Red-Light District

By Lily Burana
Sunday, May 6, 2007

Oh, Deborah Jeane, what are we going to do with you?

Yes, you, Deborah Jeane Palfrey -- aka Miz Julia, former proprietress of the alleged escort service Pamela Martin and Associates, the 50-year-old California girl who's had Washington all a-dither.

You surrendered your phone records and took your plight to ABC -- all in your own defense, of course. Facing racketeering charges and possible prison time, a girl's gotta do what a girl's gotta do.

When called out as a customer, the military strategist and "shock and awe" auteur Harlan K. Ullman didn't rise to the bait, but former AIDS czar and deputy secretary of state Randall L. Tobias stepped down from his post after being ID'd as a client -- albeit one, he claimed, who received only massages from Palfrey's "gals." We waited to see who might fall next with great (prurient) interest. But so far, nothing.

Voyeurism, like baseball, is one of our great national pastimes. Whether people are drawn in by the morality play or the water-cooler gossip, you can't top a sex scandal for spectator sport. An imbroglio like this one had the full menu -- erotic high jinks, power, money, lies, politics, the potential for disaster and humiliation. And the best thing about it: It was all happening to somebody else.

Americans may be inured to celebrity sex tapes and former teen queens flashing the paparazzi, but when it comes to sex and political figures, our tripwires are as touchy as they were 30 years ago, in the day of Rep. Wilbur Mills and his stripper paramour, Fanne "The Argentine Firecracker" Foxe. We not only expect lurid details, we demand professional ruin. Even perfectly legal erotic intrigues, a la Jack Ryan -- the Illinois Republican who abandoned his 2004 Senate campaign after divorce papers filed by his wife, actress Jeri Ryan, alleged that he had pressured her to accompany him to sex clubs -- can torpedo a political career.

We're so wedded to our Puritan notion of moral consistency that we're positively ignited by news of politicians knowingly flirting with the sexual dark side -- even though the history of such behavior extends all the way back to Thomas Jefferson. Sex scandals, in fact, are to Washington, D.C., as volcanic eruptions are to Washington state -- surprising and scalding, infrequent yet inevitable. Alexander Hamilton bedded another man's wife. Andrew Jackson's secretary of war did the same. Grover Cleveland paid child support to a woman with whom he had an affair. Warren Harding's mistress claimed she had sex with the president in a White House coat closet.

But in the good old days, the media generally kept its nose out of private business. In 1903, House Speaker David Henderson resigned over his sexual relationship with the daughter of a senator. Henderson never revealed why he was quitting; neither did the press. And remember John F. Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe? But the generally cozy relationship between pencils and power ended during the sexual revolution of the 1960s. Suddenly, sex headlines were everywhere.

Besides Mills, there was Rep. Wayne Hays and Elizabeth Ray, the secretary who couldn't type; Democratic presidential candidate Gary Hart and Donna Rice; the prostitution ring operated out of the Capitol Hill apartment of Rep. Barney Frank; "Mayflower Madam" Sydney Biddle Barrows and her tony call-girl service; and, of course, Monica Lewinksy, Bill Clinton and that blue dress. So much for the ennui born of raunch culture.

Certainly I'm as curious as the next person. As a former stripper, I'm interested in a sisterly way in the fate of the women who allegedly worked for Palfrey. Will their identities be exposed? I hope not. A dear friend of mine who worked in the quasi-legal reaches of the adult business became tabloid fodder, and it was among the most traumatic experiences of her life.

As an Army wife, I have a morbid fascination with the identities of the supposed "high-ranking military officials" who Palfrey says were among her service's clients. And I, like many, would enjoy seeing a little karmic justice for anyone who built his professional house on a holier-than-thou foundation.

Surely some will respond to the scandal with a call for decriminalizing prostitution -- as though that would extinguish this type of conflagration. Hardly. It's not the legal catch that sparks the embarrassment, titillation and professional fallout. (Trust me, if a politico were caught trolling Craigslist for no-money-exchanged fun, it'd still rock the Hill.) Apart from the apparent hypocrisy of upstanding civic leaders doing wrong (note, please, that as AIDS czar, Tobias drafted a policy that required any country receiving U.S. aid to adopt an anti-prostitution stance), it's the promise of indecent disclosure that turns the whole matter into a sleaze powderkeg.

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