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.