Niall Stanage has a piece up at Salon examining how David Vitter has managed to survive a rather comical sex scandal involving prostitutes and diaper-wearing. He makes a lot of good points about the situation in Louisiana and how Vitter is benefiting, but I think it's useful to think about why the scandal itself doesn't seem to hurt Vitter, when other Republicans---even ones who have straight sex like Mark Sanford and John Ensign---were so dramatically damaged by falling in the eyes of the "family values" crowd. Stanage addresses these specifics towards the end.
There is another element to Vitter’s resilient popularity worth mentioning: the nature of his offense. His encounter was (presumably) with a woman; the fact that he used an escort agency rather than picking up a prostitute from a street corner; that rumors of other similar episodes have not been substantiated; that he has stayed with his wife and family: All of this probably helps his case seem less egregious than, say, the male restroom arrest that ended Idaho Sen. Larry Craig’s career.
"Same-sex [scandal] would be a killer," Maginiss says. "Or even if there was evidence that this is part of a pattern of continuing behavior -- that would be hard to overcome."
I'm going to take a moment to point out that I'm sure most people, especially evangelical Christians, are probably full well aware that it was not a one-time deal.
Jessi Fischer, a California-based writer on sexuality who blogs as "The Sexademic," suggests that the contrast between the cases of Vitter and Craig "is significant because when you are talking about people having a kind of moral panic, often what we are talking about is the crossing of boundaries. That could be when the two people are of the same sex, but something like race and the crossing of racial boundaries affects these things as well."
"You can’t cross too many boundaries at once," she advises.
I think a lot of this is getting close but missing the point. The question at hand is why Vitter is able to sell himself to "family values" conservatives, and the assumption here is that going to prostitutes is transgressive in a way that it should be especially threatening to them. But I think the problem here is applying liberal values to the situation. But "family values" is really just a euphemism conservatives use for supporting the patriarchy. In this worldview, I'd argue that it's less of a problem if a man goes to a prostitute than if he does something confusing and emasculating, such as expressing affection for a woman outside of the dutiful bounds of marriage. The fundie worldview, especially, has never been one that pretends that men don't feel lust. On the contrary, they tend to argue that, when it comes to sex, men are basically uncaged animals who can't control their own behavior very well, and so society has to do it for them. When you read a lot of evangelical grappling with pornography, this comes across loud and clear. Men who look at pornography are considered "addicted", and the main concern is that it might weaken the sexual bonds in the marriage and lead to a divorce. I wouldn't say I see a lack of understanding as to why men would look at porn. In fact, the fundie obsession with eliminating distribution makes it clear that they think men are mostly unable to control themselves. The internet has changed things somewhat; realizing that you can't stop porn on the internet has made space in the evangelical world to talk about men actually taking self-control. But their preferred worldview is one where men are tempted by sex (not so much by love), and the women who tempt them bear the blame.
Going to prostitutes fits neatly into this worldview. Prostitutes don't count as real people in the patriarchal world. Women barely count as people when they follow all the rules, so of course those who don't are cast way out. I'd also say that the Madonna/whore syndrome is something "family values" types are completely familiar with, and in fact it's hard really to imagine how their worldview works without it. It's a worldview that posits that all men are lust-driven, but women---at least good ones---are romance and family oriented. And that these two things are opposed, and in fact that it's a woman's duty to control a man's otherwise uncontrollable sexuality. Respectful women who become wives are categorically different than women who do dirty, exciting sex acts. Honestly, it's sort of expected that men will forever be trapped in between the sex they can have with their wives and the sex that they want, and that therefore men are going to slip up constantly (and that women should be understanding). When the slip-ups happen, they're usually not blamed on the man, either, but on the world for tempting him and on his wife not trying hard enough. Even though by their own reckoning, there's nothing a wife can really do to tame the pervert within a man.
In sum, there's nothing about a man going to a prostitute that's overly upsetting. Prostitutes don't count to conservatives as real women, wives are expected to be forgiving and probably self-blaming if this happens, the marriage is intact, what's the real problem here? Affairs are much more distressing, since they do pose a threat to the marriage. More importantly, affairs challenge the patriarchal argument that the only way women can really get love is by being chaste and submissive.
I think this paragraph sums up why there's no conflict between social conservative values and David Vitter and his staff:
Democrats are also pushing a story that emerged last week about a Vitter aide, Brent Furer, who pleaded guilty in 2008 to misdemeanor charges relating to a dispute with an ex-girlfriend. Vitter had known of the domestic incident for two years, a spokesman told the Associated Press, but ultimately kept Furer on staff. Vitter accepted Furer’s resignation last week after learning that there was still a live warrant for the aide’s arrest in Baton Rouge in relation to a DWI charge.
If you accept that the "family values" framing is basically pro-patriarchy, this all makes perfect sense. Beating a girlfriend doesn't rise to the level of a fireable offense, because women aren't so much people as support staff for men. But a DWI? That could actually damage property, or take out another man's family, which amounts to the same thing.