December 20, 2008

Of Mistresses and Misplaced Outrage

She calls herself “€œMelissa Beech,”€ and if we take her thumbnail biography at face value, she’s a college senior, living in Philadelphia”€”and living in lavish style, thanks to her wealthy boyfriend. A successful media professional, he pays her rent, showers her with gifts, and takes her on expensive vacations. This “€œmutually beneficial arrangement”€ costs her beau something like $5,000 a month and was arranged by him, she says, “€œbecause his past girlfriends hadn”€™t understood that his work would always come first.”€

Her story may be as phony as her pseudonym, but when Miss Beech told it via Tina Brown’s new outfit, The Daily Beast, the outrage she provoked was real. Her confessional elicited more than 100 comments”€”many calling her a prostitute”€”and prompted responses at Slate and Salon. Such was the outpouring of judgmentalism that Miss Beech produced a follow-up, interviewing her “€œbenefactor”€ (as she calls him) who defended the legitimacy of their arrangement.

In an age where literary fraud is commonplace, I”€™m highly dubious of Miss Beech’s story, which sounds just a bit too much like the plot of a successful “€œchick lit”€ project. Her patron is unmarried, in his early 30s, and earns a seven-figure income, yet he can”€™t have the usual sort of girlfriend “€œbecause of the stress and pressure they placed on his already hectic lifestyle.”€ Hmmmm.

Such suspicions aside, the indignant reaction is truly fascinating. In a society that long ago discarded the ideal of premarital chastity, youthful fornication has lost its shock power. If Miss Beech were merely sleeping with a college classmate, her behavior would be no different than that of millions of other young women in 21st-century America, and nowadays only the strictest of religious conservatives would condemn it. None of those passing judgment on her, however, speaks the language of sin. Her stone-throwing Pharisees are strictly secular.

Much of the opprobrium heaped on Miss Beech took her to task for failing to live up to the careerist ideals of feminism. She met her benefactor via a job interview. She didn”€™t get the job, but he recommended her for employment elsewhere, so that he was free to offer her an “€œarrangement”€ without exposing himself to the charge of workplace harassment. The cleverness with which he thus eluded the snares of Title VII probably accounts for a large share of the outrage misplaced on Miss Beech. The transcendental purpose of “€œsexual harassment”€ law is to prevent successful men from leveraging their workplace authority to obtain romantic opportunities, so as to create a “€œlevel playing field”€ without favoritism to the boss’s girlfriend.

In the gender-neutral meritocracy of feminist imagination, no woman should benefit from youth and beauty, as this would be unfair to the old and ungainly. If a woman adds to youth and beauty a willingness to accommodate the sexual interests of powerful men, she is colluding with the enemy in perpetuating patriarchal oppression. Sexual harassment law, however, has not yet found a way to punish influential men who give their girlfriends favorable recommendations at other firms, and so Melissa Beech and her lover are thumbing their noses at feminism, proving once again Rush Limbaugh’s Undeniable Truth No. 24:

Feminism was established so as to allow unattractive women access to the mainstream of society.

Feminists have waged a four-decade war against traditional morality, and so can ill afford to invoke old-fashioned moral language and condemn Miss Beech as a selfish, shallow tramp. Instead, she is scorned for failing to demonstrate self-sufficiency, as with the commenter who scolded: “€œLearn to work like most of us had to in college, even if that means wearing Payless shoes instead of Jimmy Choos. At least you’ll have your dignity and some REAL job skills at the end!”€

Yet Miss Beech evidently lacks neither intelligence nor diligence. Her boyfriend says in the follow-up interview that she is “€œprobably one of the hardest working young women I have ever met. The jobs you”€™ve received were in your own merit. I did nothing except refer your name to friends of mine.”€ She is having her feminist cake and eating it, too “€“ pursuing a professional career in the usual manner while also benefitting from Mr. Big’s patronage to the tune of $5,000 a month.

