There’s only one kind of sex scandal worthy of discussing, and that’s the kind in which one or more participants in the scandal are acting like hypocrites. Think Eliot Spitzer, crusading against the sex trade and frequenting a prostitute. Think any of the “family values” politicians getting caught cheating, or the homophobic preachers who are actually on the DL. Think Tiger Woods selling himself as the ultimate family man. Even still, you’ll notice that hypocrisy alone isn’t enough to make a valid sex scandal – the hypocrite must be someone with influence over culture or policy. If your next-door neighbor is cheating on her wife, it’s not a sex scandal for anyone outside of your neighborhood. And even if the person is a powerful influencer, it’s the fact of their hypocrisy that matters, not the minutia of their bedroom behavior.
I mention this because people seem confused lately. (I’m being a bit flip here – it’s hardly a new confusion.) We seem to be under the mass delusion that what consenting adults do is scandalous just because we suddenly know about it. That a guy having sex with his boyfriend in the privacy of his dorm room, or a girl’s notes on her sexual exploits that she shared with just two of her friends are not only any of our damn business, but just cause for weeks of national pearl-clutching.
Guess what? They’re not. And the people being hypocrites in these sex “scandals” aren’t the people who participated in the sex – they’re all the folks who are standing in judgement on them. Because nobody involved asked for your judgement. They were going about their lives and their sex on their own terms. It just so happens that those terms make you uncomfortable, because you evidently don’t think gay people or women should have sexual agency.
Think about it: a tape of a guy having sex with his girlfriend would not have brought shame or mockery down on that guy’s head. (It might have brought that reaction to the girl involved, which is exactly my point.) And a guy who detailed his raunchy, drunken sexual exploits is Tucker Max, who’s spent over 100 weeks on the New York Times Bestseller List for telling (actually offensive) tales on himself. (The difference being, of course, that he goes public on purpose, while Karen Owen never meant for her stories to go beyond a few friends.) So where’s the pearl-clutching for Tucker and his ilk?
It’s a rhetorical question, of course. It’s not a scandal when young, healthy, heterosexual men play around. But that’s the real scandal: our mass cultural hypocrisy about who gets to have what kind of sex with whom comes at a cost, and those costs are paid by the people we shame.
And in the past few weeks, female politicians have been high on the list. First it was Virginia Congressional candidate Krystal Ball, whose scandalous behavior consisted of her being mildly sexy at a private party with her husband. No, seriously – that’s the whole thing, and yet it was used against her by her political opponent (and the commercial media) in ways that now-Senator Scott Brown’s nude centerfold never was when it was discovered during his campaign. (Not that I think Brown should be ashamed of — or shamed for — his centerfold, but it’s just such a stark example of the gendered double-standard here.)
And now we have to contend with Delaware Senate candidate Christine O’Donnell’s treatment at the hands of some anonymous dude who wrote a letter to Gawker about how he once almost-but-not-quite had sex with her. (No, I’m not going to link to it. You can find it easily enough if you insist.) O’Donnell is famously anti-sex in her policy positions and advocacy work, even going so far as to say that masturbation is a sin. It’s no surprise, then, that Gawker is claiming the hypocrisy defense — “Christine O’Donnell is seeking federal office based in part on her self-generated, and carefully tended, image as a sexually chaste woman,” begins their response to the controversy that erupted in response to their original post.
But a closer look at the standards I set out earlier punches some pretty big, disgusting holes in that argument. First, and most importantly, it’s not necessary to discuss the condition of O’Donnell’s pubic hair or who called whom afterward in order to show that she doesn’t live up to her own damaging sexual standards 100% of the time. The entire tone of the piece was intended not just to expose her hypocrisy on policy, but to shame her personally for being sexual without being a straight white male. (Some argue that all "outings" of hypocritical leaders trade in shame, and are therefore never justified, though I’m not sure I’d go that far.) Not convinced? Imagine the story with the genders reversed – a single woman comes forward to tell her story about mildly fooling around, once, a few years ago, with an unmarried straight white male candidate who preaches an anti-sex hard line. Not much of a story, is it?
The second violation of our sex scandal guidelines makes clear the motives of the first. Because the truth is, Christine O’Donnell just doesn’t have a lot of power. She doesn’t. Her poll numbers are dismal and have been for over a month. No one gives her a real chance of becoming the next Senator from Delaware. She’s a perpetual candidate who’s never won an office. Speaking truth to power only works when there’s actual power to speak to. O’Donnell has vanishingly little. This wasn’t the act of a man who had information that voters had a right to know, this was the act of a man who had gossip about someone who would only be marginally notable for a few more days. So he traded it in now, because shaming women for sex always sells. And we should return the favor by shaming — make that shunning — Gawker, the outlet who traded in a woman’s privacy and dignity for some quick ad revenue. And who made me defend O’Donnell in print in the process.