Why Do Americans Care So Much About Sex and Politics?
Guest post by Sarah Alaoui
Just as French playboy and former IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn — or DSK as he is known to the masses — seemed to be off the hook, his escapades came back to haunt him. While a public prosecutor wanted to drop the case in June that would likely implicate Strauss-Kahn in a prostitution scheme at the Carlton Hotel in Lille, France, prosecutors announced on Friday that he would go to trial after all. The charges? “Aggravated pimping”, or in other words, facilitating prostitution – with lots of prostitutes. If convicted, he could face up to ten years in prison and a heavy 1.5 million euros fine.
His lawyers complained that he was being unfairly singled out because of the hoopla surrounding a certain hotel stay and a certain hotel maid in New York back in 2011, further inflamed by the ‘perp walk’ Strauss-Khan was then made to perform. Concerning Friday’s developments, one of Strauss-Kahn’s lawyers, Frederique Baulieu told BFM TV that “no offense has been found to exist. So there can be no conviction in this affair…we should be focused on the law, not morality. Sadly, in this affair, investigating magistrates have been led astray by morality.” Henri Leclerc, another of his lawyers, told Reuters, “We’re not in the realm of the law, we’re in ideology. We’re sending someone to court for nothing.”
Four months after the Sofitel debacle, DSK, once a presidential front-runner, appeared on French television to admit he had committed, “a moral error with regard to my wife, my children, to my friends…also an error with regard to the French people, who had placed in me their hope for change.” His saga did not include any awkward press conferences or forced public apologies to the public. Unlike their American counterparts, the French seemed to be more concerned with the legality of his acts than with his womanizing ways.
Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, Anthony Weiner’s at it again – as if you hadn’t already heard the million phallic jokes being generated by the minute this week. Merely months before the New York mayoral race, new information leaked on Tuesday about Weiner’s ‘sexting problem’. As a demure Huma Abedin publicly stood by his side for the first time, Weiner held yet another press conference expressing his apologies. The New York Times and New York Daily News editorial boards both released statements on Tuesday demanding that the former congressman withdraw from the mayoral race.
Those who weren’t focusing their energy on pubescent, that’s-what-she-said-style jokes about Weiner’s name were fetishizing Abedin in almost poetic language, orientalizing her beauty as if they’d never seen an “ethnic brunette” in politics – or real life – and further derailing public discourse. Exhibit A from National Review:
“Huma is Kennedy glamour resurrected. She brings exotic beauty and a hint of Oxbridge intelligence — and of course cosmopolitan liberalism — to a town full of heartland men in ill-fitting brown suits and southern women in fire-engine-red blazers.”
Everyone has taken on the role of confidante and therapist, offering their two cents on what she now should and shouldn’t do, on what’s best for her and her toddler, on how she should move on from this scandal that they continue to help perpetuate with their speculations and unsolicited prying. In Slate, journalist Hanna Rosin rightfully noted that “the idea that a woman has to leave her husband in order to be considered brave is left over from a 1980s Dolly Parton movie.”
Why do we care so much? Do the American people have to be subject to an embarrassingly painful, yet predictable press conference every time one of our politicians hits the ‘send’ button with dirty fingers? As a teacher would make a student apologize publicly to another child so he can earn back his recess time, we are turning the political sphere into a playground, a public confessional of sorts for those who have wronged in private to offer publicly broadcast prayers of contrition.
Let’s use the simple metaphor of the tree falling in the forest: is the big fuss over the actual act or because the act was revealed? If President Obama held a press conference tomorrow announcing he had sexted another woman who was not Michelle, how would we react? Would our views of his leadership, assuming they had been positive before, become completely negative? Would former supporters immediately retract their endorsement on the grounds that he had deceived them, thus reducing their approval of him to how he behaves as a husband? Does the American public want to be led or bed by its politicians? There are many more questions that could be raised, but they correspond to the many inconsistencies and bouts of hypocrisy in the American relationship with its elected officials.
There have been intelligent articles written about Weiner’s political capacity to lead New York as mayor listing many valid reasons to oppose his candidacy, dirty texts aside: his destructive narcissism, abysmal record in passing legislation during his tenure in congress, questionable comprehension of pertinent issues such as what’s going on in the West Bank, and the list goes on… Ironically, until this week’s press conference Weiner was leading the polls for the Democratic primary of the mayoral race – he had 25 percent of the votes among registered Democrats. Now, he’s dropped to 16 points. What was the basis of these voters’ support prior to the surfaced texts? Pure name recognition? Is the 9-point drop the result of feeling sorry for Huma, who according to New York magazine writer Mark Jacobson, has brown eyes that are, “pools of empathy evolved through a thousand generations of what was good and decent in the history of the human race.” Cue violins here.
In an interview with Le Figaro, lawyer Christopher Mesnooh says that in France, “We don’t mix the lie to our wife with the lie to our country.” In the States, we attribute our expectations of the publicly orchestrated mea culpa to our Puritan roots which we so deeply value (will we ever be able to dissociate these roots from our politics?), but can we extend these same self-righteous expectations to our own homes and relationships? In a 2011 survey that polled over 100,000 people and published in the book The Normal Bar, data shows that 33 percent of men and 19 percent of women admitted to being unfaithful. Many participants also pointed out that the frequency of the sexual infidelity changed its gravity.
The Weiner jokes will die down soon enough, but they present us with a timely opportunity to examine ourselves and our politics. The cheating individuals in The Normal Bar study may not be running for office, but if they are projecting their own moral beliefs through the ballot box, perhaps they — and we — should step back and think about practicing what we preach… or toss the Puritan hats once and for all.