Friday, November 19, 2010

Sex Scandal TV: Fact, Fiction, and Fantasy

Guest Blogger Paul Apostolidis on The Good Wife, “VIP Treatment” (aired 10/26/10)

CBS’s prime-time drama “The Good Wife” plays with our fantasies about sex and gender in America today—at once evoking and disturbing the familiar rules of the game of sex, lies, and publicity we’ve all become so familiar with in the age of sex scandals.

Take the idea of a sex scandal that unfolds without a revealed male culprit, and that never becomes a public event. In this episode, “VIP Treatment,” a sex scandal is about to go live online but at the last minute shuts down, and viewers never even get a glimpse of the man at the center of the brewing storm. In a real sex scandal, of course, his face would be impossible to miss every time you turned on your TV. But here, the viewer is presented with the perplexing possibility of a sex scandal with no leading man and without any public exposure.

Such a plot might seem strange, even unsettling – but I think CBS has a real intuition here about how to give frustrated followers of sex scandals (some of) what they want. For one thing, many Americans probably wish sex scandals in the media weren’t so often all about the guy. To be sure, the women who have liaisons with famous men in real-life sex scandals get investigated and cross-examined ad nauseum in the public eye. But inevitably, the men end up getting more attention than the women – and they get to play more interesting roles, too, in these tightly scripted bits of media theater. That’s because sex scandals don’t stop when dirty deeds are revealed: most often sex scandals unfurl in well-publicized stages, as a leading man meanders through an initial period of humiliation followed by redemption and, invariably, rehabilitation.

In this way, male characters in sex scandals are figured as dynamic moral beings: they look aghast at their sins (at least when presented with irrefutable evidence), and then they vow to change their ways, most often with the help of their families and a spiritual counselor. By contrast, the women are always one of two static types– the bad girl and the good wife. In this episode of the "The Good Wife," viewers are given the titillating opportunity to get close to the bad girl without that other guy in the way. “They’ll go looking for stuff, and they’ll find stuff. Because there is stuff,” Lara deadpans in her “F*ck you, I’ve done stuff and I’m not ashamed” tone, eyes gazing right at the camera in classic network-TV soft-porn mode. Of course, like all mass-culture sex fantasies, this one gets called off before it goes too far—enter the disembodied voice of the assailant’s Good Wife as she phones in to reassert that other more highly esteemed, virtuous and self-sacrificing model of womanhood. Exit Lara via the elevator.

This ending thwarts the fantasy, but it also seals it by keeping it contained within secure bounds. And so like all good mass cultural confections, it leaves the audience aroused and wanting more—tune in next week! (Or Google the latest news about whatever real-life sex scandal is going on). Because in this respect, CBS’s faux-scandal and the real thing are not so different at all.

Hiding the culprit from the public eye might seem like another weird way to make viewers happy—especially given how much to be enjoyment there is to be had, via voyeurism and Schadenfreude when a scandal goes public. But again, I think CBS may be on to something important about sex scandals with this episode, insofar as the show not only provokes pleasure but reminds us how society says “yes” and “no” to our desires at the same time. Think of some real-life sex scandal figures (and I guarantee you won’t have to think long) – like Tiger Woods, Eliot Spitzer, Ted Haggard, or Bill Clinton. On the one hand, the standard scripts of these sagas reinforce a host of sexual taboos: against extra-marital sex, oral sex, kinky sex, gay sex, sex with coworkers, sex for money, and interracial sex. The man around whom scandal swirls swears he loathes what he has done. He reaffirms that individuals need to take responsibility for their unsavory actions, and also that there is no shortage of therapies and spiritual disciplines available to help him (or any of us) turn life around. On the other hand, sex scandals prod us to let other desires run wild—if not for what is supposed to be “deviant” sex, then most definitely for information about sex scandals themselves. The punditocracy urges us to get up-to-the-second updates about whatever scandal is in progress. And now, twelve years after “The Starr Report” made the Internet the new e-frontier for sex scandals, we have smart phones and iPads so we need never miss an alert about the latest rent-boy revelation or call girl confession.

