The Sexting scandal with Representative Weiner is a source for plenty of tittering and twittering, not least because most of us still have enough Junior High mentality to think “Weiner’s weener” is funny.
For me it opens up a larger question. Has the dichotomy between conventional conservative American morality and the new media led to a situation where we are in danger of being forced to narrow our selection of political leaders along lines that encourage us to pick older, more conservative, and less socially functional men?
I say men advisedly, because the issue isn’t with women. It may be some day, but so far it hasn’t been, likely because women choose new sexual partners differently than men and for different reasons.
Let’s start with a biological fact. Successful men want to have sex with new partners. Part of the reason for this is that to be successful requires being a risk taker. The same internal qualities that lead to throwing one’s hat in the ring, the vision to fly to the moon, or to speak out strongly about social injustice when others are silent lead to…the willingness to pursue and win new sexual partners.
This may seem like common sense, but there’s been surprisingly little research on it. Probably because wealthy, successful, powerful men are not queuing up to have their infidelity studied. It’s not very practical to put a sign up on the College Campus “powerful politicians needed for potentially damaging sex study.”
Still, the facts support it. Dr. Edward Laumann, the principal investigator of the National Sex Survey in 1992 talked about the issue to Discovery analyst James Williams. Noting the problem with good research, he commented “People who are successful, tend to have higher levels of testosterone. There’s a book called ‘Social Structure and Testosterone’ which looks at studies — these are usually little mickey mouse surveys — of small numbers of people in special circumstances”
Laumann continued, “In games or competitions — and this has been observed in the animal kingdom as well — winners (males) have a t-surge and those that are defeated have a dampening down of testosterone. Now that would make sense because [the losers are] less likely to challenge or fight with somebody who’s already beaten them. So they withdraw from the fight and the other gets priority for sex, for food, for whatever’s out there that they want to have. So you have a situation where you’re selecting on exactly those variables.”
This seems common sense, even in light of research that the DRD4 gene may predispose one to infidelity. The male reproductive strategy is about having sex as much as possible in order to pass your genes along. At the low end of the ladder, some primates “cheat,” hiding behind trees or distracting other primates with food for a chance to mate. Men who make less than their female partners are more likely to cheat than men who make about the same or slightly more.
But…At the high end, successful male primates may take additional partners because they have the resources to feed them. More partners means more children which means more soldiers and defenders for the homestead. Humans are only conditionally monogamous. Women also may select multiple partners, but the patterns don’t predispose them as much to getting powerful and then into trouble.
The Fiction of Monogamy
The first problem is that our culture is based on a fiction of monogamy. Throughout history we’ve pretended to be monogamous, while understanding that the rich and powerful would make their own rules. I can’t begin to go into the literature that describes this…there is extensive writing about the intricacies of the Victorian “Country Weekend” where the knowledgeable hostess needed to balance rooms between spouses and acknowledged mistresses. King Edward VII forced the Archbishop of Canterbury to sit next to his mistress Alice Keppel at table, and Queen Alexandra was on good terms with his former mistress Jennie Jerome, Lady Churchill.
But by and large we’ve been able to maintain the veneer that we’re all monogamous on some level, even while there is a huge amount of literature documenting that we aren’t.
For the first million years or so of human evolution the myth of monogamy probably played an important role. Just as one primate eating all the food is dangerous to the tribe, one primate having all the children is dangerous to the tribe. A general presumption of monogamy is tied to taking responsibility for the children you get. In many, probably most, primitive societies there were clear rules where successful males (and sometimes females) were allowed to have a larger number of sexual partners. That norm only vanished in the West in the last two millenia…and did not vanish at all in the Islamic, Chinese, and Hindu worlds. In the West, the wide acceptance of Christianity required several systematic areas of willful blindness in regards to making war and making love. The prevailing solution was some sort of “double standard” where powerful leaders were conditionally and quietly exempted from the normal rules of behavior.
Middle-Class ethics and the Double Standard
The second problem is that we’ve changed the double standard. In a lot of ways this is a very good thing. It is unfair that powerful men can cheat, while their wives are considered trollops if they do the same. There is nothing healthy about the media presentation that a man with many casual partners is sexually powerful, (James Bond is the classic model), while a woman with many casual parters is either emotionally damaged, or evil.
The real change came in the 1820s-50s when a vast pool of formerly lower class people pushed into the newly burgeoning “middle class.” Up until that time “midddle class” meant a median class below the gentry, but was not the statistical norm. From 1820-1920, the middle class in the West became the majority of the population.
