Written for The Skeleton News in June 2007 and reprinted in Power of the Impotent. Feel free to extrapolate my thoughts on the Weiner photo.
Randall L. Tobias, deputy secretary of state and AIDS czar, resigned in late April following the exposure of his habit of hiring women from an upscale DC escort service to come over to his condo and provide massages (that is, hand jobs). Tobias, a former pharmaceutical mogul, was hired by President Bush in 2003 to oversee all U.S. foreign funding. His main duties were to distribute fifteen billion dollars allocated to the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) and act as a mouthpiece for the program and its abstinence-based approach to prevention. Ironically, PEPFAR requires that NGOs sign an anti-prostitution pledge to receive funding for HIV/AIDS prevention. Groups run by sex workers, or that work directly with sex workers to gain healthier, safer working conditions have been denied U.S. funding under the plan. The "ABC" approach to prevention – Abstinence, Be faithful, and Condoms, in order of "effectiveness" – has been enforced internationally by Tobias as the only appropriate form of sex education, despite the lack of data supporting the effectiveness of abstinence-based programs. PEPFAR has taken us a decade backwards in AIDS prevention and prostitutes' rights throughout the world, and lo, its spokesman, a married sixty-five year old, is hiring hookers.
Sure, it's hard to respond to this news without a smug eye-roll at the hypocrisy of politicians, but in doing so we fall into the shallow pit of scandal. The event of an exposure, as microcosmic and temporal as the opening of a camera shutter. We are not concerned with the fact that Tobias was hiring prostitutes; we expect as much from a man in his position. Scandal is the revelation of what we already know, an indiscretion revealed, and it feeds our collective forgetfulness by valuing exposure over comprehension. We can laugh, and cringe, when Tobias is caught with his pants down disregarding his own international policies, but doing so leaves us hanging on the act of getting caught. Don't get caught.
There are sustainable truths in Tobias' predicament. Prostitution happens and a demand for it exists, even though we tell men they're very bad if they pay for sex. Despite the lofty ideals of abstinence education, most people, young or old, married or not, have a funny inclination toward having sex with one another. And as Tobias himself demonstrated, hand jobs are a terrific form of safer sex.
But none of these truths is newsworthy. Journalism rides bareback on the well-formed muscles of scandal because we enjoy the titillation an exposé provides. We might do ourselves a favor by asking better questions, ignoring the scandals, and seeking higher forms of titillation: say, inviting someone over for a massage.