Political scandals are hardly rare, but due to a high-stakes election, these days they are the stuff of which October surprises are made. While scandals of all stripes are relevant in the political discourse, I'd like to focus in on the particular phenomenon that causes us to shake our heads knowingly and with no small bit of disdain: the political sex scandal.
Of late, we've heard about the various meanderings of Mark, Bob, Dave and Larry – quite a cast of characters. Since many political analyses have been offered, each with it's own political spin, I'd like to take a few steps back and think on what be might made of all these scandals. Aside, of course, from the inevitable banter on the political talk shows about the ramifications (read: how many seats lost or gained) and the late night one-liners shooting for cheap thrills (read: Brokeback Bathroom).
The common thread here is, of course, sex. The scandals run the gamut of political parties, even if these days they seem to be plaguing the GOP (who's forgotten M. Lewinsky?). And they run the spectrum of activities – adultery, gay sex, kink, solicitation, pedophilia. Take a close look at my brief list. Only some of these activities are illegal, and depending on your perspective, only some are immoral.
Now, I'm never one to use shame or societal disgrace to chastise anyone's sexual choices, no matter how far from the mainstream they are. Those are the tactics of hate and divisiveness. Those are the tactics that make us fear each other, our own sexuality and our bodies. They never promote understanding and are rarely based on viable concepts of health, harm and bodily integrity.
But those are the tactics often employed, by both parties, to translate these events into votes. The concepts of health, harm and bodily integrity often fall away, when they should be our central means of assessing what we sanction and what we don't. What is it about sex that lends itself so easily to shaming and disgracing? And though it might be effective, is it the solution? What does it mean for reproductive justice if "immoral" sex is the highest dishonor? Granted, often illegal activities are the ones that result in the dishonor, but I'm forced to ask: Do we publicly shame other misdeeds in quite the same way? What about other types of political scandals involving money or drugs? Are those more easily glossed over and forgiven?
I grant that there are many types of scandals that have ended careers and brought shame. But there are a couple of things here that might help us understand what's really going on in the recent spate of Republican sex scandals. Firstly, as Scott Swenson observed, the Republican Party is trying to save face by shunning and shaming its wayward Senators and Congressmen. They are making no attempts to explain away the behavior or minimize the shock. In their opinion, it seems the party base may tolerate something like money philandering, but will never abide a sexual deviant. A clear commentary on how the "family values" platform functions and what is its most significant component. [One article not to be missed, on a possible reading of this, is a great piece from Susie Bright for AlterNet.]
Secondly, the response of progressives has been to point out the hypocrisy within the party's ranks – asserting that they claim to be about family values, yet their own spokespeople do not, and perhaps cannot, live that life. On some counts, the disgust is warranted. Voting against LGBT rights while soliciting gay sex is certainly spiteworthy. On the other hand, sexual deviance itself is not. The distinction is very important for those of us that advocate for reproductive and sexual freedom. We cannot let our disgust for the hypocrisy or lawbreaking be interpreted as disgust for the sexual expression. This is a small but often understated distinction, but as is the case with these types of distinctions, it is the difference between family values and "family values." It is also the perfect way to challenge conservative ethics not on the missteps of its legislators, but on its very principles and foundations.