Your tax dollars at work.
When Jessica Cutler put her dirty secrets on the Web, she lost her job, signed a book deal, posed for Playboy -- and raised a ton of questions about where America is headed
By April Witt
Sunday, August 15, 2004; Page W12
The instant message blinked on the computer at Jessica Cutler's desk in the Russell Senate Office Building. "Oh my God, you're famous."
Before she could form the thought -- "famous, cool" -- or puzzle how she, a lowly mail clerk, had escaped obscurity, a second instant message popped up on her screen. Startled, Jessica recalls, she began to curse.
Jessica Cutler says she is trying to look on the bright side of her notoriety. (Photograph by Kyoko Hamada)
"Your blog is on Wonkette," the message said.
Jessica's blog (short for "Web log") was the online diary she had been posting anonymously to amuse herself and her closest girlfriends. In it, she detailed the peccadilloes of the men she said were her six current sexual partners, including a married Bush administration official who met her in hotel rooms and gave her envelopes of cash; a senator's staff member who helped hire her, then later bedded her; and another man who liked to spank and be spanked.
Wonkette is a popular online gossip column that was read by lots of Jessica's friends and Capitol Hill co-workers, including some of the men in her blog.
The messages warning Jessica that her private little joke had just gone very public came from a girlfriend over on the House side. Reading it, Jessica says, she was too stunned to wonder how Wonkette had discovered her blog. Instead, the portion of Jessica's brain that had evolved to help humans survive marauding mastodons screamed: Kill the blog! Kill the blog!
Typing and clicking her mouse at a desperate pace, Jessica logged on to blogger.com, the electronic bulletin board where she'd posted her sexploits under the pseudonym Washingtonienne, and deleted her blog, hoping she'd blown her diary into oblivion. She says she barely breathed as she closed out blogger.com and summoned Wonkette.com onto her screen. There it was: a teasing item noting that an unnamed staffer for a certain Midwestern senator was surely going to get a book contract out of her X-rated blog. The gossip columnist offered her readers a link so they could read the sex diary for themselves.
Jessica clicked on the link. "Page not found," came the reply.
A reprieve. Maybe nobody on Capitol Hill had read or copied her blog before she'd deleted it. Maybe nobody would figure out that Jessica was the staffer who wrote it. Maybe this was no biggie.
Or maybe she needed to start looking for a new job right now.
Jessica tried opening and sorting mail. That's what she was paid to do as a staff assistant for Sen. Mike DeWine, a Republican from Ohio. She liked to joke that her job was really to throw out the mail, the stacks of letters from earnest voters who believe members of Congress actually care what they think.
Too jittery to work, Jessica dumped her stack of unopened mail on the two new interns in her office. She figured they'd still be filled with youthful enthusiasm for serving their government, seeing as how it was only their second day on the job.
Just then, Jessica says, the office door swung open. Framed in the doorway was the man she'd chronicled on the blog as her latest and favorite paramour -- a serious committee staffer more likely to be featured in some wonk newsletter than an online sex diary. He didn't look happy.
He asked her to step into the hallway, Jessica says. He was clutching a printout of her blog. "I have nothing to say to you about this," Jessica recalls him saying before he walked away.
"Okay, bye," Jessica said. She slunk back to her desk thinking, "Boy, am I getting off easy."
A few minutes later, she noticed one of the senator's senior aides standing a few feet away, glaring. This was the woman Jessica says set her up on her first date with the committee staffer. In her blog, Jessica breezily referred to her as a pimp. Now, the senior aide Jessica had called a pimp looked as if she wanted to rip Jessica's head off.
"You are the sorriest excuse for a human being," Jessica remembers the woman shouting. "You are worthless."
The woman and the committee staffer both declined to be interviewed for this article through Mike Dawson, DeWine's director of communications. Dawson declined to publicly discuss the accuracy of Jessica's blog or her account of what happened after it became public.
But, according to Jessica, the woman continued berating her until Jessica asked meekly, "What should I do?"
The woman told Jessica she should pack up and leave before she had her thrown out. "You better hope I never see you outside this building," Jessica recalls her saying.
This was turning out to be a really lousy 26th birthday.
Jessica tottered down the Russell Building's marble hallways atop the cute, nude-colored sandals that she liked to think made her legs look longer and sexier. She tugged forlornly at the cardigan she wore to cover her strapless pink birthday-girl-going-out-tonight dress. She felt ill, she says. By the time she reached her girlfriend's office on the House side, her stomach was heaving and her throat was so constricted she could barely speak.
"I'm fired," she mouthed silently at her friend.
"Oh my God, you need a drink."
A few minutes later, Jessica and her friend slid onto stools in the cool dimness of Bullfeathers, a popular Capitol Hill watering hole. Jessica ordered a Southern Comfort. It was the middle of the afternoon on May 18.
"What happened to you today?" the bartender asked.
"I got fired. I lost my boyfriend and my job, and it's my birthday," Jessica remembers telling him.
"How did you get fired?" the bartender wanted to know.