Resentment of her good fortune in securing such a font of generosity appears a major motivator of the sanctimony directed at Miss Beech. Rather than spend her youth engaged in “€œrelationships”€ with equally impecunious 20-somethings, she instead has found an affluent older lover willing and able to provide her with material advantages. Her critics are cloaking class envy in moralistic drag. If he were not wealthy, there would be no relationship and no cause for condemnation, as he discerns: “€œI”€™m lucky enough to be able to financially give you anything you could want, and if people resent that then that’s too bad for them.”€

The source of outrage that Miss Beech’s critics seem unable to express directly is that her “€œmutually beneficial arrangement”€ offends the egalitarian sensibilities of the modern age. When the Pandora’s Box of liberation was opened in the 1960s, the prevailing assumption was that sexual freedom would result in sexual equality. However, as every perceptive mind since Edmund Burke has discerned, freedom and equality are conflicting values. The more we are free, the less we will be equal, and this is true as much in sex as in economics.

A regime of sexual liberation benefits the attractive, the affluent and the extroverted far more than it benefits the ugly, the poor, and the awkward, who find themselves alone on the outside, peering as through an impenetrable window into the carnival of pleasure enjoyed by the rich and beautiful. Attempts by the unfortunate to emulate this sexual circus only reinforce the pre-existent inequality. Hollywood starlets and Wall Street moguls seem to glide undamaged through their botched marriages and child-custody disputes, while similar behavior by the poor only aggravates their poverty.

The egalitarian mind does not object to Miss Beech having a boyfriend, or to her benefactor having a girlfriend. Rather the shock is that they have transcended the barrier that their inequalities of age, wealth and career status are expected to impose. A successful man is nowadays expected to choose as his romantic companion an equally accomplished partner. This expectation, more than the alleged pressures of his “€œhectic lifestyle”€ or any objection by Miss Beech, likely explains why her beau doesn”€™t consider marriage a potential end-point of their relationship.

As the carefully-matched pairings of Ivy League careerists celebrated by New York Times wedding announcements suggest, our egalitarian elites reserve an especial odium for high-achieving men who marry women too far below them on the status ladder. Such an unequal match would imply that professional achievement yields for women less romantic benefit than it does for men. If a man in his 30s earning a million dollars should announce his engagement to a 22-year-old college senior, this would be viewed as an uncouth abandonment of those 30-something career women from among whom such a man is expected to select his mate.

Having forsaken the Judeo-Christian strictures that would denounce the sexual adventures of Miss Beech as sinful, our culture yet retains its instinct for condemnation, directing it toward behavior that mocks the social standards that have replaced the stern “€œThou shalt not”€ commandments of yore. Egalitarian idolators are ashamed to admit that theirs is also a jealous god.

Probably no one would be surprised if the saga of Melissa Beech were revealed to be a hoax, or at least artfully embroidered to present her “€œarrangement”€ in the most flattering light. Her story would be less reader-friendly if her boyfriend were a married or divorced man in his 50s, rather than a bachelor in his 30s. And even if the essentials of her story are true, one suspects that the Philadelphia locale is a deception”€”a million-dollar media salary is far more likely in New York or Washington.

Whatever deceptions Miss Beech has practiced, her story nonetheless functions as a morality play, and her critics were eager to prophesy a tragic ending, predicting that her boyfriend would eventually dump her in favor of some other young pretty thing. They are likely to be disappointed in that expectation, however, as the authoress has foreshadowed a different denouement.

Miss Beech introduces herself as coming from a family of “€œtraditional Irish Catholic Republicans”€ and, in her follow-up article, her boyfriend makes a telling revelation: “€œWe have met each other’s families, your dad and I go golfing together, and my mom thinks you”€™re the sweetest.”€ Ah, with such chains is the poor beast led to the sacrificial altar!

Whether fiction or fact, this fairy tale promises to end with wedding bells. And when that final chapter is written, Miss Beech will have accomplished a betrayal of modernity for which her critics can never forgive her.

Robert Stacy McCain is co-author (with Lynn Vincent) of Donkey Cons: Sex, Crime, and Corruption in the Democratic Party. He is a frequent contributor to The American Spectator and blogs at The Other McCain.

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