Unfortunately the ethics and morals of poor people are often more rigid than those of the wealthy. The reasons for this are entirely sensible. An Oil executive who throws away a hundred thousand on a lover doesn’t cut into his wife’s greens fees at the country club. A middle class couple can afford a custody battle and the sale of a house. But a laborer who trifles with another woman may be cutting close to the bone of subsistence for his family…his attempts to beget a new child endangering the one he has. Jealousy is the human tendency to want our partner to give us the benefit of their resources and not make us feel at risk those resources will go to someone else. Laborers cheat anyway, but it’s important that the mechanisms of society discourage it, because it’s dangerous. Puritanical ethics aren’t borne of virtue, they’re a rationalization of fear.
So…with the middle classes…came their morality. And the closer people are to the wire, the more their morality reflects fear. Look at a map of Red States and you’ll see the rough distribution of non-urbanized poverty, and lower-income, in the United States. Blue States have an average income of $41,183, Red States of $34.202, a discrepancy of $6,981.
The New Media
The third problem, and the one that provokes crisis is that the new media has uncovered the double standard. In the well known film version of Choderlos de Laclos 18th century quasi-comedic novel Dangerous Liaisons the Vicomte de Valmont must go through a number of logistical and mechanical steps to steal and read the letters of a prospective partner in order to blackmail her. Now it’s as simple as glancing at her phone when she’s in the bathroom. Communication leaves records and cameras record everything, easily, whether we want them to or not.
In general this is a good thing. In the Middle East, it is breaking down longstanding repressive regimes, and crumbling an archconservative culture. But in the U.S. it may be facilitating the process whereby the Government of the entire nation is heavily influenced by “Red” America. And sadly the Democrats are contributing as much to this as the GOP.
To most of us in the socially liberal mainstream, sexting is at worst a fairly silly thing of no real regard and at most an issue you should take up with your wife. For that matter, choosing to be married, to have multiple partners, or not is one’s own business. It may be juicy gossip, but it doesn’t have much impact on our perceptions of management or political ability.
But because that’s not how it’s seen in the Red Heartland, we must invoke a second judgment. So while I don’t personally have any issue with Weiner’s weener…I have to also invoke that he had poor self control and showed poor political judgment.
And therein lies the issue
I feel free to have a wife, and three other partners in various relationships, as well as occasional partners, becuase I’m not a politician. And the double-standard has come full circuit. I expect Anthony Weiner to be more discreet than I am because he’s an elected official.
There’s nothing wrong with me being polyamorous but it’s a death sentence for a politician in the way that being homosexual would have been in 1955. Eventually that dam is going to break and you’re going to have a political couple that simply comes out and says “we know about this, we have dinners together, and it’s none of your business.” But that may be years down the road, because the common wisdom right now says it’s an unrecoverable issue.
So, I’m judging Weiner not on what I think intelligent people, or even his own electorate would think but on what Red America would think of his behavior. Reputable Democrats who have better things to do than worry about sexting must now pretend they give a shit, and investigate whether or not he has broken any rules, in order to show that they are not in fact a party of radical sex maniacs.
And the Democrats have in some ways made things worse…
There is no question that the sexual hatchet job on Bill Clinton was an inexcusable. Forty Million dollars was spent on what was supposed to be an investigation into serious fiscal impropriety, but became a drive to “find some dirt at any cost,” when a politically motivated lawsuit forced Clinton into either lying, or telling a tremendously destructive truth. His judgment in lying may have been poor but it was based on the old presumption of the double standard and status quo. The President is expected not to wave his affairs under the noses of the Press (as Kennedy was faulted for doing), and the public is expected not to spend millions of dollars in creating entrapments to find that Clinton got sucked off by his Secretary.
And that’s the real problem.
Bill Clinton was a powerful and desirable man. He’d had sex with Miss America of 1982, Elizabeth Gracen. Since leaving office, he’s reasonably believed to have had a longstanding affair with Belinda Stronach (one of the 100 most powerful women in the world according to Time Magazine) and appealing actress Gina Gershon.
So the most theoretically powerful man in the country was reduced to fellatio from a Secretary in a private kitchen, because the lack of privacy in his life made normal sexual conduct impossible.
That’s not good. I get cranky if I have to go a couple weeks without normal sexual expression. Four years? Eight Years? A career?
The traditional Conservative assessment of Clinton is that he was not necessarily bad for the affair (at least that was the assessment after Henry Hyde and several of his other persecutors were shown to have their own sexual indiscretions) but for lying about it under oath.
Because presumably we think that a President who is willing to tell a lie to avoid a complete political diasaster is a bad thing. I wonder how far that assessment of the President’s character is supposed to go. Should the President also begin the State of the Union Address “The United States is in an economic slump, there is no recovery in sight, and there is little I can do about it.” Advise rogue nations that “We disapprove of your actions, but you can clearly see we’re militarily overcommitted and unlikely to actually carry out punitive actions.”