Of course, neither the puritanical “no” nor the hedonistic “yes” is possible without the public dimension of the scandal. And that’s the genius of the scandal-that-isn’t on "The Good Wife." It lets us imagine what a relief it would be if, just for once, we could be spared the whiplash-effect of sex scandals as they call us to arms against depravity while, in the same breath, ordering that we think about nothing else.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Hypocrisy and its Discontents

By now we’ve all heard that Bishop Eddie L. Long of the New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Georgia has been charged with coercing several young men from his congregation into sexual activity. Long stands accused of preying on members of the elite cohort of teenage boys he “handpicked” for his LongFellows Youth Academy (yes, it really was called that). While the teens who joined the group thought they were going to be offered spiritual guidance, the young men allege that instead Long offered them fancy cars, a swanky crash pad, and exotic vacations in exchange for “sessions of kissing, oral sex or masturbation.”

What is it with these crusading homophobes and their penchant for having sex with other men?

Remember Senator Larry Craig (R-ID), the staunch opponent of gay rights who was arrested at the Minneapolis/St. Paul International airport on charges of soliciting sex in a men’s room stall? Or how about megachurch leader Ted Haggard, who allegedly paid a man for sex (and methamphetamine) over a three-year period? And who will ever forget antigay activist George Rekers, who hired an escort from to handle his “luggage” during a 10-day trip to Europe?

In moments like this one, it’s hard not to gloat as yet other self-righteous gay-basher proves himself just another common hypocrite. And gloat we should. But I must confess there is a part of me that gets a bit uneasy when it comes to flinging the “H-word” around the virtual public sphere—even when the hypocrite label seems so richly deserved, as certainly appears to be the case with Bishop Long.

Don’t get me wrong: I relish the sweet justice of seeing another foot soldier in the army of intolerance hoisted on his own petard as much as the next guy. And I’m certainly not one to question the moral imperative to do as one says and say as one does. It’s just that every time I find myself joining in the fun of flogging the latest hypocrite, I can’t help wondering why it is that everyone—and I mean everyone—loves to hate a hypocrite. Indeed, nothing seems to unite commentators from across the political spectrum these days like a good hypocrisy scandal. In the face of Long’s misdeeds, Christian moralists can condemn him as a failed heterosexual, while progressives can underscore the breach between word and deed without buying into the anti-gay values that have been so spectacularly transgressed. Everyone’s happy.

And that’s what's got me worried. The more I think about it, the more I’m starting to wonder just what it is about hypocrites that gets us all so exercised—especially we tolerant-types who like to think of ourselves as the kind of people who regard sexual lives (even of public figures) as no one’s business but one's own.

That’s the dilemma when something like the Bishop Long story breaks, right? On the one hand, we want to make as much political hay of these embarrassing revelations as we can, but on the other hand, we usually pride ourselves on defending the right of consenting adults to do whatever they want to in private with their bodies. The problem is that when a prominent conservative moralist gets caught with his pants down, we can start to look pretty hypocritical ourselves if we throw our paeans to privacy rights and sexual self-determination out the window and gleefully hop on the ridicule bandwagon.

Enter the idea of hypocrisy, which seems to get us out of this dilemma. Hypocrisy lets us call out Bishop Long not because we think sex between men is wrong, but because he broke his word. So, we get to maintain our principles while still pouncing on him. Problem solved.

But in solving one problem, maybe we've really just created another, more serious one. It seems to me that when a scandal like this one erupts, it is something of a moral cop-out to harp on Bishop Long’s hypocrisy if we don’t also take the opportunity to call out the inhumanity of his homophobia—not to mention the issue of taking advantage of his position of power and prestige to coerce trusting young people into sex. But every time we hurl the H-word, we create the impression that Bishop Long’s real crime was failing to live up to his own values--when in fact the problem lies with the lameness of his homophobic values themselves.

