Witt: If this had been a young male staffer nobody would have noticed, and he would have kept his job.

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Washington, D.C.: RE: The men Jessica slept with.

I think the main reason they aren't getting backlash is because they didn't profit by their relationship with Jessica (unless you count the sex part of course). If anything, this is perceived as being an embarrassment for them, and if it is they should have thought about that before gettin' on with a younger woman and paying for it. (Also, we don't know that the guy in the Bush administration has anything to do with Bush's nutball policies regarding sex so we shouldn't act like we do). However, Jessica made out pretty well from what happened to her. Six figure book deal (I know a lot of writers--real writers--who would kill for that). Pictures in newspapers. A level of celebrity in a town that thrives on it almost as much as Hollywood does. Not too bad really. In the end, I don't think she's getting criticized because of what she did, as it is neither right nor wrong. I think she is getting criticized because she ostensibly got rewarded for doing it.

April Witt: You may be right. But if you followed the screeds against her on the internet, they began long before she got her book deal and Playboy gig. I think there was anger against a woman who was promiscuous and seemingly not ashamed of it. That anger grew once she was financially rewarded.

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Virginia: I must admit that the men giving her money shocked me and made me suspicious. There must have been a reason they felt it necessary to give her cash. I can't see a man doing that in a consensual sexual encounter, no matter how frequently or infrequently it happens. Is there something else there that wasn't reported in the article?

April Witt: The issue of the money is one of the more interesting aspect of this story. Was Jessica a prostitute? She certainly doesn't think so. She sees herself as perhaps a two-bit mistress, and not all that far removed from a woman who marries for money and security and spends her days shopping while her husband works. Trust me, she really does. In her telling of it, the married Bush official had a longstanding problem of objectifying women. They even talked about it. She says she didn't ask for the money and was embarrassed by it. But she took it. She willingly participated in her own objectification. She doesn't dispute that. Her response to me, which didn't make it into the story, was that this culture objectifies women. And if that's how the game is played, why not be one of the winners. She thought she was being smart by playing by the corrupt rules of a sexist society. I don't think she feels smart now. I think she's trying to sort through what happened to her, and where she goes from here.

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Dupont Circle, Washington, D.C.: Regardless of someone's opinion of Jessica, isn't it against the law for them to fire her for writing the blog?

April Witt: Not if she's exercising her right to free speech on their computers....

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Anonymous: "If this had been a young male staffer nobody would have noticed, and he would have kept his job." Wrongo. Because it wouldn't have worked the same way. A young guy would have turned up his nose at some forty something woman regardless of money or power...unless she was physically attractive. No one would care because cash and favors wouldn't have been involved. Men are, in a nutshell, shallow as hell on this subject...if the owman is attactive, that's all she really needs...if not, no amount of money or position will help.

So you're really comparing apples and oranges.

April Witt: Some comments don't even require a reply.

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Dupont Circle, Washington, D.C.: What are Jessica's plans post-book and Playboy gig? A one-time six figure deal won't last forever, so she must need to do something. Is she worried about her reputation preventing a respectable future career?

April Witt: Of course she's worried. She hears the rattling chains of the ghosts of women from sex scandals past. She knows those women became, at best, national jokes. Bill Clinton is on a book tour. He's praised for his command performance at the convention. Monica is.....Hmmm, exactly where is Monica? Jessica doesn't want to end up on a Reality TV show where she and Monica are deposited on an island and pitted against one another in handbag-designing contests. Like a lot of people who swim upstream to Washington, she wants to come out a winner. I hope she writes a very funny novel and saves herself. She has a great deal of personal charm, believe it or not.

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Sterling, Va.: A comment. Please note than I am a man who is saying this:

Men who wind up in bed with 2 women are "lucky". Women who wind up in bed with 2 men are "sleazy".

The sleeping-with-subordinates-who-are-not-your-wife issue aside, I don't see men getting discouraged for wanting to date a woman like Ms. Cutler. Or date multiple women, for that matter.

Morality is determined by society's norms. Maybe she's really the moral one, and people just don't admit that this is the norm (or what they wish was the norm) to themselves?

Unless society discourages men from doing this type of thing, what right do we have to discourage the women? Ms. Cutler isn't an example of what's wrong with society. She's the best example we have of the double-standard being tossed aside. Part of me wants to say, "You Go Girl!;"

About the only difference is that the men will pay to see the nude pics after the fact.

April Witt: I think Jessica had it just right when she says she feels like the Al Pacino character from Scarface yelling at all the disapproving people, "You need me. You need me. I'm the bad guy." Her behavior allowed hypocritical people to say, she's the bad guy, not me. I'm moral, at least by comparison.I think Jessica got under people's skin for a lot of reasons. One of them was she forced them to think about these issues of gender, sex and power. Thanks for all your comments. Bye.

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April Witt: My apologies for the slow speed of this chat. I've logged on from a remote location and myomputer has been painfully slow in updating me with your questions. This was obviously a hot topic. Nearly 500 of you send in questions or comments and I was only able to get to a fraction of them. Thanks for joining.

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