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.