"I wrote an X-rated blog," Jessica said.
The bartender looked puzzled.
"What's a blog?" he asked.
Soon, the answer to that question would be writ large, not only across Washington, but around the world. The Times of India dubbed her the "New-insky." Jessica's unapologetically snarky chronicle of her busy sex life, her audacious refusal to keep the pawing patriarchy's dirty secrets, her contempt for honest but unglamorous public service, her cynical wit and sexy looks would combine with the power of the Web to launch her into low-orbit celebrity.
She posed for Playboy in a pictorial that will run this fall, just in time for the election. Book agents pursued her, and a literary bidding war netted her a six-figure book deal. "It's more than I probably deserve," she says. "Ha! I'm sure a lot of people will agree."
The tittering hordes vilified Jessica even as they pursued her, denouncing her online, around office coolers and in commentaries from the left and right. Jessica thinks she knows why. In a culture increasingly nervous about its own values, numbly sinking into the sofa at night to watch trash reality TV shows and wondering if our own 14-year-old sons and daughters are casually "hooking up," it's satisfying to have a bona fide blog slut to flog.
Jessica Cutler says she is trying to look on the bright side of her notoriety. "I was watching the movie 'Scarface' the other night, and I was like, Oh my God, this is exactly how I feel," Jessica says. "There is that scene where [the gangster played by Al Pacino] was in a restaurant. He was all coked up. He gets thrown out. He tells everyone in the restaurant, 'You need me. You need me. You need me so you can point at me and say that's the bad guy.' "
JESSICA CUTLER, THE MOUSE-CLICKER THAT ROARED, is a smart, subversive waif with a certain South Park charm. She's 5 feet 2, weighs about 100 pounds, wears hoop earrings as big as her fist and has a higher IQ -- she says she's been twice tested at more than 140 -- than the average medical student.
Jessica was officially fired for misusing an office computer, but the men she wrote about kept their jobs. What they lost was their privacy. Jessica's blog identified them only by their initials. But amateur Internet sleuths who read the blog searched electronic databases looking for likely suspects, then posted names and photographs on the Internet. Jessica still refuses to name the men publicly.
"I feel really bad for the guys," Jessica says. "They didn't deserve this."
As for herself, she tries to look on the bright side. "I was only blogging for, what, less than two weeks?" she says. "Some people with blogs are never going to get famous, and they've been doing it for, like, over a year. I feel bad for them."
Sitting in a corner table at the Palm one recent afternoon, she twists a strand of her long dark hair as she contemplates her place in the universe.
"I was the one writing on the bathroom wall" with her online diary. "A lot of men have bad things to say about me," acknowledges Jessica, who has been Googling herself to read anonymous diatribes from online critics. "I really upset them. I think it bothers them to find out that girls really do, you know, get together and laugh about guys' [anatomies] all day."
She's a next-generation Monica, still snapping her thong and gabbing to the girls, only more cynical: free of romantic illusions about powerful men who are going to leave their wives. She's a real-life, "Sex and the City"-style Samantha who says sex is pure sport. She is an American uber-individualist demanding the right to tell her own story her own way.
"Everyone should have a blog," Jessica says. "It's the most democratic thing ever."
And she's something else.
"She's a sign," says Daniel Yankelovich, the pollster and analyst who has been studying American values for 50 years. He means a sign of our times, as is Jessica's frumpy 21-year-old contemporary, Pfc. Lynndie England, whose gleeful mugging for the cameras as she mocked naked Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib unsettled the national conscience. Both women have left many people questioning: How did we get here?
Jessica's "behavior is not mainstream majority behavior in the same way that most soldiers in Iraq are not abusing people," Yankelovich says. "She's an extreme, but she's a sign. These kinds of signs are breaking out often enough that you know they are signaling something much larger and more important."
Feminist author Naomi Wolf agrees, and says modern sexual conduct offers a window into what's been gained and lost in the nation's values revolution. The sexual revolution, now stripped of much of its feminist political ideology, has left legions of young women free but confused. "I think the tipping point came three or four years ago with the first generation to grow up with the Internet," Wolf says. "They were daughters of feminists. The feminist message of autonomy got filtered through a pornographized culture. The message they heard was just go for it sexually.
"What is gained is they totally reject the double standard and believe they are entitled to sexual exploration and sexual satisfaction," Wolf says. "The downside is we've raised a generation of young women -- and men -- who don't understand sexual ethics like: Don't sleep with a married man; don't sleep with a married woman; don't embarrass people with whom you had a consensual sexual relationship. They don't see sex as sacred or even very important anymore. That's been lost. Sex has been commodified and drained of its deeper meaning."
To conservative commentator Michelle Malkin, who views the sexual revolution as media-driven, immoral and damaging to women, Jessica's eager publicists in the mainstream press are just as repulsive as Jessica herself. "This vulgar little episode reflects a larger, disturbing media trend toward normalizing and glamorizing sexual promiscuity among young working women," Malkin wrote in an online column titled "The Skanks on Capitol Hill," which was posted on the townhall.com Web site. "It harms those trying to succeed on their merits in the professional arena. And it also harms our own daughters, who will be forced to fight harder to protect their dignity and credibility in a 'Girls Gone Wild' culture."