So yes, let’s call out the hypocrisy, but we also have to recognize that charges of hypocrisy serve complex political purposes. It’s a lot easier and more crowd-pleasing to denounce Bishop Long’s hypocrisy than it is to engage his homophobia head-on (I know, yet another horrible pun), but that’s what we’ve got to keep our critical sights trained upon.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Babes in Scandal Land

When a public figure is caught in a sexually compromising position, media coverage commonly takes on world-historic proportions. Terrorist Plot Foiled! European Economy Collapsing! Environmental Disaster Raging! Even in ordinary times, stories like these would struggle to hold the notoriously fickle attention of the American people-—but they don’t stand a chance amid reports that a rabidly anti-gay, self-righteous Christian crusader spent a 10-day European vacation with a paid companion he found on

Sex scandal coverage these days follows a predictable arc, and so the likely trajectory of the Rekers scandal seems pretty clear--at least at first glance. We know from experience that the initial phase of a scandal arrives as a tsunami of "this just in" reports, when breaking news of juicy details drowns out coverage of virtually anything else. Once every last drop of trivia has been lapped up, however, a period of remorse sets in as we wrestle with the nagging feeling that the scandal has sullied not only the individuals at its center, but all of us who made the spectacle possible just by watching it unfold. During this remorse period, the mainstream media scrambles to justify its frenzied descent into the scandal underworld by self-importantly posing The Big Questions: Has America lost its moral center? Is marriage under siege? Whatever happened to family values? And—if the sex scandal happens to involve prostitution—how can we protect our girls from falling into a life of sexual bondage?

Remember Ashley Alexandra Dupre, the woman Eliot Spitzer retained from a high-class escort service for a sexual tryst in a Washington hotel room? A few days after the story broke, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof published an op-ed with the decidedly tabloidish title "The Pimps' Slaves" in which he argued:

...whatever one thinks of legalizing prostitution, let’s face reality: The big problem out there is the teenage girls who are battered by their pimps, who will have to meet their quotas tonight and every night, who are locked in car trunks or in basements, who have guns shoved in their mouths if they hint of quitting. If the Spitzer affair causes us to lose sight of that, then the biggest loser will be those innumerable girls, far more typical than “Kristen,” for whom selling sex isn’t a choice but a nightmare.

Where is Kristof now, I wonder, following revelations that George Rekers’ consort was not one of “those innumerable girls,” but rather, a rented boy. It's not that I think the boy in question, Jo-Vanni Roman, a.k.a. Lucien, needs Kristof—or anyone else—to save him (Rekers already tried that, and we all know how that went.) What I am concerned about, though, is a sexist double standard which regards female sex workers by definition as vulnerable victims in need of rescue, while male sex workers are simply guys who have sex for money.

The case of Jo-Vanni presents a particularly striking instance of this double standard. It is remarkable how respectful and restrained the media has been in its coverage of Jo-Vanni (at least relatively speaking.) Where are the lurid details explaining how this sweet young boy was waylaid into a life of sexual exploitation? Where is hand-wringing over the conscription of another promising young man into a life of prostitution?

And where is the outrage that Jo-Vanni is a mere lad of but twenty tender years—-not even old enough to drink alcohol legally in this country (though he is allowed to drive, vote, enlist in the military and, of course, administer nude massages.) When Bill Clinton had an affair with a woman less than half his age, many Americans couldn't seem to believe a woman in her twenties really was old enough to make sexually autonomous decisions; even amidst reports of thong-flashing, Lewinsky insistently was described as a "young intern" star-struck by the sexual mystique of a powerful older man. But young Jo-Vanni agrees to sexually service George Rekers for a laughably meager $75 a day (plus expenses), and somehow we are spared the patronizing speculation that the guy might have been taken advantage of just a wee bit (Memo to Jo-Vanni: It's time to up those rates, my friend. Should a Nintendo Gameboy really cost more than a day with an actual Gameboy?)

Look, if I had it my way, everyone would be treated with the level of respect the media has shown to Jo-Vanni thus far. A good place to start would be to stop assuming that men are always sexual agents and women are always sexual victims. Life is way more complicated than that.

So here's the bottom line (bad pun, I know): George Rekers certainly deserves to be publicly chastised for failing to handle his own sexual luggage—make that baggage—responsibly. Turning self-hatred outward in the service of the campaign to deny gays, lesbians and others dignity and basic human rights is not just hypocritical-it's immoral.

But the media has some sexual baggage of its own to handle too—-in this case, an unacceptable double standard when it comes to thinking about the sexual agency of women and men.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Sex Scandal? What Sex Scandal?

