Wednesday, June 08, 2011
Sex and Puritanism: The Anthony Weiner Story
I reluctantly write about the mess that is the Anthony Weiner Story because it seems unimportant to significant issues. Or, to qualify, there are aspects of it that are pertinent, but we aren't talking about them. We have an opportunity here towards greater understanding, if only the media narrative would reflect it. The most persistent lesson of them all is that a life in the public eye provides no privacy. The greatest aspect of the entire story of Rep. Weiner and his internet flirtations might be how internet discourse appears entirely private, but in reality could not be any less so. In another time, had Weiner exchanged pictures with random women through the mail, he might have been more easily able to cover up his behavior. Or at least it would have been easier to pay off a mistress or two. The ease of internet technology is a double edged sword. I wonder if the impulsively sexual Warren Harding, Woodrow Wilson, or Franklin Roosevelt could have been able to keep their affairs a secret in today's world.
Politicians and notable people have been consistently felled by allegations of sexual misconduct. In the movie Citizen Kane, Charles Foster Kane loses the governor's race when it is publicly revealed he is having an affair. However, unlike Congressman Weiner, at least based on what I've read up until now, the character of Kane strays from a marriage that might as well be only for show. The love and joy of that pairing departed years before, and Kane maintains the facade to seem as though he is a consummate family man. Should those details have reached the public today, instead of around the turn of the last century, I'm fairly certain we would be more sympathetic. Even so, I've personally known my share of loveless marriages which have persisted due to factors that have absolutely nothing to do with devotion and affection and everything to do with convenience and expediency.
Each and every time a man in a position of power cheats, to whatever degree, we become fixated on the motives of the offending male. The same interrogatives are asked. Can men control their sexual impulses? Is this conduct instead the result of poor morals and a lack of self-restraint? If we are only speaking of the pictures the Congressman sent, and not a particularly nervous press conference, I think that there's a certain aspect of exhibitionism to the practice. Sexual expression in a still-repressive society like ours contains a particular appeal that invokes both horror and thrill. We are doing something labeled wrong and against the rules. Though I have only occasionally revealed this to anyone, online or not, I once took a handful of compromising pictures of myself and e-mailed them to a woman I was dating at the time. I took a risk in doing so, but I trusted her. My trust in her was rewarded when I learned recently that post-breakup, she deleted them. That was very fortunate for me. However, I'm aware that once I clicked send, my control over those images was no longer in my hands. I don’t regret my decision, but I do know the potential consequences of my actions.
I recognize this example is in some ways a different one altogether, but I include it to discuss the nature of our own secret sexual lives. I could very easily take this opportunity to express my deep regret and warn each of you reading this against doing what I did. This could be my own contrite, uncomfortable press conference, whereby I guiltily speak every line whilst mopping my brow with a handkerchief. And that would be an acceptable means of absolution, but I somehow don't feel as though I need to be forgiven. It was chancy, yes, but like I said, I did it knowing full well the consequences. If my profile was considerably larger than it is today, I probably would not have done so.
Though we may feign otherwise, we seek talisman from those who are famous, in the form of autographs, clothing, or anything that captures their images or their very presence. That which we admire we covet. We may despise someone, but we'll still paradoxically bid to buy memorabilia pertinent to his or her life. Business recognizes the demand and the need, so it thoughtfully provides the conduits and channels for us to live vicariously through our stars and heroes. At a price, of course. Always at a price.
So I ask you this. Let us suppose you began speaking with someone who has a degree of renown and popular acclaim. Let us further suppose this conversation became flirtatious. If, shortly thereafter, a semi-nude picture of your personal hero arrived by e-mail, how would you respond? I know many would have no complaints at all. In addition, I’m fairly certain that sending a nude or semi-nude picture back to someone in whom we were interested, whether it was requested or not would be at least seriously considered by many. We are willing to do so much for our partners and few of us can resist the chase once it has begun. Nothing in the Anthony Weiner Story proclaims that non-consensual conduct was at play here. I’m not as concerned about the adultery-by-electronic-media aspect as I am seeking to address our Puritanical knee-jerk.
I get the feeling here that people aren’t exactly sure what to say about this topic. This isn’t a story that pulls our righteous indignation trigger finger, thus beginning the firing squad. Not knowing the Congressman or being informed of the whole story, I withhold judgment about the health and status of his marriage prior to sending these pictures. Power is sometimes the most attractive force of all, and those who contemplate a career in public service find it the most powerful aphrodisiac imaginable. But, speaking as a DC resident, I do know many people who come here seeking power to compensate for personal shortcomings and limitations. No amount of it will ever fix those issues, and if sexual infidelity is a manifestation of unresolved problems, the experience may often make it much worse.