Sex and Success in the Public Sphere

Sanford, Weiner and Spitzer? Oh my.

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Former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer addresses an audience during a Harvard University ethics forum on the school's campus in Cambridge, Mass., Thursday, Nov. 12, 2009. Spitzer's address, at Harvard's Safra Foundation Center for Ethics, is entitled "What Should Be the Rationale for Government Participation in the Market?"

Our culture has long had a problem with sex that has produced a bizarrely contradictory approach to how we define breaking sexual rules. Females are wrongly presumed to be less sexual than males and are punished for their sexuality by being called "sluts" for having sex (or even just for using birth control). Yet explicit sexual images, usually featuring women, are used to sell all sorts of products.

Infidelities are not all that uncommon in marriages, and yet politicians found to be committing such private (if hurtful) acts are castigated in the public arena. And the media seem incapable, at times, of distinguishing among episodes involving sex in any way, attaching the phrase "sex scandal" to everything from sexual assault in the military to a consensual extramarital affair.

All of this is being played out now with the political comeback efforts of Representative Mark Sanford, former congressman Anthony Weiner and former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer, all of whom were forced to leave their previous jobs in politics. And while the men's circumstances are radically different, all are being lumped in the same sex-related category, whether they are being derided as deviants or defended as smart men whose sex lives are nobody's business.

Set aside, for a minute, the reality that no female politician would be given the pass that these three men are requesting. Surely, no married female member of Congress who texted graphic photos of her crotch to young men would be forgiven for the act. And if a married female governor disappeared for five days to see her lover – lying about where she was – well, it's hard to see her getting elected to Congress after resigning the state office, as happened with Sanford. And a female governor who broke the very laws she was elected to enforce – especially when the laws involve prostitution – would hardly be taken seriously if she tried to run for another political office.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the David Petraeus Scandal.]

But how much of the behavior of Sanford, Weiner and Spitzer is about sex – and how much reflects on the judgment and respect for the law we rightly demand in our public officials?

Sanford's transgressions are arguably the most private. Married people fall in love with other people all the time, and there's no reason to believe that a governor would be any different. Sanford's behavior, while understandably very hurtful to his wife, was not an assault on all women, since all women are not married to Sanford, and women don't have any more of a vested interest in marital fidelity in general than men do. Sanford's problem was that he lied to his constituents about where he was (not, as it turns out, hiking the Appalachian Trail). At least some South Carolinians have clearly gotten past it, and elected Sanford to a congressional seat in a special election.

Weiner could have survived his immature behavior. There were no real victims here – the women who tweeted with him were also writing explicit messages and they knew he was married. There unfortunately persists the idea that women who have sex are either victims or whores (hence the absurd declaration by failed Senate candidate Todd Akin that women don't get pregnant from a "legitimate" rape). The women who flirted online with Weiner knew what they were doing.

No, Weiner's mistake was in denying it, betraying Democratic colleagues who defended him and then looked like fools for doing so. The reason he had to resign is because no one on the Hill was going to stand by him after he misled them.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Democratic Party.]

Now Weiner is running for mayor of New York, and is leading in at least one poll. New Yorkers may decide Weiner's brash demeanor is exactly what they want for a job as tough as New York City mayor. Or they may decide it's just too embarrassing to have foreign trade delegations have coffee at City Hall with a man whose underpants are now in the public domain. That issue is one of judgment and honesty, not law.

Spitzer, who was forced to resign as New York governor five years ago after it was revealed he patronized prostitutes, is now eyeing the job of New York City Comptroller. He's clearly got the smarts and the aggressive personality that make for a strong overseer. But can Spitzer convince voters he is merely a victim of the sex police?

The difference is that Spitzer broke the law. And what aggravates the situation is that Spitzer broke the law when he was holding the job of state attorney general, the highest-ranking law enforcement position in the state. He even prosecuted prostitution rings. The infraction involves sex, but the crime here isn't sex. It's paying for it, which is against the law.

The three comeback efforts involve very different sex-related circumstances. But they are bound by a common denominator: raw personal ambition.

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