How many times in recent years has the world’s attention been riveted by revelations of the utterly mundane: a man having sex with someone who doesn’t happen to be his wife? This is the unexceptional event at the heart of virtually every major sex scandal in modern memory, and yet the extramarital dalliances of politicians, celebrities and athletes can dominate headlines for days on end. But when a group of U.S. soldiers—while on duty—stage an elaborate video featuring our boys parading around half-naked while miming sex acts with each other, no one bats an eyelash. What gives?

Don’t get me wrong: I have no problem with a bunch of GIs slapping on cardboard chaps and grasping at each others packages while the infectious beats of Lady Gaga blare in the background. In fact, I think it’s kind of great. I’m just saying it makes me wonder about what does get coded as a sex scandal in our society, and what doesn’t.

It also makes me wonder about the woman who enjoys the title not only of reigning Queen of Pop, but also High Priestess of Vaguely Deviant Sexuality: Lady Gaga.

In March, Lady Gaga released her epic music video Telephone. Telephone is classic Gaga, and it has justifiably won her great critical acclaim and popular adoration. But like Lady Gaga’s earlier videos (e.g. Paparazzi and Bad Romance), Telephone gleefully glorifies violence. In the new math of pop feminism it would seem, female empowerment = females acting like violent sociopaths. Personally, Lady Gaga’s valorization of violence—even in its most Tarantino-esque moments of self-parodic excess—strikes me as a wrong turn. I mean, is feminism really just about a woman's right to be as dominating and dehumanizing as a man could ever be? I hope not.

I may not like Lady Gaga's glamorization of violence, but it has definitely made her a fave femme fatale among the U.S. troops in Afghanistan. And hey, what soldier these days wouldn’t love a video starring two American-flag-clad hotties unleashing a murderous wrath upon anyone who dares to disrespect them? (Trust me, Telephone is sooo much more fun to watch than Hurt Locker.)

For all its edginess, then, there is something predictable about the appeal of the Telephone video. But what to make of the viral video sensation Telephone: The Afghanistan Remake? Watching America wrap this video in a warm embrace (as of this writing, it has almost 4 million hits on youtube), I feel like I'm the only one surprised that the popular reaction hasn't been a completely homophobic one--although CBS’s Harry Smith did try his best to bait Sgt. Gaga in a recent interview:

Smith: “… And is there, ah, have you had any sort of, ah, negative repercussions? I mean you are a mechanic in the motorpool there in, in Western Afghanistan—has anyone given you the business for, ah, your ah, portrayal in the, in the music video”?

Sgt. Gaga: “No sir, not at all, ah, work has been normal…”

How’s that for the power of “don’t ask, don’t tell”? While I am no fan of the policy, perhaps one surprising effect of homophobia’s code of silence has been to push the boundaries of socially acceptable masculinities to places they might otherwise not have gone (see sociologist Michael Kimmel’s Guyland for a brilliant account of the in's and out’s of being a "guy" in today’s world.) It's almost as if the prohibition against acknowledging same-sex sexualities has enabled these guys to act in ways that otherwise would be marked as “gay”(except that it’s the military, so we can’t talk about “gay.”) As a result, military officials and the viewing public alike seem content to treat the Telephone remake as an innocent spoof and to ignore what otherwise would surely register as a major act of gender transgression.

In this respect, it’s kind of interesting to compare Telephone with the recent SNL spoof of Beyonce’s Single Ladies video. In that skit, Beyonce finds herself contending with a band of backup dancers who turn out to be three men (including the always delightful Justin Timberlake). The guys camp it up—and the audience laughs, one suspects, because in our homophobic society we tend to think it is hilarious when straight guys mockingly act “so gay.”

But the Telephone spoof is different. The guys aren’t acting gay exactly: they’re acting like Lady Gaga...who is a woman, not a man. Or is she?

If you want a quick index of the state of existential angst in the world, go to Google and type the word “is” followed by a space (my thanks to Law Professor and cultural critic Paul Campos for coming up with this ingenious exercise.) A helpful drop down menu will magically appear, revealing the most common web searches beginning with the word “is.” Now, you might not be all that surprised to find that “is santa real” and “is the world going to end in 2012” make the list. But did you really expect the top two queries to be 1) “is lady gaga a man” and 2) “is lady gaga a hermaphrodite”? That’s right: uncertainty about whether or not Lady Gaga is packing a Y chromosome tops the world’s list of most burning questions (a fact apparently not lost on Lady Gaga herself, who winks at the controversy in the scene in Telephone where two prison guards strip off her clothes. One guard comments to the other: “I told you she didn’t have a [bleep],” to which the other replies, “Too bad.”)