Obviously we don’t want a President who is honest, we want a President who is a good politician. That doesn’t mean being recklessly or maliciously dishonest. It means having a good appraisal of when telling the truth is a worse move than lying and acting accordingly. Clinton was forced into a gamble, and frankly with the existence of DNA evidence in the hands of someone other than Lewinsky, Starr got what we in poker would call a “bad beat” which is when a perfectly good playing hand is beaten by an unlikely last minute bluff. In political terms, it’s as if Clinton decided to stand on A-A-J-J-J while Starr stood on J-10-8-7 and got a “9” in the River.
We don’t want compulsive liars, but we want good gamblers whose ability to take reasonable risks isn’t bound by rote or tradition. We don’t want the modern equivalent of the Roman General who lost the battle by refusing to fight on the offensive because of a bad cock’s innards. Julius Ceasar was known for winning fights by ignoring the auspices and doing what made strategic sense.
Honestly things are already changing. One major reason for this is, oddly, Larry Flynt. Apalled by the politically motivated judicial attacks on Clinton, Hustler publisher Flynt offered a $1 million reward to anybody who could produce dirt on his opponents. In the process he brought down Robert Livingston (R-LA) the presumptive next Speaker of the House. Barr and Burton also both lost seats in the “free for all” sexual scandal.
And that probably represents the last time either major party will go on a publicly funded witch hunt along sexual lines. Statistically about 40% of the people seated in Congress are hiding an affair, and it is unlikely that the possible payoffs will lead to a gamble that has such potential for fallout.
The Press has also retained some dignity, the major news outlets generally refusing to give much traction to the alleged Obama / Vera Baker affair.
But there is still a willingness to embrace sex scandals. The process is cyclic. The Democrats viciously attack any Republican who is exposed in a sex scandal on the grounds of hypocrisy, and this has grown more frenzied and intense in the “payback” era after the Clinton Scandals.
And there isn’t an “honesty” option. It’s fine to say that Clinton “should have told the truth,” but that’s preposterous. For a person with multiple sex partners…with or without their spouse’s consent (and that’s always been up in the air with the Clintons)…admitting it is not allowable. The option is “be honest” or “have a political career.” To suggest otherwise is to suggest that a gay man who served in high office in 1948 was “dishonest,” because he was closeted, or lied about homosexuality. There is not a societal option for truth. And there needs to be.
The GOP feels stung and is more than happy to gangpile on the Democrats because they’ve been harsh about it, and so on.
In the end what needs to happen is that a few more men need to stand through these scandals and win re-election, like Clinton.
The potential harm is that both parties will tend to see older, more conservative men as more desirable candidates, particularly for higher office. Moral and social conservatism creates the appearance of propriety and suggests that the candidate doesn’t have damaging sexual baggage.
This may tend to have the advantage of making more profound hypocrites more viable as candidates. Clinton’s problem is not that he was too hypocritical but that he wasn’t hypocritical enough. He hadn’t been especially careful to hide his early affairs.
Another tendency may be for both parties to favor older men. While Livingston resigned, Henry Hyde, the Legislator most responsible for steering the attack on Clinton was revealed to have had an affair as well. Hyde blithely dismissed the affair (at age 41) as a “youthful indiscretion” and at age 70 there was insufficient outrage to really pressure him.
In the end as long as sex scandals in the U.S. can gain significant traction, we’ll be forced to limit our choices to men who have never been discovered, never erred, or never simply been honest. As modern society makes it harder and harder to conceal secrets, that may prove a dangerous restriction on who we can consider electable. And to that extent, the conservative Red States are doing a lot to dictate who can move to the forefront of the political spectrum.
This has led me to the interesting hope that Newt Gingrich shows reasonably well in the primaries or becomes a nominee. While I don’t like Gingrich personally or politically, and don’t want him as President, he is married to Callista Bisek with whom he had a six year affair that contributed to his political fall. If Gingrich can show nationally it creates the strong suggestion that even fairly blatant sexual indiscretion is not relevant to the political arena.
I don’t tend to write political or even social commentary very often, because in the wide sense, it doesn’t make much difference. Social trends will happen and often the only point in documenting them is to say “see, I was smart, I noticed this.”
That said, I’d put the ghost of a meme out to bloggers both liberal and conservative. Sex scandals serve neither party. And…Democrats…they serve you particularly badly so consider just giving it a miss the next time a noted Conservative is caught in the boy’s room.
My voice won’t change very much but other people in other places are doubtless having this idea and if I can circulate it into a dozen other minds and so forth…in time it will be one very small contribution to a sea change in how we think about sex and politics.