Sex Scandals and the Real News

Political sex scandals puzzle me. I freely admit that they always have. I just don’t have that much interest in anyone else’s sex life, no matter who they are, and having sordid details broadcast across the media doesn’t really do it for me. I don’t really hold politicians to a higher ethical standard than anyone else and while I think some of their sexual antics are ridiculous, the same could be said of those in civilian life, as well.

I’d like to say that I don’t care what consenting adults do so long as no one gets hurt, but of course I do care when people get hurt. And in situations where politicians are cheating, or exposing partners to the risk of STIs, or potentially endangering people, that’s obviously not cool; though I’m still not sure how that particular personal issue should be news. It’s a thing that happens often in the civilian world, after all, and usually without a fuss on the same level.

There seems to be an expectation that politicians will perform better than we do, and that the details of their life are fair game because they’re public figures and because their personalities have an impact on how they do their jobs and their level of trustworthiness as people in charge of our government. Implication being, for example, that a man who cheats on his wife isn’t a person we want making major policy decisions, because he’s a jerk. Or a man who sends unsolicited sexually-laden materials to people isn’t a great person to have on a diplomatic mission because he could cause an incident and wouldn’t be viewed with respect by the people he’s supposed to be negotiating with.

The thing here is, though, that it’s not the sex scandal itself that I care about. It’s what the scandal symbolises. I don’t need to hear about the details of someone’s marriage, but it is relevant to know that a public official is the kind of person who engages in sexual harassment and abuse of power. These are reasons for me to not elect someone, and for me to actively work against that person during the campaign season. On another level, I might find a politician who cheats distasteful, but it’s still a personal matter, unless that cheating comes with abuse or other issues that indicate some underlying misogyny and other issues there.

Especially since the fact is that nonconventional marriages are not really allowed for people in politics. This is something I always wonder about when sex scandals break and partners are criticised for appearing not to care or for choosing not to terminate a relationship. Maybe they don’t care because it’s not a problem, because they have an open or polyamorous relationship, but they can’t openly admit that because of the stigma. So they’re trapped in a strange public bind where they have to act like whatever just happened was not okay when really it was just fine within the context of their private lives. I mean, can you imagine a President with two partners, say?

The way that sex scandals are covered tends to focus on the prurient human interest angle of it, focusing on individuals but somehow decentring the larger implications. I don’t want to know who a politician sexually harassed and whether she was ‘asking for it’ (no, she wasn’t) and how she’s recovering and whether she’s getting a book deal out of it. I want to know that he harassed her, and I want to know who else knew, and I want to know how long it took for her to be able to get assistance with resolving the situation. That information is relevant, because it tells me what kind of man the politician is, and it tells me what kind of office he runs.

I don’t need to know that a politician cheated on a partner. It’s really not relevant to the ability to do the job, unless the cheating involved an abuse of power or other activities that might bring the ethical reliability of the given politician into question. I know many people think that cheating itself is evidence of poor ethics, but I know it’s more complicated than that, and that having to deal with a public exposure of a private issue can be really difficult to navigate. There are a lot of things we don’t know about these situations.

Some of them are bad things: the partner who covers up physical abuse or pretends that the cheating hasn’t involved a systemic abuse of power. Others, though, are neutral and private, things that lie between the partners involved and play a role in their therapy, negotiations, and conversations, but don’t need to be aired in public. We don’t need to all stare at ‘the other woman’ and speculate about her, make comments about how she stole the wife’s husband away, sneer at her body or her face. None of this really serves any function other than to make us, socially, feel somehow superior.

And I’m just not interested in that. For me, there are far more important things for the media to be reporting and for us to be talking about. The insistence on focusing on the wrong part of sex scandals is really frustrating and irritating, and it speaks to how juvenile we are as a society, in many ways: we can’t see the abuse of power for the dick pics, so to speak, and therefore, we miss the real story, which isn’t that a politician wasn’t that sauve about documenting his member and being low-key about it, say, but that he sexually harassed women around him on multiple occasions and evidently got away with it.