That culture has been well documented. In 1971, 30 percent of American girls ages 15 to 19 had had sexual intercourse, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. By 1988, that number had climbed to 51 percent. The steady rise leveled off in the late 1980s, then dipped slightly, in part because of AIDS awareness campaigns. Still, a substantial number of today's teenage girls report that they and their friends engage in casual sex with multiple partners devoid of emotional commitments.
Twenty-eight percent of girls ages 15 to 17 said that sexual intercourse was "almost always" or "most of the time" part of a casual relationship, according to a 2002 survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation and Seventeen magazine. Thirty percent of girls surveyed said relationships between boyfriends and girlfriends typically involved someone cheating or doing something sexual with someone else.
Pepper Schwartz, a University of Washington professor who has been teaching and writing about human sexuality for more than 20 years, says she's not surprised to see more young women engage in casual sex without emotional ties. "In every way women are becoming more like men," she says. "They are ambitious. They are aggressive. They are independent. And more and more, they participate in blood sports, aggressive sports."
Yet even Schwartz, who hosts occasional online sexual advice chats, has been amazed at how sexually bold some young women have become. "High school girls will be open about bisexual contact, and high school boys think bisexual girls are the sexiest thing on Earth. One of the No. 1 questions I am asked is about three-ways. 'My boyfriend asks about three-ways. Should I or shouldn't I?'
"I guess it shouldn't surprise us," Schwartz concludes. "Look how much sex is on every daytime soap opera, every sitcom. We are permeated with this stuff. Did we really think it would just stay inside that 21-inch tube?"
Sexual mores are only the crest of a tidal wave of change. In a span of about 15 years during the 1960s and 1970s, Americans underwent the kind of dramatic transformation of social values that usually occurs over generations, Yankelovich says. First college students, and then an overwhelming majority of Americans, rejected much of the social rigidity of the 1950s. Deeply held American values such as conformity, respectability, sacrifice and duty to others were elbowed aside by newer values: personal satisfaction, individual choice and a pluralism that tolerates vast differences in race, religion and lifestyle.
Yankelovich has coined the term "expressive individualism" to describe the new ethic of personal freedom that, among other things, opened the way for women, gays and minorities to make extraordinary gains. "It was a sweeping revolution, and we are still figuring out its consequences," Yankelovich says.
One unintended consequence of the revolution, he says, is that social morality has now become so relative it has begun to make Americans on both the left and right very anxious, although they disagree sharply on what to do about that. Yankelovich sees that nervousness in Americans' responses to events as diverse as Enron's accounting fictions, the Roman Catholic Church's protection of pedophiles, the Iraqi prison abuse scandal and Jessica's blog.
"The country is taken aback by moral relativism in all of its forms," Yankelovich says. "To me, the best way of thinking about it is that people are now free to say: 'I didn't do anything wrong. I didn't break the law.' An earlier generation, my own generation growing up in the United States, would say, 'What has the law got to do with it?' The usual model for societies is that they have a very thin layer of law and a very thick layer of social morality. What this expressive individualism has done, as an unintended consequence, is weaken that layer of social morality to the point where it's almost disappeared."
In other words, we can denounce Jessica Cutler and call her a blog slut if it makes us feel any better. But she is, for better or worse, our blog slut.
THE DAY JESSICA'S BLOG WENT PUBLIC, work halted at many desks across Washington as Hill staffers, government bureaucrats, lobbyists and journalists forwarded links to friends. Jessica was quickly pegged as the unnamed staffer. From there, people speculated about the identity of her more powerful playmates and argued about what she represented. Was Jessica a new-media revolutionary who turned the tables on the kind of Washington men who have always expected their pretty young playthings to be powerless and silent? Or was she a sleazy hedonist who made money from her sexual liaisons? The debate hasn't ended, especially among women.
On a recent weeknight, a group of young professional women sip wine after work at the 18th Street Lounge in the District and discuss the ways Jessica Cutler seems both familiar to them and yet extreme.
"She depresses me. I don't think people can do those kind of things without emotional repercussions," says a 27-year-old who works in advertising. This woman has never had a one-night stand and can't imagine engaging in casual sex with six different men, she says. But Jessica's frank talk about sex didn't strike her as unusual.
"Women love to talk about sex," she says. "That's what we do when we get together and drink. If I was in a relationship with someone I cared about and I was concerned about my performance, I'd talk about it in graphic detail with my friends. I've learned most of my sex tips from girlfriends."
Across the street at the Lucky Bar, a group of graduate students ponder what Jessica was seeking when she kissed and blogged, and whether she ever found it.
"The only way she thought she could have any influence was through sex," says a 24-year-old public policy student in Washington for a summer internship. "I don't think anyone should use sex for power. If you want to have unattached, unemotional sex, that's fine. But using it for power is wrong."
What is an acceptable motive for having unattached, unemotional sex?
