In the final moments of the Washington work day last Friday evening, emails began shooting across my screen announcing the immediate resignation of Randall Tobias as Director of U.S. Foreign Assistance and Administrator of the US Agency for International Development (USAID). The official press release cited "personal reasons," and this was clearly important news, so I passed it on to colleagues right away. One immediately wrote back asking for the "back story," on suspicion that a late-Friday release always means something fishy. I offered that Mr. Tobias might have a family emergency, and while I've long been a critic of the policies over which he has presided both as Global AIDS Coordinator and in his current capacity, I nonetheless felt compassion for him in what appeared to be a serious personal matter.
Boy was I wrong. Little did I realize that this was in fact a "back" story….Tobias's had been inviting some "gals" over to his condo for personal massages. Problem is those "gals" were employed by Pamela Martin and Associates, described in court papers by owner Deborah Palfrey as a "high-end adult fantasy firm offering legal sexual and erotic services across the spectrum of adult sexual behavior." Palfrey, now dubbed the DC Madam, is under investigation for running a "prostitution ring," a no-no last time I understood Administration policy. Tobias's personal cell phone number was found among thousands of other customers, many of them reportedly high-level Washington officials, on a list kept by Palfrey now being used in her defense.
Tobias, of course, claims he "did not have sex with those women" (let's call them "les gals"), and just invited them over for a bunch of friendly massages. Let's put aside whether Tobias simply lusted in his heart while receiving massages from women employed by a firm offering "legal sexual and erotic services," and ask: If tight muscles were the only problem, why didn't he open the yellow pages and hire a certified massage therapist? Is the concierge at his condo on vacation? And does the fact that some of the women were from Central America—immigration status unknown—hint at a new kind of guest worker program supported by the Administration?
Let me be clear: I personally do not care about, nor is it my business to know about, the sexual habits, practices or relationships of consenting adults, and in any case sex between mature, consenting individuals is normal and healthy. But religious fundamentalist self-righteousness and hypocrisy both send me up the wall. And as you may know, Bush and his supporters are really big on abstinence. From sex. Always. In the far-rights anti-science, always fiction world, you should never have sex, unless you are a married heterosexual willing to do so only at risk of getting pregnant. Others—sexually active unmarrieds, gay, lesbian and transgender persons, and anyone else outside the "norm"—are subject to reprogramming. So since the Bush Administration wants a video cam in every bedroom and uterus (and I have no idea whether Tobias was taping his masseuses but that is another story), it is fair to ask if these guys are practicing what they preach. Apparently not.
Sex. Abortion. Parenthood. Power.
The latest news, delivered straight to your inbox.
This might in fact just have been one more "thank-god-its-Friday" "what next?" Washington story if it weren't for the irony of Tobias' recent career path, in which he was previously the Global AIDS Coordinator, responsible for overseeing the $15 billion President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief and now, as Director of all U.S. Foreign Assistance, ultimately responsible for all foreign assistance including HIV/AIDS, reproductive health and family planning and other areas having to do with sex, reproduction, and women's rights.
Abstinence is big in U.S. global AIDS policy, which one colleague dubbed the "Americans for Stopping Sex in Africa League." Billions of dollars have been spent in a fruitless effort at home and abroad to spread a hyper-moralistic and ideological message to everyone and sundry. Programs teaching people sexual negotiation and safer sex methods have become as scarce as rubbers in Uganda. Even sex workers in Asia and Africa are being told to abstain. (Don't ask me…..it's in the program guides.)
Never mind that unprotected sex is the single greatest factor in the spread of HIV infection worldwide in a global epidemic of unprecedented proportions, and never mind that, as a long list of cell phone numbers from Washington officials indicates, others share my contention that sex is a fundamental part of human life and everyone is trying to get some somewhere.
So enter Tobias who, in both his past and current position, has been and is the ultimate defender and enforcer of some of the most highly controversial policies, including the so-called "ABC" (abstain, be faithful, use-condoms-if-you-are-a-sex-worker-or can't-control yourself) approach to HIV prevention, the prostitution pledge, and the anti-trafficking policies of the Bush Administration. He has repeatedly testified before Congress supporting these policies, regularly using faulty data to support his claims.
Under the "ABC" policy as developed under Tobias' watch, some 11 million people in sub-Saharan Africa have been subject to abstinence-only-until marriage programs, receiving no information, training, or methods to practice safer sex, despite the fact that unprotected sex is responsible for 80 percent of new infections in that region. Condoms have been re-stigmatized and in some programs paid for by your tax dollars teens actually are told they will go to hell for having sex.
Another 30 million have received "abstinence and be faithful messages"—whatever that means. And whatever it means, either it doesn't work in high-literacy settings in Washington or Tobias, a married man, has not been reading his own literature. I mean, even if no "actual sexual activity" was involved (and in some abstinence-only-until-marriage curricula in the United States even touching constitutes an unforgivable act, so unless Les Gals were using retractable devices for those massages, I am suspicious) do you qualify as "being faithful" when you have private exotic dancers prancing through your apartment? Rick Warren please advise.
But the irony does not stop there. Under the "prostitution pledge," U.S. policy forbids organizations from receiving U.S. global AIDS funding if they refuse to sign a pledge stating that they will not in any way promote or support prostitution. Violating this pledge means loss of funding. This policy, vaguely written and defined as is the pattern of the far right, has led to the closure of drop-in centers, classes, and health clinics serving the needs of sex workers in several countries in Asia, and has turned health professionals into snitches for the Administration. As a result, the trust built up over many years between the public health community and disadvantaged and marginalized groups like sex workers has been demolished, the basic human rights of sex workers abrogated, and efforts to stem the spread of HIV infection grossly undermined.
I may be missing something, but does hiring gals from an organization that promotes itself as selling sexual services contradict this policy? Does the fact that this involved women from another country, thereby possibly violating the anti-trafficking policies of the Bush Administration mean that the USAID uber-Administrator himself is in violation of the laws he is supposed to be upholding, however deeply misguided these are? Does this mean that USAID should de-fund the Administrator's office and do we need a State Department Trafficking in Persons report on the activities of individuals within the Administration? And what about the "end-demand" policies of the Administration that wants to put all "johns" in jail? Does Tobias serve time for his gal-pal flings?
In a saner world, U.S. global AIDS policies (and all those having to do with reproductive and sexual health) would be based on the promotion of individual rights, public health, and collective responsibility. In a saner world, the U.S. government would not be known for its fundamentalist "tighty-whities-in-a-twist" approach to sex.
But we don't live in that world. In our world, people with wealth, money, and power get away with "special massages," they make unrealistic rules for other people and set their own for themselves. And those at greatest risk of life-threatening infections and engaged in a fundamental daily life struggle to survive are punished in the interest of moralism. Give me some real science fiction any day.