In 1951, two yellow journalists—Jack Lait and Lee Mortimer—published Washington Confidential, their so-called exposé of the raunchy underbelly of the District of Columbia. The book was deliberately sensational and jam-packed with quaint '50s stereotypes: Homosexuals Everywhere! Hanky Panky at the Pentagon! And of course, Insatiable "G-Girls!" G-Girls were voluptuous, promiscuous secretaries, living in boarding houses on Dupont Circle and hanky-pankering with elected officials on Capitol Hill. Lait and Mortimer presented the G-Girl as a sort of perk for hardworking politicians; snuggling on laps in smoke-filled rooms and never, ever, ever saying "no." Whether or not the G-Girl ever really existed, she is still somehow the archetype for the Chandras and Monicas: the loose, liberated, interns who swarm Capitol Hill every year, seducing our elected officials with their sassy MBAs and their shapely calves.
The latest G-Girl, Chandra Levy, has almost mystically infused the Lait-Mortimer stereotype with new life. Our questions are the same as they were in 1950. Is she a victim? Is she a temptress? Is Washington different? Are internships safe? Is the D.C. intern as loose and voracious an animal as she appears to be? Who are these women and what do they want of our congressmen?
The Capitol Versus the Casting Couch
Washington, D.C., is different than Hollywood, or Manhattan, or any other city in which young girls attach themselves to older, successful men. For one thing, there's the transient nature of interns, who stay only as long as a summer or a semester, rendering the capital the functional equivalent of a vast columnated singles bar. For another thing, the young women who score D.C. internships can be less sexually savvy than the girls who score screen tests and modeling contracts in New York or L.A. There are two types of women who gravitate to D.C.: women whose families send a whole lot of money there, and women so involved in their debate/student government/phone-banking projects that a stint in the capital is an obvious next move. But nothing about debate or student government prepares you for sexual gamesmanship.
Beautiful women learn early on how to parry the advances of powerful males, confidently ignoring the moves of the lecherous lit professor, Dad's groping business associate, and the thinks-he's-suave attorney from Uncle Bill's dinner party. Or, they learn to exploit these overtures to their advantage. Meanwhile, your average-looking smart and ambitious woman, for whom the totality of her prior experience with older men is limited to an encounter with a lecherous history TA in her junior year, arrives in D.C. with less immunity against the multitudes of predatory D.C. power brokers.
The government industry also differs from other industries in degrees of separation. In Hollywood, a script girl can work for years without ever coming across someone legendary. In Washington, it's hard to take six steps without tripping over a senator or congressman or a president. Monica and Chandra made contact quickly and easily with their love objects. Often isolated from female mentors and advice, young women fall for the same I'll-leave-my-wife-only-you-understand-me stuff that TV movies are made of. They don't have time to raise the deflector shields, the way they might in another profession.
The G-Girl, on her arrival in the nation's capital, still hasn't learned the last prevailing double standard in any workplace: That everything you learn about getting ahead in the world—find a mentor, attach yourself to powerful people, schmooze till your molars hurt—works better for men. The same young woman who serenely acted as a teaching assistant or researcher for an avuncular professor in college struggles for the same "face-time" or access as the male interns. The difference is that any close one-on-one relationship between a man and a woman is fraught with a million subtle nuances, which can be difficult to manage. That tension is worth slogging through, if it comes with career advancement. "It was so exciting," says one D.C. journalist, who became involved with a married man shortly after graduating college. "He knew famous people. He knew the president!" Who could say no or back off to a man holding the keys to your professional advancement? Men don't have to say no to their mentors, unless it's "no more yards of beer for me tonight, sir!"
Who Says "No"
Perhaps because each party feels the other will ultimately draw a line in the sand, confusion and ambiguity are allowed to gestate into something more exciting. Flirtation, compliments, promises. Thongs. "People who talk about these things afterward forget how delicious it is," says a now happily married woman and mother, who became involved with a married man when she moved to D.C. "The secrecy, the thrill, the sex ..." The problem with the May-December relationship on the Hill, though, is that no external mechanism exists to force either party to behave responsibly. Politicians are immune from the sexual harassment systems that protect young women in corporate workplaces and academia, where the presumption has become that the older male will say no or face brutal consequences. These kinds of advances would cost your political science professor his job. In an office, it would be sexual harassment. In D.C., it's still 1951, and young girls are still curvy temptresses.
Whether you think it's the boy's job or the girl's job to say no seems to turn on whether you believe that there's a power differential involved in these affairs. Last week, in a piece titled, "What 'Powerful' Men?" the Washington Post's Richard Cohen seemed to be arguing that because elected officials don't actually have superpowers (of the leap-tall-buildings-outrun-speeding-locomotives variety) they are no more powerful than young women with perky breasts. Women mostly disagree. Power to help your career, to open doors, to grant access need not take the form of threats to fire you. The difference in sophistication and understanding may suffice. For the young journalist whose affair with a married man "devastated" her throughout her 20s, a good rule of thumb for congressmen should be that older married men should simply view 24-year-old women with master's degrees like their "13-year-old neighbor girl"—at least for recreational purposes. Says the other woman, now married, who had a similar experience, "Women need to make the decision to actively discourage this behavior."
Lait and Mortimer popularized the perennially available G-Girl in 1951. That means that for the average 60-something Hill Habitué, the book was practically required reading in high school. Many of these same men were still taking road trips to Smith and Mount Holyoke, viewing women as essentially fungible nookie-units, while their political ideologies were fermenting. Why would one expect them to think differently as busloads of exciting, ambitious sexually liberated young things are dumped on their shiny loafers today? Every day must feel like Christmas on Capitol Hill, and until a few generations of men who were socialized differently have taken their seats, it's hard to really blame them for thinking, as does Richard Cohen, that youth and curviness somehow equal political power.
So, what is the G-Girl thinking today, as she tumbles off that bus and lands on the lap of a man older than her father? She's probably thinking that this is exciting. That the power is glamorous. That she's lonely. That she truly loves him. That she's glad he's not a greasy staffer who lives in a group house in Georgetown. That her man knows everybody. That he is a man of vision and ideals. That sex isn't taboo like it used to be. That this is just like Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman and better than Cinderella. That she's human, he's divine, and that it really will work out in the end. It may take her 10 more years to learn that it rarely works out in the end. Chandra may not have the luxury of that lesson.