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Opinion: Ruth Marcus on Republican voyeurs

Ruth Marcus of the Washington Post Writers Group reacts to the GOP bondage-club scandal (and if you think we're going to add a picture to this post, forget it):


 A woman did it.


Turns out the Republican National Committee staffer who accompanied a group of donors to Voyeur, a bondage-themed nightclub in West Hollywood, and then turned in an expense account seeking reimbursement for the nearly $2,000 tab, is one Allison Meyers, director -- make that former director -- of the RNC's Young Eagles program of donors under the age of 45.

I had assumed that the outing was a kind of frat-boys-being-frat-boys event, along the lines of a bachelor party. That it was a co-ed affair, and that the apparent group leader was a woman, only makes the whole mess even creepier.

     As described by the Los Angeles Times, the club, "inspired by the film 'Eyes Wide Shut,' is intended to be 'risque and provocative' and 'a combination of intimidation and sexuality,' " in the words of partner David Koral. "Scantily clad performers play out bondage and sadomasochistic 'scenes' during the night." On opening night, the Times said, "One female performer with a horse's bit in her mouth was being strapped to the wall by another."

Call me naive, call me prudish, but what is any self-respecting woman, anyone who wants to be taken seriously professionally, doing at a place like this -- no less putting it on the company tab? According to an RNC e-mail on the episode, "that person (Meyers) was aware that this activity was not eligible for reimbursement and had been previously counseled on this very subject. Accordingly, that staff person has been terminated." This activity -- do they mean she's tried to bill for strip club visits before?

Snicker about the episode, if you will, but there is a troubling history to professional women and strip clubs. Entertaining clients at strip clubs was a popular practice on Wall Street until women started winning sex discrimination suits complaining about the practice as part of a larger pattern of unequal treatment and a hostile work environment.

Carly Fiorina, the former Hewlett-Packard CEO now running for the U.S. Senate from California, describes in her memoir, "Tough Choices," how she was disinvited to an important lunch back in the early 1980s when it turned out the clients wanted to go to a strip club. "I had no idea what I was supposed to do in this situation," she writes. "I couldn't tell myself it didn't matter -- it clearly was important to meet these clients and to convince (her boss) that I should be taken seriously. It never occurred to me to be outraged and demand that they not go -- it wouldn't have worked anyway."

Fiorina decided to go along, "tried to sound knowledgeable . . . and desperately tried to ignore what was going on all around me" -- her drunk boss calling over women to perform lap dances. The "next day in the office," she concludes, "the balance of power had shifted perceptibly. I had shown (her bosses) that I would not be intimidated, even if I was terrified."

I don't quite see this as the victory Fiorina does: Why should she have had to grin and bear the lap dances to get ahead? Three decades later, Allison Meyers with her flock of eagles at Voyeur is even more troubling. Either she felt pressured to go along with the boys -- in which case we haven't come a long way after all. Or she thought it was a big hoot to watch, as The Washington Post described it, "topless dancers wearing horse bridles and other bondage gear while mimicking sex acts" -- in which case we've slid way, way back.

- Ruth Marcus

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