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The Perfect Scandal

December 11, 2009

I keep waiting for the one I can pound the table on; where I can say, “This person did nothing wrong!!” But that one never comes. In every one, the target of the scandal did something, or probably did something, that I can’t defend.

Some folks defend Bill Clinton. But Bill has sex with a workplace subordinate. We shouldn’t bring the people who work for us into our beds. It’s not fair to them. Letterman had the same problem. Creating an environment where the boss is looking for sex partners among the staff is very bad stuff. (Both had probably promised monogamy; on which more later.)

Jack Ryan coerced his wife into sexual activity. Not remotely defensible.

David Vitter is a hypocritical piece of shit. Palfrey is dead and he didn’t even give up his seat. Craig and Schrock’s sexual conduct itself were at least arguably completely unproblematic, but while closeted their record as legislators was to bend over backwards to harm people who did the same things they do.

Tiger … the world is absolutely chock full of people ready, willing and able to be sexual with an attractive, athletic, personally magnetic household name with best-to-ever-play talent and tens of millions of dollars. But someone who wants to take people up on those offers ought not to promise monogamy to anybody.

And that one’s a real sticking point. Monogamy is mandatory. People are assumed to be monogamous if married. In fact, the law at least nominally requires it in many places, though that’s a dead letter in the US.

And we all know monogamy is not always the arrangement. Many people have worked out polyamorous arrangements of one kind or another. I’m all for that. I think healthy, open communication about the possibility of other partners ought to be the norm, not the exception. Couples in committed relationships ought to come to a clear agreement as to what “committed” means to them. And if that means people make compromises, in the long run that’s healthier than letting people think the arrangement is one thing, and then doing something else.

But there is no public space for that. I can think of … Sting and Trudy; Will and Jada; and Tilda, John & Sandro. I am probably missing some, but these are the only public people I can think of who concede that their marriage arrangement is not strict monogamy, or whom the public is generally aware of. Even the famous people most identified as poly are sometimes closeted: Sting’s Wikipedia page says nothing, and I think the few times they’ve publicly, in part, let the cat out of the bag they’ve walked back from the disclosure. And none of them hold public office; the rules are a little – a very little – looser for celebrities than for public officials.

Imagine if Bill and Hillary really did have a deal. What would he have done? Imagine the disclosure — you have to do this with Bill’s Arkansas drawl in your head to really appreciate it:

Hillary and I have always had some flexibility in our marital arrangement, so my private conduct with that woman, Ms. Lewinsky, did not violate any obligation I have to my wife. But our conduct together is not something that should have happened between a boss and an intern; and I have embarrassed both these wonderful women in public, and it has been a distraction from the important work of governing this country, for which I owe an apology to Hillary, to Monica, and to my bosses, the American people.

The Beltway media would have torn him limb from limb. He might not have gotten impeached, but in fact the overreaction of the impeachment helped him and his popularity surged. The sad truth is that, as a nation, we’re more comfortable with sexual misconduct and dishonesty — sin and repentance — than with honest, living advocacy for radical social change. The people who complained about explaining blowjobs to their kids would have been even more –way more — uncomfortable explaining polyamory.

When I look back on it, the one that really was all about — was only about — other people’s bigotry, was Roger Stone. Defending Roger Stone makes me want to shower with Comet, for reasons having nothing to do with his sexuality and everything to do with his politics. He is widely rumored, though he denies it, to have been responsible for the Brooks Brothers Riot during the 2000 Presidential election recount. But the whole scandal was that he and his wife put their pictures in swing magazines looking for adult, consensual sex partners.

He wasn’t even the candidate. He had an operative role with the Dole ’96 campaign, that he lost. Not because what he and his wife did was wrong. And not because the political world demands monogamy — it doesn’t. But even after he resigned, to protect himself he tried to say the ads were fakes, the result of a former employee’s misconduct. Only later did he concede that the ads were genuine, and today he no longer hides that aspect of his life.

The political world is willing to accept “secret” infidelity -over and over and over again, and even nominally closeted homosexuality. It can be an open secret. Is there any doubt that Ken Mehlman or David Dreier are gay? The behavior isn’t what’s subject to scrutiny. It’s the appearance that matters.

There’s an old saying that hypocrisy is the tithe vice pays to virtue. I don’t agree. Hypocrisy is tribute the mainstream demands from the marginal. Hegemon says, “Pretend to be like us in public, and we’ll ignore that you’re not. But demand to be recognized and pose a challenge to the hegemony of how things are, and we will destroy you!” This is the voice that said, “as long as they don’t do it in the street and scare the horses,”* and it’s the voice that says, “why do they have to flaunt it?”

Which is bullshit. If we’re going to live in a constant state of in-everyone’s-business, and that’s not going to change (insert here Foucault’s History of Sexuality, particularly Volume I’s discussion of the “repression hypothesis”), then we’ve largely abandoned privacy and ought to substitute for it: not tolerance but inclusion.

Sex scandals rise and fall on the public hunger for novelty. The farther from the mainstream, the more graphic the detail, the more papers it sells the the more eyeballs the story draws. I don’t harbor any pollyanna idea that this will change soon. But I prefer to inject into the discourse, as opportunities arise at the watercooler, the simple questions: did someone do something wrong here, and what?

* a misquote, falsely attributed to Victor Hugo. Originally, British actress Beatrice Campbell (more commonly known at Mrs. Patrick Campbell, a reference to her first husband who died in the Boer War) said, “Does it really matter what these affectionate people do — so long as they don’t do it in the streets and frighten the horses!” This reads, to me, more like a plea for tolerance at a time when tolerance was all that was within the window of the possible.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. December 14, 2009 7:08 am

    This was exactly how I felt about Eliot Spitzer. I know someone who interned in his office, and I emailed to ask his thoughts, and he wrote back that “It’s not as hypocritical as the press says because the hooker rings he busted as an AG were more of the human trafficking variety than the $5000/hr variety.”

    Folks I know at SWOP will sometimes say that human trafficking rings are mostly a red herring, not real — I don’t know the answer to that one, but I do know that there’s gotta be a difference in privilege between the sex worker Spitzer saw and the sex workers he cracked down on. I really wanted to defend him on those grounds, or at least refocus the discussion around that difference in privilege, but I still had to condemn him because it was so damn obvious that he bought sex without the consent of his wife. Frustrating!

  2. December 20, 2009 10:21 pm

    Clarisse Thorn, it may even have been his, um, propensity to go for the 5,000 per hour types that caused him to crack down harshly on the human trafficking types. I think men who pay a lot and treat sex workers they hire very well may be likely to see that sex workers don’t deserve to be treated badly and that nobody should be forced into it.

    But the bit where he went behind his wife’s back is indeed bad.

  3. December 29, 2009 5:46 am

    Long-delayed followup: Thomas, I’ve been thinking a lot about your comment that “hypocrisy is tribute the mainstream demands from the marginal”. It rings so true.

    I don’t know whether you’ve read much of Laura Agustín’s writing on sex work, but she’s awesome. Here’s a post on sex workers telling lies to researchers:
    nodo50.org/Laura_Agustin/alternate-ethics-or-telling-lies-to-researchers

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