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Danny Schechter
Danny Schechter
News Dissector Danny Schechter edits Mediachannel1.org. He is the author of The Crime of Our Time.
Wall Street and 'aggressive sexuality'
The high-stress, high-risk environment on Wall Street may lead many bankers to participate in risky sexual behaviour.
Last Modified: 21 May 2011 08:32
According to psychologists, "people in positions of power often feel as if they can perhaps get away with it. There is sometimes a sense of entitlement [GALLO/GETTY]

My colleague Mike Whitney asks: "What are the chances that Strauss-Kahn will get a fair trial now that he's been blasted as a serial sex offender in about 3,000 articles and in all the televised news reports?"

"Do you remember any Wall Street bankers being dragged off in handcuffs when they blew up the financial system and bilked people out of trillions of dollars?" 

The answer to both questions is certainly a "no" (or a "non", if you're in France), but there is more to the connection between sex and Wall Street. Without commenting on the evidence in the Strauss-Kahn case - which has merely been asserted, not proven - I will expose a deeper context that is being largely ignored.

I call it the "testosterone factor" in The Crime of Our Time, my book about Wall Street.

Interesting, is it not, that there have been so few references to the link between the pervasiveness of salacious sex and the high-charged life of this class of "entitled", wealthy bankers - who live off of others with few rules or restraints?

There is often no news about that, or the practices of the International Monetary Fund (IMF); which is often accused of "screwing over" poor and vulnerable countries with unfair structural adjustment programs

It is also strange that there have been so few references to Eliot Spitzer in the media. Spitzer, a one-time "sheriff" of Wall Street, was making a career of denouncing criminal financial practices carried out by the Bush administration when he was suddenly brought down by a sex scandal.

Strauss-Kahn had been well-known in the news as a critic of US banking practices and also as a possible socialist presidential candidate attempting to topple Sarkozy in France. On top of that, he had recently outraged officials in Washington by asserting that the Chinese economy was surpassing that of the US.

In both cases, powerful forces have strong motives to want to bring down potential reformers - by any means necessary. That is not to ignore the fact that in each case the men were - on the surface anyway - obsessed with sex and prone to illegal behaviours that put themselves and others at risk.

Highly sexualised environment

The most likely reason for their behaviour is that they both operated in a highly sexualised environment.

Also bear in mind that part of what intelligence agencies do these days when targeting people is to prepare sophisticated, psychological profiles before they act. They know that knowledge of the secret lives - and kinks - of public figures makes it easy to discredit them, and that much easier to take them down.

Remember Richard Nixon's authorised break-in at the office of Daniel Ellsberg's psychiatrist looking for highly personal information?

Nothing is off-limits to those in positions of power; as people like former weapons inspector Scott Ritter learned when he became embroiled in a police sting.

And when people are highly stressed, they are more prone to making mistakes.

Sex scandals are also a staple of media exploitation with "personal morality plays" displacing political morality confrontations every time.

They are both great distractions and effective tools of character assassination - and often work better than the more violent ways to neutralise people who are considered dangerous.

That is why the FBI was so hot to discredit Dr Martin Luther King Jr with leaks of so-called wire-tapped sex tapes. In his case, this tactic failed, but unfortunately, the other eventually succeeded.

In some cases both tactics are deployed; as in the physical assassination of bin Laden and then the character assassination aimed at his supporters through the release of porn allegedly found in his "lair".

Intense sexual appetites are an almost unavoidable extension of the "culture" of an avaricious financial world. Illegal sex and Wall Street - or La Defense, Paris' financial district - have long been linked, writes Heidi Moore:

"This is all a reminder that the financial district hasn't always been gleaming skyscrapers and Starbucks."

To illustrate this, consider a passage from City of Eros: New York City, Prostitution, and the Commercialisation of Sex, 1790-1920: "Adjacent to the Wall Street business district, prostitutes worked in saloons along Greenwich Street, taking men upstairs. In addition, immediately south of Wall Street was the Battery Tender-loin, on Whitehall Street. The Water Street area, however, remained the most significant and poorest waterfront zone of prostitution. Amid the rookeries, rat pits and dance halls, prostitutes exposed in each window to the public view plied their trade."

In the modern era, many of the street’s most macho traders are, according to David Russell who worked in the industry for two decades, known as "swinging d**ks". It is well known that the big money on Wall Street has kept a vibrant, upscale sex industry alive and well.