"Pleasure," she says.
"I HAVE A 'GLAMOUR JOB' ON THE HILL. That is, I could not care less about gov or politics, but working for a Senator looks good on my resume. And these marble hallways are such great places for meeting boys and showing off my outfits."
This is Jessica's very first blog entry, posted at 5:32 p.m. on Wednesday, May 5. But that's not where the story of Jessica's blog began.
Jessica grew up in Syracuse, N.Y., the oldest of three daughters raised by a former U.S. soldier and his Korean-born wife. Her parents fought a lot, remembers Jessica, who was in junior high when they divorced. Her mother moved out, leaving the girls to live with their father. They started leading largely separate lives.
"We all got cable in our rooms," Jessica says. "We all would just go to our rooms at the end of the day and watch the shows we wanted to watch."
From first grade through junior high, Jessica spent one day each week in a special program for gifted and talented children. Jessica and some of her schoolmates describe the program as pure free-to-be-you-and-me fun: Nobody graded them; nobody gave them homework; nobody cared if they finished anything.
Those classes left a mark on Jessica. "They tell you, 'You guys, you are smarter than most people,' " recalls Jessica, whose closest friends remain the girls she met in that program at age 7.
Jessica finds it curious that she and several of her gifted classmates became underemployed slackers with attitudes. She wonders if that traces back to the lessons they learned in the gifted program. "You kind of create your own moral universe," Jessica says. "It's like, well, I like myself. If other people don't like me, then whatever. I'm out of here."
During Jessica's teen years, her mother wasn't at home to offer admonitions about sex or romance, but lessons were easy to come by. Jessica, a comparative late-bloomer, remembers some high school classmates casually listing the guys they'd slept with and coming up with 20 or 30 partners.
"Sex wasn't taboo from the beginning for our generation," says Alexandra DeLuca, 25, one of Jessica's closest childhood friends. "We had sex education classes from an early age. The assumption was you were going to have sex soon, if you weren't already. My parents never gave me the idea that sex was bad. My mom was surprised that I wasn't having sex in high school. It never was this secretive thing you are supposed to be ashamed about." The breakout movie of Jessica's junior high school years was "Pretty Woman," a 1990 remake of the Cinderella story starring Julia Roberts as a prostitute who falls in love with her wealthy john, played by Richard Gere. He takes her power shopping, and they live happily ever after.
"Actually, I hated that movie when I saw it as a young teenager," says Jessica, who was 12 when the movie was released. "I was, like, that movie is incredibly sexist."
Yet as a teenage student at Syracuse University, she dated a 38-year-old doctor who liked to take her shopping for clothes . The gifts he bought her, she says, made an impression. "That's the standard you hold every guy to for the rest of your life."
At Syracuse, Jessica worked on the school newspaper, fell in love, lost her virginity, bounced between her father's home and friends' apartments, partied and received lousy grades. She left after four years without earning a degree, although she listed the credential on her résumé. She insists she wasn't trying to mislead anyone. She says she didn't realize that she hadn't been awarded a diploma until it was reported in the post-blog media frenzy. She says she must have had some unreturned library books or unpaid parking tickets that prompted the university to withhold her degree, although she hasn't bothered to check.
Her fondest memory of college was a summer internship in New York City with Nickelodeon, where she wrote funny stories for the cable network's magazine for children. It was a moment when life promised to be as fun and creative as her days in the gifted and talented program.
The moment was fleeting. After college, Jessica says, she squatted with friends in an apartment under construction in New York. She didn't have a career plan, always figuring she'd worry about the future later. As she worked a series of low-level jobs, she came to believe that no matter how smart a woman was, it was her looks that mattered.
"I used to read, like, Ms. Magazine and all that stuff when I was in high school," she says. "I was really, like, earnest back then. When I grew up and saw the way people are, I had to adapt. It's more about your looks than anything you can do. If you are not attractive, if you are fat, you don't get seated [at a restaurant], like, in the window or outside. If you want to do what you want to do, you have to look a certain way."
Jessica did. She burned through men and jobs in rapid succession and for much the same reason: She could not stand to be bored. And she bored easily. The way Jessica saw it, suckers were stuck doing things they didn't want to do. Jessica refused.
Jessica and some of her friends adopted an attitude about sex that they knew was, in earlier generations, the purview of male cads. "I think men want to think that for women sex equals love, but it's not like that at all," says DeLuca, now a freelance writer in California. "Women can have a one-night stand for fun. It doesn't mean we are going to marry the man or even like him. We just thought he was hot.
"My girlfriends and I have talked about how if you have a one-night stand and he tries to cuddle with you, you are like, 'What are you doing? It's a one-night stand!' It's not like he's your boyfriend or anything. Women our age do talk about sex like men, and we do treat sex like men. It's not a terrible thing. That's what people our age do."
A life of sexual freedom and ironic detachment, however, is not always as much fun as it's portrayed in sitcoms, Jessica acknowledges. "It probably is just a huge defense mechanism, dating several men," she says. "Because you are, like, if it doesn't go well with this guy, there's always the others," Jessica says. "I think ultimately, with that kind of defense mechanism, all your relationships are kind of half-assed. You know?"
