Monday, April 30, 2007

Bush Administration Sex Scandal: So Very Victorian

Many of the Bush Administration’s policies blatantly seek to force a patriarchal regime on not merely the US but on the world at large. The policies of Bush’s “Abstinence Czar” Deputy Secretary of State Randall L. Tobias, director of US Foreign Assistance and head of the USAID (US Agency for International Development) are a case in point. He resigned last Friday because so-called “D.C. Madam” Jeanne Palfrey said that she intends to call him (among other powerful officials) as a witness to testify at her prostitution-ring trial. Tobias, it seems, made frequent recourse to Central American women for “massages.” The news media seem to consider the unmasking of Tobias’s hypocrisy a delicious, salacious irony. But surely this irony is such a tired old cliché that it can barely raise a smile of schadenfreude. More to the point, Tobias’s policies have had considerable negative impact, beginning with his attack against the most effective methods for preventing the spread of HIV/AIDS and going on from there to doing his best to sabotaging family-planning programs around the world and exposing third-world world women to the deadly hazards of illegal abortion.

And yet, there is an irony in Tobias’s being felled by the crackdown on a prostitution ring that the US media are unlikely even to notice. Sharon Groves reports in the Summer 2005 issue of Feminist Studies:

In May 2005, the Brazilian government made the historic decision to refuse $40 million from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) for HIV/AIDS funding. They cited as the reason for their refusal the Bush administration’s insistence on a public condemnation of prostitution. Pedro Chequer, director of Brazil’s AIDS program and chair of the National Commission that decided to refuse the U.S. grants was reported by Michael M. Phillips and Matt Moffett in the Wall Street Journal (2 May 2005) as saying “We can’t control [the disease] with principles that are Manichean, theological, fundamentalist, and Shiite.”

We thought that Brazil’s decision was significant and surprising in that it placed the health of sex workers at the center of an international debate about how best to fight HIV/AIDS.

. . . .

According to [Adrienne] Germain [president of the International Women’s Health Coalition], Brazil’s decision sheds light on the Bush administration’s repressive policies toward countries and organizations working to stop the spread of HIV/AIDS. Germain sees the Bush administration as imposing “a moral vision of the world that recognizes only heterosexual sex in marriage and that takes a very punitive position toward anyone that deviates from that stance.” Indeed, along with conservative member of Congress, the Bush administration have been able to impose (or is working toward imposing) a number of repressive restrictions on non-profit organizations working on HIV/AIDS, which are staggering in their implications. Concerning prostitution, they have required all organizations taking funds from USAID (even if their work has nothing to do with sex workers) to make a written pledge opposing commercial sex work or risk losing funding. [Note: prostitution is legal in Brazil.] This measure which was put in place in 2003 followed on the heels of “the Global Gag Rule”—a policy that bans USAID funds from going to any foreign-based organizations that support needle exchange as a form of prevention are being challenged as well. The result of such policies is not only disastrous for sex workers but, as Germain points out, is a “death sentence given the way in which AIDS is spreading throughout the globe.”

Brazil’s campaign against HIV/AIDS, which Groves calls “one of respectful engagement with the people most at risk since the 19802," has shown a "clear record of progress." For more on sex and reproductive issues, visit the website of the International Women's Health Coalition

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