This Won’t Be the Last Political Sex Scandal

Another political sex scandal is in the news. It’s hard to keep up with the growing list of those caught in them. Larry Craig, Mark Foley, Jim McGreevey: they all blur together. Gary Hart’s derailed 1987 presidential bid seems like ancient history. And now New York’s governor, Eliot Spitzer, had to resign after his involvement in a prostitution ring became public. But this headline news will be eclipsed by the next scandal before too long.

If we’re becoming a more liberal society, shouldn’t there be fewer and not more sex scandals? Probably not. Sex scandals will continue as long as we remain ambivalent about the public significance of private sexual behavior. We’re in the midst of a national discussion about where to draw the line.

What most people will be talking about over the next several days will take two forms. Some will express outrage that a politician has violated fidelity and his marriage vows. Others will be beside themselves because we judge officeholders by the antique standards of sexual morality that have governed our culture since the colonial era.

Some commentators will bemoan the apparent moral corruption of contemporary politicians. Some will claim that the founding fathers must be rolling over in their graves. Not likely. Political sex scandals are nothing new. Revolutionary War-time newspaper articles rumored that George Washington had extramarital affairs. Thomas Jefferson was accused of sex with his wife’s half-sister, his slave Sally Hemings. And Alexander Hamilton publicly confessed to an extramarital affair. All of these scandals broke in the news media of the day.

One commonality among political sex scandals today is that the details of the encounters generally get lost in the broader focus on infidelity and sexual compulsion. Small matter that Spitzer has been accused of illegal activity. What matters most in sex scandals is that the activity is extramarital and signals unbridled sexual conduct.

To be fair, today’s 24-hour for-profit news cycle is partly to blame. Sex sells. Stories of politicians involved in sexual scandal feed off plain old voyeurism and titillation. There’s prurient interest in the sex lives of powerful people, be they politicians or celebrities.

Powerful men who are embroiled in sex scandals also capture a story that Americans love — the fall from grace. In particular the stories pack a wallop when the individuals appear to be hypocritical — an especially anti-gay politician involved in gay sex; a racist politician carrying on an affair with an African-American woman; or, in the case of Spitzer, an aggressive prosecutor of corruption and immorality, including prostitution rings, caught up in the very same.

In all such cases, a man tumbling from the marble pedestal of sexual self-control is hard not to watch. Despite our country’s having a long history of celebrating virility, our political figures have been held to the masculine ideal of moderation, marriage and monogamy.

A few commentators will question our national stance on sex work. Prostitution is not illegal in all states — nor has it always been prohibited. Indeed the campaign to criminalize prostitution was most powerful beginning only in the 20th century. Spitzer is facing possible felony charges, not merely the misdemeanor charges more typical in prostitution cases, precisely because of early 20th-century campaigns against “white slavery” and the trafficking of women across state lines.

Political scandals involving financial misdeeds or abuse of power concern all of us but don’t always arouse great excitement. Setting aside the true national sex scandals — skyrocketing rates of HIV and STD infections, unwanted pregnancy, sexual violence and sexual ignorance – which don’t get the attention they deserve — an everyday sex scandal does not attract much attention. But oddly, combining the two types of national scandals creates a third, the political sex scandal, that news media treat with great urgency.

In the wake of decades of change in the nation’s sexual mores, we are slowly coming to terms with how much our politicians should reflect more relaxed private sexual behaviors — or how much they should be held to ideals of monogamy and marriage that now only a minority of the nation can claim to truly act upon.

One thing is certain: with the debate far from over this will not be the last political sex scandal. But it may turn out to be the last for Eliot Spitzer.

Thomas A. Foster teaches history at DePaul University. He is the author of "Sex and the Eighteenth-Century Man: Massachusetts and the History of Sexuality in America" (2006) and editor of "New Men: Manliness in Early America" (2011).

March, 2008