There has been one scandal after another. Here are a few cases cited by Moore, before Spitzer's demise:

• BP chief executive, John Browne, left both his post at the oil company and his directorship at Goldman Sachs Group last year after it was revealed that Lord Browne had lied to a court about his young male lover, whom he had met through an escort-service website.

• A group of six women sued Dresdner Kleinwort in 2006 for $1.4 billion on allegations that male executives entertained clients at strip clubs and even brought prostitutes back to the office. The case was settled out of court in 2007.

• Canadian hedge fund manager Paul Eustace, by his own admission in a deposition filed in court in 2007, lied to investors and cheated on his wife with a stripper.

• In 1987, Peter Detwiler, vice chairman of EF Hutton & Co, was, according to court testimony, instructed by his client, Tesoro Petroleum Corporation Chairman Robert V West, to hire a blond prostitute for the finance minister of Trinidad & Tobago, who had been supporting a tax issue that would have hurt Tesoro's profits.

• A woman claiming to have been Bernard Madoff's mistress published a book about their secret liaisons. His secretary said he had a fondness for massages in an article in Vanity Fair.

Another indication of the extent to which Wall Street businessmen and bankers are involved in the sex industry is that one crash is said to have brought down the sex industry almost as if it had been a fully owned subsidiary, if not an extension, of the financial services business.

Psychology behind the behaviour

To find out more, I spoke to Jonathan Albert, a psychologist practicing in Manhattan.

He told me: "I see a lot of clients in NYC who are impacted by the economic crisis. People deal with stress in many different ways. Some people exercise, some people over-eat, some use drugs and alcohol, some even sexualise those feelings."

"Sexualise?" I asked him, "How do they sexualise these feelings?"

His response was: "I've seen a lot of Wall Streeters who sexualise feelings of anxiety and stress and depression. So, for example, they might rely on adult sexual services to deal with those feelings."

Loretta Napoleoni, an Italian author, who worked on Wall Street for years, offers a provocative thesis for how the need for paid sex became part of the culture of irresponsibility.

"I can tell you that this is absolutely true because being a woman, having worked in finance 20 years ago I could tell you that even at that time - when the market was not going up so much - these guys, all they talk is sex."

She complemented her personal experience by citing a study by researchers from Oxford University.

"The study discovered that excessive amounts of testosterone, produced in a period of fantastic financial exuberance, creates a sort of confusion. It is what people in sports call 'being in the zone', which means you get in a certain situation where you feel that you will always win. That you are infallible."

I asked Dr Albert if those findings may indeed have been relevant to Spitzer or even be endemic in the industry?

His reply: "I do see this a lot in the finance industry, yes. People in positions of power often feel as if they can perhaps get away with it. There is sometimes a sense of entitlement."

"They feel entitled to take part in risky behaviour?" I pressed.

"High-risk behaviour. It's similar to what they do on a daily basis. They invest millions and millions of dollars and there is a great risk involved with that. The same is true with using the services of a prostitute. Obviously there are great health risks; their relationship is in great danger if they are using the services of a prostitute."

"A lot of people skate on the excitement, on that euphoric rush," Dr Albert asserted.

The culture of risk on Wall Street was intoxicating to many in the same way that gamblers become addicted or report a rush when they are winning.

The euphoria of life in the "fast lane" often implodes when one's luck runs out, leading to depression and family break-ups. Some of Dr Albert's clients coped with the pressure on them by behaving in even kinkier ways.

"...they just want to let loose, relax and take a very passive role in their sexual practice. So they may seek out the services of a dominatrix, where they are at the mercy of this sex worker. I've had clients who seek out services where they get whipped, cuffed, put on a leash like a dog..."

Beating others can also be part of this culture. I am not being moralistic here, but a climate of narcissism and living secret lives often desensitises its practitioners - leaving them little time to think of how their actions may affect others. This could also be linked to their lack of empathy for the people their policies impact negatively.

None of this context excuses anything that Strauss-Kahn may or may not have done, but what it does do is shine some light on a culture of aggressive sexuality that our media is often too hypocritical to investigate.

Danny Schechter elaborates on this issue in his book, The Crime of Our Time, and in a DVD extra to his documentary film Plunder - The Crime of Our Time.

Comments to dissector@mediachannel.org

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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