Last night I watched a couple of TV shows, one after the next, and by sheer coincidence both shows involved incidents of sex for favors under unusual circumstances. One involved a man offering the favors (to another man) and I didn’t think anything of it. The other involved a woman offering the favors (to a man), yet this time it really bothered me. Double standard or just situational?
The first show was “State of Play,” a BBC political/journalism conspiracy thriller from a few years back. In the show a group of journalists are offering protection to man named Dominic who is a key player in a story they’re investigating. They are investigating the suspicious death of a woman, and Dominic contends he had a deep and possibly intimate relationship with the victim. The reporters have Dominic holed up in a hotel, and while the hotel offers him protection he is not being held there. He is free to come and go as he pleases but encouraged not to stray too far away.
At some point Dominic makes a trip to the hotel gift shop to buy some cigarettes, a newspaper, and a magazine. The most junior reporter, a guy named Sid who has been assigned to secretly record and transcribe interviews the reporters have been having with Dominic in the hotel room, ends up in the gift shop at the same time. I’m not sure if Sid being there was by coincidence or design, and it does not matter. What matters is that Sid observes Dominic buying a gay magazine among his purchases. Dominic does not recognize Sid because Sid has been kept out of sight away from the other reporters as he secretly listens in on the interviews. Sid proceeds to cruise Dominic in the lobby, and ultimately Sid and Dominic end up back in the hotel room and have sex.
The next day at the newspaper offices Sid is able to offer the other reporters an account of the meeting. Sid believes he has proven that Dominic is gay, and that he does not think he could have been having an intimate relationship with the deceased woman whose death they are investigating. He recounts his story in a meeting with the entire team of reporters, including the editor:
Sid: I’d only have heard his voice, so I turned to get a peak. He saw me looking, and kind of… game on.
Editor: I beg your pardon?
Sid: He half-smiled.
Editor: Somebody half-smiles and you go and have sex with them?
Sid: Nooo! Well… yeah… mostly.
Editor: But that’s bloody primitive!
Sid: I waited outside the shop, pretended to gas on my mobile. He came out of the shop and… hung around. When I finished I walked back the other way, as if I’d just checked in. We got in the lift together… I waffled on about hating hotels and missing your mates and that… he asked if I fancied a drink… I said, yeah… I went to his room, we had a beer – half a beer, not even half –then, he dives on me.
Female Reporter: How long from when you met him?
Sid: Nine minutes?
Sid: It’s not a record!
Male Reporter: You didn’t do all that to prove a point.
Sid: Plus, he’s fit!
Editor: Thanks, Sid. This obviously won’t involve a bonus.
Overall the description of the act, and the reaction from the reporters, was farcical.
Compare that to the “Mad Men” episode that I watched immediately afterwards. For those not familiar with the series, it is set in an advertising agency in late 1960s Manhattan. In this particular episode, the agency is aggressively pursuing the account of an automobile manufacturer. Through a series of events, the representative of the auto manufacturer’s dealer group indicates a less-than-professional interest in the ad agency’s comely office manager, Joan. He essentially indicates that if he is able to spend an evening with Joan, the agency will get the auto account; if he is not able to be with Joan, all bets are off. Rather than inform him that Joan is married (although separated and served with divorce papers), the male executives of the agency debate the proposition, and the majority consider it seriously. So seriously that two of them approach Joan on separate occasions to make her offers.
Joan’s reaction to the first offer is cool and composed, but clearly she is outraged. You are talking about prostitution! To add insult to injury, she is offered a price. While the price is generous by 1960s standards, it is a price nonetheless.
But then things get interesting. Another of the agency executives makes another pitch to Joan, this one more persuasive and better presented than the first pitch. The offer expands to include equity in the ad agency and a partnership. All for just one evening, she is told. A small sacrifice – no, investment – for setting up one’s future. After agonizing over the offer, Joan accepts.
The next series of scenes is where it gets really uncomfortable. Joan arrives at the auto man’s hotel room… she has a stiff drink… he wastes no time in advancing to intimacy. She keeps a cool composure, but we can see in her eyes that this is difficult for her. It is painful to watch. We’re spared the most intimate details, but ultimately find Joan and the man lying in the bed, spent.
What surprised me was how uncomfortable I was watching the events with Joan unfold. As a guy who enjoys a range of sexual experiences, I’ve had more than my share of casual encounters with no regrets. Given the opportunity, I probably would have taken the first cash offer Joan got, and wouldn’t have thought much more of it. Hell, I would have taken far less, maybe even do it for free. In that respect I can relate to Sid in “State of Play.” But watching Joan go through the motions of something that would provide her with substantially more financial enrichment, just for one evening (they assured her), was hard to watch.
It wasn’t until later that I realized that these two shows, watched back to back, both showed instances of sex for favors. Sid’s escapades in “State of Play” were easy to take in, just an amusement within a larger story line. It was a humorous, irreverent occurrence. And as the newspaper editor assured him, this obviously won’t involve a bonus. I forgot all about it, even while less than an hour later I was watching Joan accept a sizable bonus for doing pretty much the same thing.
Maybe the discomfort with watching Joan is that she is a woman – a woman in 1960s corporate America no less. Or is it that we like her so much? She is a central character in “Mad Men” so she is also someone we know well and care for. She is a cool customer and we want the best for her. Would the best for her be financial security, in exchange for just one evening with a stranger? “Mad Men” is full of extracurricular and extramarital affairs, with plenty of examples of people jumping into the sack together for passion alone. But Joan was put up to this by her male colleagues, and it was anything but passionate.
“State of Play” was a short-duration mini-series, long ago finished. We won’t know what became of Sid, or any of the other characters for that matter. “Mad Men” will go on for a while still, so we’ll have a chance to see how things develop. Joan did the deed, and now she is in the executive suite with the big boys. Those guys are a libidos bunch, with more than their share of casual flings and extramarital affairs between them. And yet I expect they’ll squirm when they think of what Joan did, just like I did when I watched the events unfold.