Yet Jessica always managed to make it all sound hilarious. Job disasters and ill-fated couplings were fodder for entertaining her girlfriends. Sure, it was weird when every older guy with a big job who offered to give her a "tour" of his office turned out to want to do it on his sofa. Sure, it was twisted when the psychiatrist she dated insisted on calling her Mommy. But if she could laugh about it, how bad could it be? If she could make others laugh about it, tell and retell the stories of her life as if she were polishing a "Seinfeld" script, then she was the one in control. Wasn't she?
Jessica moved to Washington last year. She thought it would be less expensive than New York, but more exciting than some hicksville. She shared an apartment with the boyfriend who had, in recent years, become the closest thing she had to a steady. Sometimes they talked about getting married. Most nights, they watched television together. On weekends, Jessica shopped for cute clothes. She was confused, she says now. If they loved each other, why was she so bored?
She began cheating with older, more powerful men she met around Washington, and she wasn't even sure why. Maybe, she says, it was for the sheer thrill. Jessica didn't hide from any of them that she drank heavily and used drugs such as ecstasy, she says. She's tried virtually every party drug, she says, and was amazed by how many men in Washington hadn't. "They will tell you, 'I have never done drugs' " she marvels. "Are you kidding me? . . . I would hope they are lying. How could you not even try it? . . . I think that's just part of being open-minded."
She took a job answering phones at a nonprofit organization, which was a problem. She hates answering phones. "I was kind of, like, resentful about it," she says. Inevitably, she was fired for poor phone manners.
"Somebody had, like, the wrong number," Jessica recalls. "They kept calling back to yell at me. And I got into, like, a thing with them. I told them, 'This is the wrong number!' I hung up on them. They called back and said, 'Don't hang up on me, can't you forward me?' I was like, 'No, get a phone book.'
"I was spoken to about it. Then a VIP -- I mean a VIP for, like, Washington, because I don't even know who she is -- called. I think she wanted me to say, 'May I ask who is calling?' I was like, 'Who is this? I need to know.' She complained about me."
Late last year, Jessica responded to a notice for an unpaid internship in the office of Connecticut Democratic Sen. Joe Lieberman because people kept telling her that to get anywhere in Washington she needed Hill experience. She contacted the Lieberman staffer listed as a contact on the job posting, a man she would later write about in her blog. She got the internship and began in January. Her duties included occasionally answering the phone, she says.
To earn money, she worked as a hostess at I Ricchi, a pricey Italian restaurant across 19th Street NW from the Palm. That didn't last. It was raining hard the night that "K Street," the pseudo-reality television show featuring real Washington power brokers in scripted scenarios, held a premiere party at the Palm. The whole block was mobbed. Jessica's customers were mad they had to wait for tables. She kept losing their wet umbrellas and disappearing to look for them. When a manager chided her for ignoring her duties at the front door, she snapped, "I really don't give a [expletive].' And so ended another job. As always, Jessica telephoned and e-mailed her friends with madcap accounts of her latest job fiasco.
"Jessica has been fired from more jobs than anyone I know," DeLuca says. "She lists the jobs on her résumé that she's been fired from. Nobody checks that out. The reality, which Jessica knows, is that she's a very pretty girl. She can be charming when she wants to be. She gets hired as easily as she gets fired."
And that is why DeLuca figures that all the people who employed Jessica on the Hill deserved exactly what happened next. "If Capitol Hill is this shining example of anything, how did she get hired?" DeLuca asks. "That's why it's so silly, people getting mad at her for bringing shame on the senator's office or the Hill or the system. Look at the guy who hired her for an internship, then asked her out. Look at the woman who supervised her, then pimped her out. Something is wrong with the system. It's not her."
Jessica left her unpaid internship in Lieberman's office in late February for a paid, entry-level post in DeWine's office. The résumé she used to land the job stated incorrectly that she had earned a BA from Syracuse and listed the wrong birth date, shaving two years off her age.
Right after leaving Lieberman's office, she ran into the staffer she believed had hired her for her internship. Jessica, who by then was working for DeWine, says the man asked her out for drinks a few times, and they had sex.
The Lieberman staffer in question declined to be interviewed for this story. After Jessica's blog surfaced, Lieberman asked his chief of staff to review the matter, according to Matt Gobush, the senator's director of communications. Gobush acknowledges that the Lieberman staffer was listed as the contact on the internship posting Jessica responded to and that he had sat in on her interview. But ultimately that staffer did not make the decision to hire her, Gobush says. Although Gobush says the matter is still under review, any alleged sexual contact between a staffer and a former intern would not violate the office policy prohibiting sexual harassment.
But Jessica had definitely violated the policies of her live-in boyfriend. After he discovered that she'd cheated on him, she moved out and got her own apartment. By the first week of May, she was having flings with so many guys that reporting them all to her girlfriends was starting to feel like way too much work.
