While political sex scandals can be disturbing, outrage at sex scandals can also be irritating. When news of the Profumo affair broke in 1963, Lord Hailsham vented that his Tory colleague, Secretary of War John Profumo, had “lied and lied; lied to his family, lied to his friends, lied to his solicitor, lied to the House of Commons.” Another member of Parliament, noting the accuser’s tendency toward the sin of gluttony, responded: “When self-indulgence has reduced a man to the shape of Lord Hailsham, sexual continence involves no more than a sense of the ridiculous.”
Most Americans these days are impatient with judgmentalism and self-righteousness when it comes to sex scandals. But mocking humor flows naturally. They find it easier to smirk than to censure. Politicians caught in money scandals look corrupt. Politicians caught in awkward sexual situations look weak and risible. And often — as in the cases of Rep. Mark Sanford and Sen. David Vitter — they are forgiven.
This is consistent with broader social trends. The bourgeois virtues surrounding money have survived the last few decades in better shape than those surrounding sex. Middle-class standards now include the expectations of delayed marriage, of multiple sexual partners making responsible use of contraception and of cohabitation before marriage. This is not regarded as relativism but as an updated version of bourgeois stability. And sex itself is often viewed as a fundamentally private matter.
In politics, some of the effects are positive. Public officials should not be forced to be public all the way down. Given the complexity of human relationships, every couple requires enough personal space to work through difficult times. And the notion that being faithless in private responsibilities inevitably leads to the betrayal of public responsibilities is ahistorical (see Franklin Roosevelt or Dwight Eisenhower).
But just as it is not sufficient to say that sex is always relevant, it is not sufficient to say it is never relevant. It can also reveal less sympathetic character failings than a weakness of the flesh. The problem arises with sex plus other things.
One problematic category is sex plus compulsion, as we see in the case of Anthony Weiner. He engaged in his online activities after previous exposure, after resignation from Congress, after the promise to seek treatment, and shortly before resuming his political ambitions. In his reported contact with a 22-year-old, Weiner employed his scandal-based celebrity as a lure. If this is a clinical addiction, akin to prescription drug abuse, then no psychologist would recommend a campaign for mayor of New York as part of the healing process. If this is not a clinical addiction, it is recklessness bordering on predation. In either case, Mayor Weiner would be a likely source of future scandal.
Another category is sex plus hubris, as we saw in the case of Eliot Spitzer. As governor of New York, Spitzer signed a law making paying for sex a Class E felony, which he serially violated. The problem here is not mere hypocrisy. As a law enforcement officer, Spitzer seemed to believe he was above the law, exempt from the rules that cover normal citizens.
Mostly, sex is properly private. Combined with recklessness, the abuse of power or cruelty, however, it can take on public implications. While rejecting judgmentalism, it is still appropriate for voters to exercise some judgment.Michael Gerson may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.