The point of the prison sequence in Telephone, however, is not to establish that Lady Gaga is really a lady--rather, it is to highlight how utterly meaningless the question of whether one has a [bleep] has become. The Telephone sequence features some magnificent performances of queer femininity, working with familiar archetypes of female masculinity and even creating some new ones.

All of this strikes me as pretty scandalous—but in a good way. Gender roles and expectations remain a real source of regulation and restriction in all of our lives, and Lady Gaga deserves a lot of credit for challenging those roles and expectations. And hey, the same goes for Sgt. Gaga and his crew in Afghanistan. I just wish they all didn’t have to do it by glorifying (in the case of Lady Gaga) and committing (in the case of the U.S. military) acts of senseless violence. Oh well.

Friday, April 30, 2010

God to The New York Times: "Thou Shalt Not Drop the Bible Speak!"

In a previous post, I explained that The New York Times' “alerts” feature sends a reader an email any time an article of interest appears in the paper. Readers can choose from a list of hundreds of pre-set alert topics. Strangely, it turns out that “adultery” is an alert topic, but “sex scandals” is not. In my post, I suggested that the Times drop the antiquated, moralistic term “adultery” altogether. As a search topic, why not replace it with something more descriptive, like “extramarital sex” or “sex scandals”?

No way, says the Times. In an email response to my proposal that was not just snarkily dismissive but also laughably incoherent, the folks in the Index division insist that the search term “adultery” is preferable to alternatives because, in their estimation, the term “adultery” is less judgmental than possible substitutes like “sex scandals” or “extramarital sex.”

That’s right: The New York Times thinks the term “adultery” is morally neutral. What millenium are these people living in?

And here’s the truly hilarious part: to justify this conclusion, the Times directed me to that great arbiter of truth and objectivity: Wikipedia. (Am I the only one who thought the whole point of reading The New York Times was so that I wouldn’t have to use Wikipedia as my baseline for reality?) But hey, if the Times tells me to read Wikipedia, I read it—which apparently is more than the Index guy who sent me the link can say for himself.

The Wikipedia entry on adultery explains that while the term has Judeo-Christian origins, the concept of an extramarital transgression predates Judaism. Based on this neat historical tidbit, the Times proclaims itself justified in treating the term “adultery” as a moral universal, simply because the idea spans time and place.

Setting aside the absurdity of relying on a strained parsing of a Wikipedia entry to justify an argument of any kind, what is even more risible is the fact that the very first paragraph of the entry in question resoundingly rejects the position the Times seeks to defend! Here is what it says: “The term ‘adultery’ for many people carries a moral or religious association, while the term ‘extramarital sex’ is morally or judgmentally neutral.”

So, the Times dismisses the term “sex scandals” as a replacement term for “adultery” on the grounds that the term “sex scandals” is less objective than the term “adultery—but the very Wikipedia entry the Times cites as evidence for this bizarre conclusion actually takes the opposite view.

But wait, there’s more. If the term “sex scandals” doesn’t pass the Times’ contorted neutrality test, how about using a term like “extramarital sex” in its place? Oh no, says the Times, the term “extramarital sex” would never do in a diverse society like our own in which non-marital intimacies, such as civil unions or other public commitments, enjoy widespread public recognition.

While I wholeheartedly applaud the Times’ commitment to inclusivity, I am again flabbergasted by a logic so faulty it veritably reeks of disingenuousness. Perhaps the Times is unaware, but the term “adultery” also implies a transgression of a specifically marital bond--so I fail to see how the term “extramarital sex” applies any less (or more) to non-martial unions than the term “adultery” does. There is an important difference, though, and that is the fact that the term “extramarital sex” does not explicitly endorse an antiquated Judeo-Christian morality.