"So I sent a mass e-mail out: 'You guys, should I have my own blog or what?' I was kidding," Jessica says. "But they were all, like, 'Yes, if anyone should have a blog it's you, because you have the most interesting life.' "
The electronic bulletin board where Jessica began posting her online diary offered her the option of creating a password so no one could read it without her consent.
"But I thought that was, like, too much trouble for my friends to have to type in a password," Jessica says. "I thought there are so many people with their own blogs, mine is not even going to come up on the radar."
UNTIL RECENTLY, MANY AMERICANS HAD NEVER HEARD THE TERM BLOG. Web logs were the almost exclusive purview of techies. Now an estimated 3 million Americans maintain blogs, which range from tame online diaries to comic fantasies, from workplace chronicles to political screeds. Many are posted anonymously, and there is no way to judge their veracity.
Bloggers circumvent traditional information gatekeepers, such as newspapers, magazines and book publishers, by telling their story their way. In Louisiana, for example, a former state trooper battling leukemia is blogging his experiences in an experimental drug trial -- months before the doctors publish their results.
The gatekeepers are scrambling to respond. Advertisers now pay for space on popular blogs. Book agents and publishers routinely scan blogs looking for new talent like the blogger-turned-author who posted a fictional account of life as Paris Hilton's pet Chihuahua. Bloggers have been credentialed to cover this summer's political conventions.
Heather Armstrong, a Web site designer, lost her job after her bosses were alerted to her blog. (Photograph by Kyoko Hamada)
Yet there can be serious consequences for tell-all blogging. Heather Armstrong, 29, learned that the hard way.
"I tell people, whoever you think is not going to read your Web site will find your Web site," Armstrong says. "They specifically will find it and read it, and all hell will break loose."
She started her blog three years ago. She was living in Los Angeles, working as a Web-site designer and trying to reinvent herself.
"I talked about having sex. I talked about drinking. I talked about having lesbian fantasies," says Armstrong, who grew up in a strict Mormon family where caffeine was verboten and premarital sex unthinkable.
Armstrong didn't worry about her family reading her blog. Nobody in her family even had Internet access. But then her brother got a home computer. "He was appalled," Armstrong says. "My mother called me at work. She was bawling for an hour. She couldn't understand what she had done wrong. My father told me I was a vile human being and I had succumbed to the dark side. He didn't talk to me for months.
"I should have learned my lesson then." But she didn't. Four months later, Armstrong was sitting at her desk at work when she called up an e-mail. Someone had sent every vice president in her company an e-mail directing them to her blog. A few days later, she was fired.
Armstrong believes that her blog did help her decide who she wanted to be. And she's never stopped chronicling her life. But she's much more careful what she posts now that she is married and has a new baby. She knows that once she's posted something it will always exist somewhere in the blogosphere. Nevertheless, she still has to remind herself to be her own censor.
"The scary thing is that here I am on my computer," she says. "I don't see anyone reading it. I don't see their faces."
A FREELANCE WRITER JESSICA HAD MET ON A VISIT to New York was proving an annoying house guest. Having sex with him was one thing, but staying under the same roof with him was unbearable. When he finally headed home May 5, Jessica heralded his departure in her brand-new blog.
"Just got off the phone with [the writer]," she typed. "Making sure he is out of my apartment and on his way back to NY. I have a date with [my former live-in boyfriend] tonight and do not need [the writer] to blow up my spot."
Jessica says her blog had an initial target audience of three: DeLuca near San Diego, Rachel Robertson in New York City and a friend on the Hill. Jessica had a few ground rules for her blog. Everything she posted was true, she told her friends, and nobody would be identified by their full names, just initials.
"So, like, 15 minutes after I wrote yesterday's last post," she wrote on Day Two, "[The Lieberman staffer] calls me and asks me out for a drink, knowing that I have plans at 8 p.m. I met him in Hart and . . . he followed me home around 7:30."
Jessica lamented that she didn't have time for a "quickie." She had to throw the Lieberman staffer out before her former live-in boyfriend arrived at 8 p.m. Despite the former live-in's anger at Jessica's infidelity, the two were still seeing each other -- having sex, watching TV and fighting. There was no way Jessica wanted him to catch her again with another man. "In summary, Wednesday was a revolving door of men, with me pushing one out after another," she wrote.
Late in the morning on that same day, May 6, Jessica posted an entry noting her favorite things about Washington. "Love how hard-up the men are. Love these easy gov jobs." To Jessica, being on the Hill was a lot like high school: hordes of hormonally charged people trapped together all day, flirting in the halls and cafeteria.
"Item!" Jessica posted at 5:54 p.m. on May 6. "A new contender for my fair hand. He works in one of the Committee offices . . . [He] had my boss ask me out for him! She actually came in here and said, 'He thinks you're hot.' How junior high! So all three of us are getting a drink at Union Station after work. Looking forward to an evening full of awkward moments."
