Sex and the capital city: longtime bedfellows

September 02, 2001|By John Timpane

PHILADELPHIA - Washington and sex: Perfect together.

From its earliest days as a knocked-together outpost in a malarial swamp, to its current state as one-half urban nightmare and one-half Power Shangri-La, our nation's capital ever has been a sex mecca. Whorehouse neighborhoods long conveniently hawked their wares a few blocks from the Capitol. Dignitaries both established and visiting could saunter or, if pressed, hop on a horse and gallop to refreshment between wrangles.

So says the historic record. When the king of a South Seas island nation came to visit President Thomas Jefferson, Tom, good host that he was, made sure the monarch had use of a harem of Washington's finest.

That's what you did to welcome a foreign dignitary. Round the world and down your block, that's what you still do.

Wherever kings have wintered, springed, autumned or summered, brothels have sprung like mushrooms. And the kings would have it thus: Better to have all underlings and diplomats happy in their work. Seneca knew it about his Rome, Shakespeare about his London, Voltaire about his Paris. Wherever conquering armies have trod, close behind came an army of artisans, food sellers and self-sellers.

Good? Bad? I don't care for it much. But a lot of folks have liked it just fine. Wars have been fought, borders fixed, thrones defended, cities built and leveled via sex, without which maybe the deal wouldn't have gone down at all.

Sex is something - like money, power, projects in your home territory - I can give you (or get for you) as part of our negotiations. With sex I can bribe, cajole, sweeten the pot, soften the handshake, make you smile, feel comfortable, feel at home.

Forever, dealmakers have used sex as a greeting gift, as a way to establish blood-brotherhood across the deal. Thus early European pioneers were surprised (but maybe shouldn't have been) to find that, as soon as they made friends with some indigenous chief, their new pal might well introduce them to the missus, or the missuses.

Why, then, do any of us still feign (it has to be feigning) surprise when sex is reported to be happening in Washington? Washington is one of the glittering sex capitals of the world. It has long been a bastion of gay sex (Alan Drury's 1959 novel Advise and Consent was a shock to many when it appeared, but it shouldn't have been). And non-gay: The love condo, paid for by senator, representative, military man, bureaucrat, advocate, middle-manager, is an established part of the Washington scene for close to two centuries now.

Power requires sex. Power will have it. Why? Because power can.

Nor is sex confined to the powerful. A good friend of mine who began his legal career in Washington once told me, and I paraphrase: There's a lot of single, beautiful, brilliant people in Washington, all of them under terrific pressure, driving themselves like demons. "Ever been to a Washington singles bar?" he asked. "Might as well be the bar in Star Wars. That's how weird it is."

I was shocked at the word weird coming from my friend, himself a notorious sybarite. If he was shocked, it must be pretty amazing.

Maybe it's wrong. Maybe the lust of the user is dismaying, as least as much as the willingness of the used. Maybe this is how people warm their hands at the fire. Or maybe we ought to remember that when we vote, we send to Washington not paragons but men and women, the animals most in need of our judgment and compassion.

John Timpane is commentary page editor for the Philadelphia Inquirer. His e-mail address is

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