Why politicians deserve private sex lives too
There is no story the press loves more than a juicy political sex scandal. From Bill Clinton to Mark Sanford to Anthony Weiner, reporters obsessively jump at the mere whiffs of infidelity or a provocative relationship.
The media’s inclination to squeeze the life out of a political sex scandal, of course, raises the question of where the line between public and private information lives. And with public figures such as politicians, that line is already blurred and difficult to locate. On the one hand, politicians forfeit a large chunk of privacy by virtue of their public position. And yet, at the same time, politicians do deserve privacy when it comes to their family life.
Another factor influencing the media’s obsession with sex scandals is the public’s own obsessive scrutiny over the morality of their elected officials. According to a 2013 Rasmussen Reports survey on scandalous behavior, 81 percent of voters take the personal behavior of politicians into account. Another poll from Gallup further found that a whopping 92 percent of people think extramarital affairs are “morally wrong.”
But perhaps the most telling statistic comes from a 2007 Associated Press-Ipsos survey, which found that 55 percent of people identify honesty and integrity — arguably more moral calculations — as the most important qualities in a political candidate. Comparatively, only one-third of responders said policy was more important.
The prioritization of morality over policy is further reflected in the media, as there is more interest over a politician’s individual behaviors — scandalous or not — than their actual policy positions. This type of reporting reveals numerous failures and pitfalls on the part of journalists, for the more they inform the public about Bill Clinton or Anthony Weiner’s sexual relations, the less they inform the public about these politicians’ actual policy stances. And although infidelity and personal dramas may gain more viewers or more clicks, reporting on these stories inevitably comes at the cost of foregoing important discussions about healthcare, foreign policy and a myriad of other issues that will impact people’s lives more than a president’s sex life.
However, there is a line that, when crossed, should immediately signal red flags to the media and the public: sexual harassment or assault. While a past or current consensual sexual relationship between a politician and another person is more inconsequential and private than newsworthy, news that a politician has sexually harassed, groped or sexually assaulted another person should be treated seriously by the media.
This is the kind of reckoning currently rocking the political world, as slews of women are coming forward to accuse a number of politicians of varying degrees of sexual harassment and/or assault.
Minnesota Democratic Sen. Al Franken so far has had six women accuse him of inappropriately groping them. Two women have accused longtime Michigan Democratic Rep. John Conyers of sexual misconduct, and further reporting from Buzzfeed News revealed that Conyers paid a woman more than $27,000 to settle her complaint via a confidentiality agreement. Alabama Republican Roy Moore, who is running to fill Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ senate seat, is facing slews of child molestation and sexual misconduct allegations from various women. And, last but certainly not least, 16 women have come forward with sexual misconduct allegations against President Trump, not to mention the Access Hollywood tapes in which Trump himself admits to grabbing women as he so pleases.
Allegations such of these of sexual misconduct and assault indicate a politician who abuses their power for the insidious cause of satisfying their own sexual desires. And if the American public and the media truly cares about the integrity and honesty of their elected politicians, then news of a politician sexually harassing or acting inappropriately toward other women should be a strong red flag.
Of course, while the media has solidly covered these sexual misconduct accusations against powerful men, this has not always been the case. One only needs to look at the coverage of Bill Clinton’s own sex scandals for evidence of a media that has not always been on the right side of sexual assault.
In a tumultuous time that saw several women come forward and reveal interactions with Clinton that were sexually inappropriate and even violent, the media failed to take their allegations seriously enough to warrant a necessary public re-evaluation of the president. Instead of the public believing these women as they should have been, many people, including feminists, jumped to Clinton’s defense vis a vis slut-shaming and victim-blaming.
Such is not the case now, as the media has taken a different stance on sexual assault by believing the victims. What has transpired now is a whirlwind of reckoning in the worlds of politics, entertainment and more coverage of the power which men often dangerously wield over women. Now, the public is seeing sexual assault survivors come forward and add their own signature to the “#metoo,” movement.
However, even though this online movement has contributed to the amplification of all of these voices, there are still thousands and millions more that don’t see their names in The New York Times or The Washington Post. With every story the media publishes about another powerful man who sexually harassed or assaulted another person, the more the media seems to focus on the fallacy that sexual violence is a rich-people problem, and not a patriarchy problem. While it is important that men in high places be held accountable for their behavior, the growing list of names carries the risk of being just that: a list.
Calling out men in powerful industries represents not only a problem of male dominance in those spaces, but reflects a greater societal issue rooted in patriarchal structures and a culture of misogyny, one that views women’s bodies as objects for play and pleasure. For every Harvey Weinstein in Hollywood or Al Franken in Washington, D.C., there are hundreds more in office buildings, hotels or stores using their perception of male dominance and power to harass, grope and rape the women around them. And while those men will most likely not see their names plastered across CNN headlines or on the front pages of the TIMES, the media cannot forget the pervasiveness of sexual violence, which affects women of color, working women and poor women even more so than most of the women brave enough to bare their experiences for all of social media to judge.
It’s no secret that the press salivates over a scandalous affair, involving famous and powerful men. And while it may have been a bit tabloid in the past to fawn over what politicians do behind closed doors, revelations that legislators, presidents and governors abuse their power at the expense of women has given new meaning to a sex scandal. The media’s shift in focus is a promising step forward, and hopefully one that can shed more light on a problem that has been hidden in the dark for far too long.
Celisa Calacal is a fourth year journalism major who has no interest in hacking into Donald Trump’s iCloud. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.