Jessica says she found it odd that one senior colleague in her office would arrange a night out for her with another senior colleague. Jessica called her friend Rachel Robertson to consult. "My first reaction was, 'You should sue for sexual harassment,' " Robertson says. "Obviously this isn't supposed to happen. It's using your authority to further someone's sexual life. It's harder to say no when your boss is trying to fix you up with someone. I thought it was pretty messed up at the time, and Jessica did, too."
Since the watershed sexual harassment scandals of the 1990s -- a decade in which Anita Hill faced down Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas during his confirmation hearings, a series of women accused former senators Brock Adams and Bob Packwood of predatory sexual advances, and President Bill Clinton faced impeachment for having sexual contact with a White House intern and then lying about it -- almost every Washington workplace, including Senate offices, has a written policy prohibiting or discouraging sexual contact between colleagues, especially those of unequal power.
While Jessica referred to the woman as her "boss," DeWine's communications director, Mike Dawson, says that's not true. Neither the woman nor the committee staffer directly supervised Jessica or had the power to promote or fire her, Dawson says. Thus, their alleged behavior wouldn't be prohibited by the office's sexual harassment policy, he says.
Jessica's blog postings at 9:35 the next morning made it clear she wasn't thinking about suing anyone. "[He] looks just like George Clooney when he takes off his glasses," she wrote. "I am serious . . . I put the moves on HIM . . . So I'm seeing ANOTHER person on the Hill. At least this one is counsel, and not an aide."
"Going to lunch with coworkers today," she noted. "Have a feeling I was invited as the new star of Hot Office Gossip, like a press conference." After lunch, the news about her evening spread.
"The boss who pimped me out to [the committee staffer] just stopped by," Jessica wrote in her blog at 2:02 p.m. on May 7. "She mentioned that [he] is very discreet, so I am taking that as a hint to keep quiet. Finally, she asked me if I would say yes if he asked me out again. I told her that I would. So it looks like I might have another boyfriend. I hope this does not end badly."
Before her workday ended, Jessica made a date with a man she said was a rich, older Georgetown lawyer. At 6:38 p.m. Jessica posted a new blog entry, announcing "This is the plan:" Take a cab over to the rich lawyer's place in Georgetown. Have sex. Get dinner someplace expensive. Get the lawyer to drive her home to Capitol Hill. Go to a keg party at the house of a co-worker from DeWine's office. Maybe have sex with somebody new there. "Get 8 hours sleep," she concluded.
Her tone was cavalier as usual. But her Friday night date with the Georgetown lawyer turned out to be dreadful, Jessica reported in her blog. He wanted a kind of sex that physically hurt Jessica. Only this time, for a change, Jessica refused, and the lawyer became so belligerent that she went home without even getting an expensive dinner out of the deal. The next night, she went out with her girlfriends and got so drunk that she passed out on her floor. Come Monday morning, Jessica struggled to make any of it sound remotely funny.
"I am done with [him], for real this time," Jessica posted on Monday, May 10. "The whole situation depressed me so much, I turned down a free dinner and asked him to take me home. He peeled off a few hundred from that roll of cash he carries around, and put the hundreds in my hand as I was getting out of the car. I acted indignant, like I don't need his help, but I kept it: why punish myself?"
Less than an hour later, Jessica's blog announced a change of plans regarding the lawyer. He "just e-mailed me, 'How was your weekend? Thinking of you!' "Jessica noted. "Ugh. I wrote back, 'From now on, we should go out drinking before we go back to your place. I think that would improve everything.' I know I said it was 'over,' but it's not like it matters either way. What can I say, I like money."
The lawyer wasn't the only man giving her cash. She'd been meeting a married Bush appointee in Washington hotels for months. She genuinely liked him, she says. The first time he handed her an envelope with cash in it she says she was surprised, grateful and more than a little embarrassed. "I wasn't a hooker charging him," she insists.
"I felt guilty about the money," she says. "The whole premise for that was that he's married, we cannot go out together, we cannot be seen together, there's no future . . . So the money was like consideration for that. It was really like a gift. Unfortunately, I became dependent on that income." She was only earning $25,000 a year, she says. How could anyone live on that?
Jessica's friends weren't shocked by her talk of sex for money. They knew she was writing about it in the most exaggerated, offhand way possible to amuse them, and they weren't about to judge her. "It sounds bad, but it's really a perspective thing," Robertson says. "These were guys were giving her money for reasons of their own. She never asked them for money. She never said, 'If I do this, you give me that.' "
Although Robertson wasn't outraged, she was confused. She couldn't keep all the men in Jessica's blog straight. She suggested Jessica post some kind of guide.
"By popular demand, I have finally created a key to keeping my sex life straight," Jessica wrote on the afternoon of May 11." After producing a brief description of each man identified by his initials, she lamented: "I'm [having sex with] six guys. Ewww."