Whatever may be the imperfections of terms like “sex scandals” or “extramarital sex,” these terms nonetheless mark a clear improvement over “adultery,” a word which has as no place in a respectable newspaper which aspires to objectivity and fairness in reporting. “What’s in a name?” Shakespeare’s Juliet asks. This Juliet says: a lot.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Eliot Spitzer: Naughty by Nature

This week, Peter Elkind’s Rough Justice: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer will hit the bookshelves, promising to shed new light on the already over-exposed life and times of the former Governor of New York. Spitzer agreed to be interviewed for the book, apparently unable to resist the opportunity to make yet another appeal on his own behalf for public forgiveness. But Spitzer will be fighting an uphill battle with detractors sprawled across the political spectrum--from vengeful fat cats who have relished the downfall of one of the great crusaders against Wall Street greed to former supporters still fuming that Spitzer squandered his chance to make a much-needed difference.

So, just how does Spitzer expect to garner sympathy after being caught shelling out a reported $100,000 to finance his penchant for high-priced prostitutes? The answer, it turns out, is the evolutionary equivalent of the Twinkie defense: my penis made me do it.

That’s right people—Spitzer and his defenders (including, notably, his wife) would like us to believe that he is a noble man who tried to do good but was felled in the end by his own (hu)manity. When asked by biographer Elkind whether his downfall was engineered by enemies on Wall Street, Spitzer replies: “Was I set up? No. I was set up by the human psyche." According to Elkind, Spitzer’s wife Silda adopts a similar position, coming “to recognize that it wasn’t a reflection of her, but of him—his needs, his frustrations, his psychological wiring." And as The New York Times reports, Elkind himself speculates that “Mr. Spitzer may have turned to an escort service because ‘he had needs’ and that he regarded such an arrangement as less of a betrayal of his wife than an affair would be.”

Oh, please. Appealing to “manly needs” to justify, excuse, or even explain Spitzer’s behavior is like me saying I had to shoplift a carton of Diet Coke from the supermarket because, as a woman, I "need" a low-calorie beverage to satisfy my natural proclivity for hydration.

Spitzer’s “manly needs” defense is absurd, but it’s hardly original. In recent years, the media has helped popularize study after laughably unsubstantiated study claiming to demonstrate that men have a predisposition not just to sexual promiscuity, but to rape, kill, and engage in other forms of anti-social behavior. For the vast majority of men who manage to live their lives within the bounds of civilization, these theories are not just ridiculous, but insulting.

But the problem with Spitzer’s “manly needs" defense is not just the shoddy science: it’s also the fact that arguments attributing behavior like Spitzer’s to human nature deflect attention from the role that society plays in normalizing male sexual entitlement. When sex scandals erupt, the public often is left wondering why a powerful politician, athlete or public figure would risk losing his public standing simply for sex. Such professions of consternation are disingenuous in a society, like ours, which mostly treats access to beautiful women as the very emblem of male success. Instead of wasting our time speculating about the social life of cavemen, then, we as a society would be better served taking a hard look at the way men are encouraged to think that the sexual objectification of women is the right of any man who can afford to do so.

As for Eliot Spitzer, either apologize or don’t—but leave your “twinkie” out of it.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

A is for Adultery

The other day I came across a helpful service from the New York Times online: alerts. You tell the New York Times what kind of story you are interested in, and an email lands in your inbox every time an article related to your interest appears in print. Readers can choose from a list of hundreds of “predefined” topics, or set up custom alerts if one’s tastes run to the more esoteric.

To my surprise,"sex scandals" did not make the list of set topics. Even more strange is the fact that the search term "adultery" did. What’s going on?

Beyond religious fundamentalists, the only people still using the term “adultery” today seem to be mainstream journalists covering sex scandals. But given that the New York Times is known for its commitment to presenting the news in an objective and value-free manner, why resort to the scarlet-letterish vocabulary when perfectly good modern equivalents are available?

My suspicion is that the nation's newspaper of record clings to the term "adultery" not just because sex sells, but because the term "adultery" lends crucial legitimacy to reports about private sexual relationships with its vague suggestion that some kind of actual crime has been committed. Without the adultery tag, it's a lot harder to justify obsessive coverage of sexual encounters between consenting adults.

