To Forgive, Forget, and Re-Elect: The Messages We Send When We Absolve Lawmakers After Sex Scandals


This week, five years after he was forced to resign his position as governor of New York because of his involvement with a prostitute, Eliot Spitzer is formally back in politics, running for the office of New York City comptroller. His name will be on the ballot right next to that of once-disgraced former Congressman Anthony Weiner, who resigned his seat after tweeting pictures of his underwear-clad genitals to a 21-year-old woman. Weiner is now a front-runner to become New York’s next mayor. If re-elected to office, these men will join Mark Sanford, the former governor of South Carolina, who disappeared for seven days from both his job and his family while he cavorted in Argentina with his mistress. It was she who was by his side when Sanford won a seat in U.S. House of Representatives in a special election held in May. And then, of course, there is Bill Clinton. Though his second term was marred by the famous blue Gap dress incident, he enjoys wild popularity in his current role as philanthropist and elder statesman.

I’m all for forgiveness and don’t believe that one bad decision should ruin an individual’s personal or professional life. Still, my goal as a sexuality educator has always been to get young people to think critically about the outcomes of any behavior before they do it. If we continue to allow ourselves to kiss and make up every time a politician apologizes for his bad sexual decision-making, what messages are we sending young people?

For the most part, I don’t care what a person—whether he is my elected official or my dry cleaner—does behind closed doors, even if he’s married. It’s none of my business. That’s between you and your wife, not you and me. But when your actions make me question whether you are capable of doing the job I’ve hired you to do, then we’ve got a problem.

Bill Clinton cheating on Hillary with numerous women over the decades of their marriage does not bother me. I voted for him anyway. Bill Clinton getting a blow job in the oval office from a woman half his age made me question whether his libido was stronger than his judgment. If Eliot Spitzer had simply had consensual sex with Ashley Dupré in Washington’s Mayflower Hotel, that would be between him and Silda. But once he became “client number 9″ and paid “Kristin” $4,300 for her services, it became my business because I had voted him, and his behavior showed that he thought of himself as above the law that he had promised to enforce diligently. I don’t live in South Carolina, so I couldn’t have voted for Mark Sanford, but if I had, I would have been livid, not at his affair, but at his disappearance. I have kids and a job; I’m not allowed to vanish without a trace. Heck, I never leave the house without my cellphone. He was chief executive of a state, and a parent himself—he should not have felt free to just up and leave with anyone for any reason. As for Weiner, he was just criminally stupid. He should have known that “it”—whatever “it” is a picture of—always ends up on the internet.

It strikes me that in some ways these men are like teenage boys; they lack the ability to think critically about their actions. For teenage boys, the issue may lie in their still-developing brains. Research has shown that the frontal lobes of teenagers—the part of the brain that makes you ask yourself, “Is this a good idea?”—do not have as much myelin (connective tissue) as adult brains, and as such the connections are somewhat sluggish. These grown men, however, have different issues: big egos, a penchant for risk, and a need to be loved. When the Weiner scandal originally broke, anthropologist and psychoanalyst Michael Maccoby told Live Science this about politicians in sex scandals: “They tend to have narcissistic personalities, with weak superegos that would [otherwise] stop them from acting out their impulses. Some of them are excited by flirting with danger.”

Frank Farley, a psychologist at Temple University and former head of the American Psychological Association, shared his theory in the same article. He believes that politics attracts the same people who are attracted to risky sexual behavior. After all, they are signing up for a life with lots of excitement but little job security. “They believe that they can control their fate and so they do it. It’s a very extreme form of risk-taking given the fishbowl existence they have and the public eyes that are always there,” he said.

As for why they want to come back after a scandal, political psychologist Stanley Renshon, a professor at CUNY’s Lehman College who has studied the psychology of the politically powerful, told Politico that it’s about narcissism and the need to be loved:

What people have done by forcing them to resign, is forcing them to admit publicly that they weren’t all they thought they were, and now the answer to that particular bump in the road is, “Well, if you reelect me, I’ll be able to put that behind me somewhat.” It’s not that the public needs … them back in office. It’s much more that they need to be back in office.

Why we take them back is a much more complicated question. The Politico article includes a few theories from political insiders, most of which boil down to the idea that, as a society we have become so used to scandals from politicians, celebrities, and professional athletes that we’ve almost grown immune. It is hard for us to be disappointed, because our expectations of our political leaders in particular are so low. Moreover, we seem to be easily swayed by “genuine” apologies and pleas for understanding. Sally Quinn, a journalist who writes a column on religion, pointed out to the publication that a lot of it is smoke and mirrors:

We keep hearing about redemption and forgiveness—these are all religious words. There’s nothing religious about what’s going on here. This is strictly about “me, me, me,” and it’s a neediness that I don’t understand but we see all the time in Washington.

A study in the Social Science Quarterly looked at members of the House of Representatives who had been involved in scandals—not sex scandals, but potential wrongdoings that had been investigated by the House Ethics Committee. It found that the scandals did hurt their political careers to some extent; a smaller percentage got re-elected when compared to their colleagues without scandals (49 percent, compared to 87 percent). The damage to one’s electability may be short-lived, however. According to the research, a scandal costs an incumbent about 13 percentage points in their margin of victory for the next election. (Incumbents often win by more than that.) When the researchers projected the future margins of victory, they found that by two years post-scandal incumbents get back two-thirds of the support they lost, and within four to six years they are back to pre-scandal levels as if nothing had ever happened.

It’s not quite like nothing ever happened for our sex scandal trio. Weiner lost his seat in the House of Representatives, but he may become Mayor of New York City, a pretty powerful position in its own right. Sanford is no longer the governor of a state, but a seat in Congress seems like a pretty good consolation prize. Spitzer may have lost the most, as comptroller is clearly a step down in power and visibility from governor or even attorney general. (I challenge you to name the comptroller of your city.) That said, I fear these subtle distinctions will be lost on the new generation of sexual decision-makers and that the only thing they will see is that these men who made undoubtedly dumb decisions are still doing pretty well for themselves.

I have never been for using fear and consequences to teach sexual responsibility. I don’t think showing graphic pictures of sexually transmitted diseases allowed to fester for years or making teens carry around computerized baby dolls will have much impact on their behavior. Nor do I think a public flogging of politicians who make stupid choices is necessary or helpful. I would rather walk teens through the potential positives and negatives of sexual behavior and the ways to accent one and mitigate the other. Choose your partner carefully, communicate well, and always, always use protection.

I realize that in trying to promote this kind of critical thinking, I am fighting against the undercooked teenage brain that I mentioned earlier, but teens can and do make good decisions about sex when they have the right tools. I can’t help but worry, though, that when teenagers (boys in particular) see these men “get away with it,” the battle to help them grow into good decision-makers becomes even harder.  Moreover, I fear that these men—who are starting from a place of power and privilege—may not be representative examples of what happens when you make a bad decision. Weiner seems to have recovered from sending out pictures of his crotch, but I can imagine a situation in which the same action gets a teenage boy expelled from school, or worse, placed on a sex offenders list because of outdated laws in his state.

Redemption is a very strong American myth. We like people who have been kicked around a little bit but show strength in the face of adversity. It proves that they are human and gives us hope that if we ever screw up in a big way we could get past it too. I would argue, however, that when said adversity is caused by their own lack of judgment, we might want to be slightly slower to forgive, forget, and re-elect. In the meantime, we have to use this, like everything else, as an opportunity to help teens analyze what is happening in the world around them. After all, that’s how anyone develops the critical thinking skills they need not to post pictures of themselves naked with a prostitute on a Argentinean beach.

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