ON FRIDAY, MAY 14, Jessica informed her readers that her former steady boyfriend had visited her apartment the night before and discovered evidence that she was still cheating on him. "He will probably never speak to me again," she wrote. "I feel bad about what I did to [him] and I feel like our relationship deserves more than a short write-off, but we both need to move on . . . So I called [the committee staffer] after [my old steady] left in a huff. I ended up sleeping over in Bethesda for the third night in a row. He wants us to get tested together so we can stop using condoms. Isn't that sweet? Hope I don't have anything! So I don't know if it's getting serious or what. We're seeing each other every day now. I like him very much and he likes me. But can it go anywhere, i.e. marriage? I don't know. He's Jewish, I'm not . . . But we work together, so there is an incentive to stay together and avoid an awkward breakup. And after a few months, people around the office will start 'hearing wedding bells.' I really just want to be a Jewish housewife with a big rock on my finger."
They had been dating one week.
In California, DeLuca was starting to think the impossible: Jessica might just settle down with the committee staffer. "Right before all this happened, she was on the phone to me saying, 'Allie, I'm really crazy about this guy. I know it's only been a week, but I'm not going to see anybody else.' " Jessica was even thinking about giving up the blog, she told her friend Robertson: If she was going to go steady, the blog could get pretty boring.
Jessica had a previously set lunch date for her birthday. She was meeting the married Bush administration official at a hotel. "I just took a long lunch with [him] and made a quick $400," she posted at 2:10 p.m. on May 18. "When I returned to the office, I heard that my boss was asking about my whereabouts. Loser."
She dreaded tackling the boring stack of mail on her desk. So she went to the Senate cafeteria to get a cup of coffee. It was her birthday, after all.
She hadn't been back at her desk more than a few minutes before the two instant messages popped up on her screen in rapid succession:
"Oh my God, you're famous."
"Your blog is on Wonkette."
Plenty of people in Washington believe Jessica was angling for a book contract from her first blog entry and engineered Wonkette's discovery of the blog. Jessica says that's not true, and Wonkette, aka Ana Marie Cox, backs her up. Wonkette received an anonymous tip about the blog, Cox says.
"I have no reason to believe that Jessica was the tipster," Cox writes in an e-mail. "I suppose it's possible that Jessica is some kind of a publicity genius and engineered the entire thing without my knowing, but if she was that brilliant, then she probably would not have had to have gentleman callers help subsidize her income. She'd be the PR rep for Kenneth Lay or something."
Cox, who is 31 and lives in Arlington, didn't get a book deal out of the scandal, but traffic on her site exploded, with more than 1.5 million visits in May. All the attention didn't hurt. Wonkette was hired to cover the recent Democratic National Convention for MTV.
JESSICA IS DRESSED IN WHITE. She walks through her all-white apartment. She is a vision of American purity: pure commerce. Dress by Gap. Bedding by Martha Stewart.
On the kitchen counter there is an empty bottle of Southern Comfort. On a shelf sits a pop art portrait of Jackie Kennedy. Jessica evokes another iconic female: Holly Golightly, the heroine of "Breakfast at Tiffany's."
"There are certain shades of limelight that can ruin a girl's complexion," she says, quoting the book she read in high school. "That's how I feel. Can't get a job. Can't get a boyfriend. And this did ruin my complexion because I'm dehydrated."
While Jessica was on a recent stroll with girlfriends, some guy recognized her and yelled, "Hey, Washingtonienne." That was kind of cool. In bars, men ask her if she's Jessica Cutler, then give her their business cards and tell her to call.
Jessica has an agent. She's busy writing her novel. "It's kind of 'The Devil Wears Prada,' only set in Washington," she says. "I can't say how it turns out because my agent would kill me."
She can't fathom how her own story will end.
It's 10 p.m. on a Wednesday. She is going out. On the way to Saki, an Adams Morgan nightclub, Jessica seems uncharacteristically forlorn. "I had six boyfriends, and now none of the guys really want to have anything to do with me," she says. "I guess none of them really cared about me in the first place."
She's embarrassed about posting that gushy stuff on her blog about wanting to be a Jewish wife with a rock on her hand. Reading that now makes her feel very exposed. Really, she says, she can't quite imagine a life of matrimonial bonds and monogamy.
"I think people are -- and this isn't something I came up with, I heard it somewhere -- people are as faithful as their options," she says. "If you think there's no chance of getting caught or something, you'll do it. I'm sure not everyone is like that. I know that I'm that way."
Outside the nightclub, there is a line of people waiting to get in. Jessica, who is being followed by a photographer snapping her picture for this story, sweeps past the line and heads for the bar in the basement of the club.
She has friends there waiting for her in a coveted corner table. The table is a perk some deejay has arranged. He sits next to Jessica. The club is loud. The thumping music and flashing lights are jarring. Jessica looks self-conscious as the photographer snaps frame after frame of her.
Before long, a hostess gives Jessica, her friends and the deejay some bad news: They are being dumped from their corner table. "Somebody who is going to spend a lot of money wants it," Jessica says.
She shrugs. "I never had a table before." It was cool while it lasted.
April Witt is a staff writer for the Magazine. Researcher Julie Tate contributed to this article. Witt will be fielding questions and comments about this article at 1 p.m. Monday on washingtonpost.com/liveonline.
A day in the life of a US Senate Staffer