My proposal: the word “adultery” should be stricken from the news. Just as the rhetoric of "out-of-wedlock births" has replaced references to “bastards," and just as the term “sex” is now used in the place of words like “fornication” and “copulation,” so too is it time for the New York Times and other serious news outlets to leave the moralistic rhetoric of adultery behind.

Friday, February 26, 2010

3: Tiger, My Mom, and Me

I was talking the other day with my mom about the ongoing brouhaha surrounding Tiger Woods’ extramarital exploits. She listened patiently as I sounded off about the way coverage of Tiger’s affairs had been elevated to the status of a world historical event despite the utter irrelevance of his sexual dealings to any of us. She even nodded approvingly as I speculated about a racial double standard which presents the philandering white man as someone whose only serious crime is indiscretion, while the philandering black man gets portrayed as an out-of-control sex machine.

In the end, however, my effort to convince my mom that the case against Tiger was much ado about nothing failed miserably. After all, my mom explained, Tiger is no ordinary cheating husband, but rather a world-class nymphomaniac whose tastes run to the truly wild. That’s right people (and mind you, this is according to my mom)—Tiger is into “threesomes.”

Shifting uncomfortably in my chair I quickly changed the subject, if only to spare myself the embarrassing task of explaining to my mom that in this day and age, “threesomes” have become, well, the new “twosome.” I guess my mom hasn’t seen Britney Spears’ “3” video—a catchy homage to the threesome from America’s most famous single mother of two (don’t do the math). What’s noteworthy here, I should emphasize, is not the fact that my mom doesn’t watch enough TV, but rather that sexual practices once thought to be the exclusive province of perverts and other sexual deviants have been anthemized as a pop song for tweeny-boppers.

For this development, we all owe a debt of gratitude to that unlikely hero of the sex wars—Judge Kenneth Starr, whose no-hold-barred persecution of former President Bill Clinton catapulted terms like “oral sex” and “semen stain” into the national news. Who else but the deceptively prudish Starr could have induced grannies and schoolchildren alike to gather around the family dinner table each night to contemplate such eternal questions as whether it really counts as an extra-marital affair if your intern gives you a blow job in your office but you don’t technically go “all the way” with her?

Interestingly, however, the rapid proliferation of saucy sex talk in the news since the Clinton-Lewinsky-Starr debacle has not so much displaced as supplemented a more traditional vernacular of intimacy in official venues--a vernacular that is suspiciously immutable.

Today, there is a jarring contrast between the contemporary and the antiquated in scandal reportage, where one is as likely to encounter discussion of X-rated text messages as one is to come across old-school terminology like “adultery,” “out-of-wedlock birth” and “fathering a child.” All of these terms have circulated widely in the past months as revelations surrounding such public figures as Mark Sanford, Peter Orszag and John Edwards have occupied the media. But who really talks, or thinks, this way anymore?

When a sex scandal erupts, the language used to describe it does more than convey “just the facts”—the language imports with it a particular morality. Today, a word like “adultery” is considered way too scarlet letter-ish by most of us, except, it seems, when it comes to sex scandals. Then we find ourselves resuscitating words—and with them worldviews—otherwise happily left far behind.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Forgive me Mother for I have sinned

Was anyone else as uncomfortable as I was seeing Tiger Woods’ mom at his already awkward enough press conference last Friday?

When a public figure is caught with his pants down, it has become commonplace for a betrayed wife to take her place stoically beside her wayward husband while he begs for public forgiveness. The subliminal message of these theatrics is not hard to discern: if she can forgive me, why can’t you?

Recently, however, men who have made a marital mess are being left to clean it up themselves. Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned—just ask Mark Sanford or John Edwards, both of whom performed ritual apologies alone. In response to this trend, the rules of the apology game are being quickly re-written to make a virtue of necessity: nowadays, the man who stands alone hopes to be seen as the honorable philanderer courageously atoning for his sins by sparing his already aggrieved wife the humiliation of publicity’s glare.

In the case of Tiger, though, this is a tough sell. It's pretty clear that Elin skipped the apology press conference not because she hates the press, but because she hates Tiger.

