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Airing dirty laundry

When should we hear about the sexual deviance and dalliances of the powerful? A feminist's notes on six types of scandal



As Herman Cain retreats from his presidential bid, and the "smear campaign" he says took it down, the same old questions that arise with every sex scandal have arisen yet again: When is it our business? What kinds of sexual misconduct qualify as important news items that make a difference for society at large, and what kinds are just scurrilous gossip about all-too-human, understandable behavior that has no impact on the public, the government or trusted institutions? How do you tell the difference between truly evil behavior or someone just acting like a cad?

No one seems to know the answers to these questions. The default response lately has been that every time a genital is touched outside of the holy bounds of matrimony, it's the nation's business.

While on its surface, this may not seem like a bad standard, since it certainly sells newspapers, in reality, it has a toxic effect on our culture. It's making us more voyeuristic and prudish, for one thing. It also blurs the line between what's actionable, what's criminal and what's stupid-but-not-illegal. You've seen this effect with Cain, where accusations of sexual harassment — a very serious assault on a woman's rights — have been rolled up into allegations of a consensual affair, as if they were one and the same thing.

Because there is so much confusion about the various kinds of sex scandals, I thought I'd catalog six kinds, with tips on how to assess whether or not they are any of your business. Feel free to print this out and send it to media outlets struggling with these questions.

1. Criminal behavior

With one major exception, anything you do that could get you put in handcuffs is criminal. Perhaps it used to be more complicated in the past, but now that sodomy and adultery are legal, illegal sexual behavior is basically relegated to sexual assault, exposing yourself in public and trading in child pornography. You know, stuff the phrase "consenting adults" was invented to exclude.

There's one exception to this rule: prostitution. Consensual sex between adults where one is getting paid to be there shouldn't be illegal, but sadly, it still is. Sex with prostitutes, therefore, shouldn't be treated the same as criminal behavior.

Examples: Scandals involving Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Jerry Sandusky, Roman Polanski, a seriously distressing number of professional athletes, Herman Cain with regards to the allegation that he physically grabbed a colleague and tried to push her head into his lap.

Is it any of our business? Absolutely. The whole point of passing a law against something is to mark it as behavior so beyond the pale that it's everyone's business. Not treating it seriously when a major public figure or politician is accused of criminal sexual behavior sends a signal that wealth and privilege should protect you from following the law, and in a democratic society, that's intolerable. However, if the crime is prostitution, the fact that it shouldn't be illegal should cause a journalist to categorize the story differently than crimes that have victims.

2. Predatory behavior that falls short of illegal

Predatory behavior is any kind of sexual behavior in which the predator seeks situations where he can sexually act out on someone whose ability to say no is compromised, but where his behavior may fall short of criminal. Sexual harassment is the big one here, because in most cases, it's not criminal but it is actionable. It's also arguable, depending on the circumstances, that preying on teenagers, sleeping with underlings, or otherwise behaving in ways universally understood as creepy could all be considered predatory, though it's important to take context into account before making that call.

Examples: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Strom Thurmond, Clarence Thomas, Herman Cain, John Bolton facing accusations of coercing his wife into group sex.

Is it any of our business? Yes, for two reasons. Predatory behavior is about more than simply having bad judgment in interpersonal situations. This individual has something deeply wrong with him that drives him to treat other people like trash. In the same way that it's the public's business if you're a tyrant to your employees or you beat your dog, being a sexual harasser shows you have such poor character that it matters greatly. Also, predatory behavior toward women indicates a general disdain for women's full human rights that likely translates to discriminatory attitudes in making appointments and hiring decisions.

3. Weird stuff

Kinkiness, unusual domestic arrangements, anything that does no real harm to individuals but is something a politician might keep secret because the public at large might not understand. If you discover someone is into BDSM or wears diapers, that fits into this category. If he visit prostitutes, it could fit into this category if he is on the record opposing laws banning prostitution.

Examples: The cigar thing Bill Clinton did, Dick Morris doing foot stuff with prostitutes, Anthony Weiner, the whole strange Jessica Cutler ordeal, John Kerry's somewhat unusual-for-the-Beltway marriage.

Is it any of our business? No, and I don't imagine that every single detail of your sex life would look so great splashed on the front page of Gawker or as a titillating news item in the Washington Post. This would be a healthier country if people could get their freak on with consenting adults without fear of social censure. If nothing else, it's a journalist's job to tell the difference between something that's merely titillating and something that is genuinely important to the body politic.

4. Hypocrisy

This is doing in private what you loudly condemn in public. This might be the hardest category to suss out, because plenty of politicians and public figures like to strike the image of boring old family men and women, causing some dissonance between their public image and their private lives. But simply having a dirtier home life than you present to the public doesn't rise to the level of hypocrisy, or else everyone in the country is a filthy hypocrite. To be a genuine hypocrite, you should expend effort trying to control other people's consensual sex lives while flagrantly defying the rules you would have others live by.

Examples: Too numerous to count, but beginning with any Republican who feigned horror at Bill Clinton's adultery while committing adultery themselves, such as Newt Gingrich or Henry Hyde. David Vitter, Larry Craig, Ted Haggard. Herman Cain.

Is it our business? There's much controversy over this, but I say absolutely. If they insist on passing laws to control other people's sex lives, that should be treated as blanket permission to reveal everything about their sex lives. If it's good for the goose, it's good for the people passing laws pertaining to geese.

5. Conflict of interest

Is someone's sexual behavior conflicting with their ability to do their job? More than hypocrisy, this is a hard one to figure out, and requires good judgment. Most cases won't be as simple as someone sleeping with a spy from another country or sleeping with someone who can blackmail them for state secrets later. Not every situation of someone having a sexual relationship with a colleague or even with someone who can get them a promotion is crossing a line.

Examples: Surprisingly, this is uncommon. Perhaps evidence that people are more capable of controlling their sexual urges than they're often given credit for? Or maybe just evidence that if it's mutually beneficial to keep an encounter hidden, it will be. John McCain was accused of having an affair with a lobbyist named Vicki Iseman, but nothing came of the story, which was most likely not true.

Is it our business? If there's genuinely a conflict and it genuinely hurts their ability to do their job, then yes, it's the public's business. But a journalist should proceed with extreme caution, and not simply run with unfounded rumors. I mean, you should never run with unfounded rumors, but as the McCain situation demonstrates, there's a particular temptation to do so with this kind of sex scandal, so extra caution is advised.

6. Normal human behavior, even fallibility, that affects no one but the people involved

Is a politician or public figure cheating on a spouse? Is he doing so while fully supporting the rights of individual Americans to make their own sexual choices without interference from the law? Is there any person who is materially hurt by this except anyone married to or sleeping with the public figure? Is he divorced and doesn't like to talk about it? Does he live alone and have a seemingly asexual existence? If he isn't out for your sexual rights, you have to wonder why your nose is in his business.

Examples: Bill Clinton, Tiger Woods, Elena Kagan, Anthony Weiner, Barney Frank.

Is it our business? There's a reason this country legalized adultery, divorce, premarital sex, abortion and contraception. There's also a reason we've dropped the word "spinster" and started to treat gay people as full human beings. We came to realize that people are too diverse to fit into a narrow set of sexual behaviors. Journalists should keep that in mind and realize that if the behavior really doesn't affect anyone else, it's none of our business. Butt out and cover, I don't know, our horrible economic situation or the latest episode of Jersey Shore.

Amanda Marcotte co-writes the blog Pandagon. She is the author of It's a Jungle Out There: The Feminist Survival Guide to Politically Inhospitable Environments.

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