Perhaps this was just as well for Tiger, given the racist undertones of this sex scandal from the very beginning. For many Americans, I suspect that the true scandal here concerned more than a simple marital transgression (well, ok, a lot of marital transgressions). But what's so scandalous about that? Particularly when it comes to our star athletes, Americans actually seem pretty comfortable with the idea that sex with whomever one wishes, whenever one wishes is one of the perks of the job, whether or not the athlete in question happens to be married.

Of course, Tiger Woods is no ordinary athlete in America. He is a man of color in a white man’s game—the one who crossed the color line and in so doing brought renewed vitality to a sport whose longstanding racism (not to mention its anti-semitism and sexism) nearly paved the way to cultural obsolescence. It’s no surprise, then, that Tiger Woods was regarded by many in the golf world not so much as an African-American golfer as a post-racial figure. That is, until it was revealed that the man they had let into their elite club had a thing for sleeping with white women. With that revelation, Tiger suddenly became Black again on his way to being kicked to the curb (check out this recent Vanity Fair photo spread to see what I mean about the re-racialization of his body). Talk about a high-tech lynching.

Against this troubling background, it’s hard to know if America would have been ready for a public display of interracial marital harmony, even if Elin had been in the mood to stage one. With Elin out, however, Tiger faced a daunting forgiveness deficit.

Enter his mother.

To be sure, there is no more powerful symbol of the capacity to forgive than a mother’s unconditional love. But what Tiger and his handlers overlooked was the “ick” factor here. If Tiger had been caught gambling or evading his taxes, his mother’s presence at the apology might have made sense. But this is a sex scandal, and it doesn’t take Sigmund Freud to know that people will find it creepy to hear a son talking about his sex addiction in front of his own mom. Sexual liberation has broken down lots of cultural taboos, but what parent doesn't get the willies just thinking about one's kid having sex—and vice versa.

But maybe that’s the point. The force of the incest taboo may be the strongest shield Tiger can rally to inure himself against any further discussion of his actions. Now when we think of Tiger and his wild nights of sexual debauchery, we’re also going to be thinking of his mom. Next topic, please.

Don’t get me wrong, though: I have no problem forgiving Tiger. In fact, if I’d had my way, the matter of his sexual doings would never had made it into the headlines in the first place. What does distress me is the way Tiger's reputation is being resuscitated by recourse—however sub rosa and unacknowledged—to gendered and racist stereotypes. That is a scandal.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Sex Scandal--Not!

The recent hubbub surrounding Obama budget director Peter Orszag suggests that sex scandal buzz in this country has reached a new low. Or maybe it's a's kind of hard to say.

You see, what is most remarkable about the Peter Orszag sex scandal is the fact that nothing particularly scandalous has happened. There's not even a cover-up here: Orszag and all the other major players in this ersatz-scandal have been utterly forthright and forthcoming with the public. It almost makes me nostalgic for the days when being embroiled in a sex scandal really meant something, a time when admission to the vaunted pantheon of naughtiness was reserved for those whose hijinks were truly gasp-worthy.

In striking contrast, the Peter Orszag story is as unsatisfying as a decaf--where's my jolt? The facts, in brief, are these: Claire Milonas, a financially independent woman abundantly capable of raising a child without the company of its genetic father gave birth in November to a child she conceived with Orszag last spring. Shortly after she became pregnant, Milonas and Orszag broke up and Orszag began dating comely ABC news journalist Bianna Golodrya (timing Orszag and Milonas confirmed in a joint press release issued earlier this fall). And then in late December, Orszag and Golodryga became engaged.

Seasoned sex scandal watchers were left wondering: where is the adultery? Where is the wrecked family? Where is the kinky sex, prostitution, or closeted sexuality?

The lasting legacy of the Orszag scandal may be the way a series of non-events were able to capture the public imagination as if something scandalous had occurred. In this way, L'Affaire Orszag has pushed the scandal envelope--but is this a direction we really want to go? The real news here lies in the way the national appetite for sex scandals has implicated us all in the politics of sexual policing—even when there is no there there.

So I say: let’s limit subjection to the ordeal of public scrutiny to those who actually deserve it, like politicians who want to legislate what we can do in our private lives while taking extraordinary liberties in theirs (are you listening Larry Craig, David Vitter, and Mark Sanford?)