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Ok, someone has to write this, so why not me? Having proudly analyzed the affair of the tea-trade senator Larry Craig, the White House night-time visits of male prostitute-journalist “Jeff Gannon,” and some other issues of contemporary sexuality on CounterPunch, I feel it appropriate to comment on Phase Two of the Anthony Wiener “scandal.” I hope no one minds the application of some critical thinking here.
The talking heads of the cable networks are united in indignation, sometimes grim, sometimes indicating bewilderment with a tinge of humor. “I mean what was he thinking?” ask those rolling their eyes, as though the man had exposed himself on the Brooklyn Bridge. The official, universal view is that the man did wrong, and has destroyed his candidacy for New York mayor—even though he’s been leading in the polls. This was the consensus between Mika Brzrenski, Joe Scarborough, Cokie Roberts and other guests on MSNBC Wednesday morning.
Let’s step back and ask how this happened. I mean, in a time when people in this country are becoming increasing aware of, and anxious about, government prying into their personal lives, accessing their phone records and their internet visits, how did it come to pass that an online erotic relationship between two people came to light?
The answer: a website called “The Dirty,” described by Christian Science Monitor as “a tawdry nightlife website run by a man called ‘Nik Richie’” somehow discovered that Wiener (under an alias of course) had been exchanging banter and photos on the social networking site Formspring with a woman, subsequently identified (oh-so-helpfully) by CNN as Sydney Elaine Leathers from April to November 2012. This means it occurred “post-scandal,” following his resignation from Congress in June 2011, at which point he expressed remorse for earlier online behavior and his intention to enter therapy (which he did).
Leathers is a 23-year-old Indiana native who passionately supports the Democratic Party, was an Obama campaigner and according to a Facebook friend interviewed by CNN, Lou Colagiovanni, “absolutely idolized” Wiener. (Let’s leave out the reports about her tattoos and educational background since they are, while interesting, irrelevant.)
Let’s pause here. Why was Nik Richie so interested in the private cyber-life of this man? Was it legal to access his account and discover this brief online relationship? Who gave him that right, and the right to “expose” it? Did he perform a public service, like (say) Edward Snowden who showed us that we are all being spied on? Or has he contributed to a general climate of privacy fears?
“Today,” Richie proclaims on July 25, as he publishes two photos of poor Wiener’s penis, “is the first time in our company history that TheDirty.com has published extreme nude images without censor because New York deserves better leadership than this.” (One wants to ask facetiously, “deserves bigger or smaller?” but I’ll resist.)
“Let your voices be heard,” he thunders, “and demand that Anthony Weiner aka Carlos Danger withdraws immediately from the mayoral race. Now is your time, your opportunity to positively shift the focus of the mainstream media and the culture of politics in the United States.”
As though the culture of politics were veering sharply towards sexting. But actually, there is a strong element of “culture wars” here. Is there not? A recent study shows that fully 20% of U.S. teens (22% of girls, 18% of boys) have texted nude photos of themselves either to boyfriends/girlfriends or to people they want to hook up with. Welcome to the world of cyber-sex.
There’s something, as many of you know, called “phone sex” which has been around for many years. (I think my first memory of hearing about this phenomenon was when Angela Davis reportedly engaged in it with the imprisoned George Jackson in intercepted phone calls.) In my opinion, there’s nothing more wrong with that than with regular sex. Two people who are intimate, maybe a man and wife, maybe not, can’t be together but they can get horny over the phone and maybe masturbate together. So what? Anyone have a problem with that?
In 2008, ABC News revealed that National Security Agency staffers enjoyed monitoring satellite phone sex involving U.S. officers in Iraq, chatting with their wives.
I’ve quoted it before, but let’s do it again.
“‘These were just really everyday, average, ordinary Americans who happened to be in the Middle East, in our area of intercept and happened to be making these phone calls on satellite phones,’ said Adrienne Kinne, a 31-year old US Army Reserves Arab linguist assigned to a special military program at the NSA’s Back Hall at Fort Gordon from November 2001 to 2003.
Kinne described the contents of the calls as ‘personal, private things with Americans who are not in any way, shape or form associated with anything to do with terrorism.’ [...]
Another intercept operator, former Navy Arab linguist, David Murfee Faulk, 39, said he and his fellow intercept operators listened into hundreds of Americans picked up using phones in Baghdad’s Green Zone from late 2003 to November 2007.
‘Calling home to the United States, talking to their spouses, sometimes their girlfriends, sometimes one phone call following another,’ said Faulk. [...]
‘Hey, check this out,’ Faulk says he would be told, ‘there’s good phone sex or there’s some pillow talk, pull up this call, it’s really funny, go check it out. It would be some colonel making pillow talk and we would say, ‘Wow, this was crazy,’ Faulk told ABC News.”
But there was nothing crazy about a colonel indulging in pillow talk with his wife. What’s crazy is anyone listening in or making an issue of it. And what is more obscene, engaging in phone or internet sex with someone other than your spouse, or deliberately sleuthing to produce a Gotcha! Moment and getting your own rocks off in the process?
Leathers and Wiener were apparently involved in a mutually pleasurable, private relationship online. I personally have a hard time understanding the appeal, just as I have a hard time understanding why Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o imagined himself falling in love with a fake woman online. But such are the times in which we live, the perhaps inevitable results of technological change.
Many sociologists have warned that cyber-sex is replacing real intimacy, and desk chair masturbation supplanting actual, more rewarding body-to-body sex. It might have its advantages in reducing STDs and limiting population growth, but it has its downsides. Not that those on Wiener’s case care anything about all that.
It’s apparent that the cyber-relationship and both partners’ hopes for some future reification constituted a mutual bond. Leathers was not a victim.
BuzzFeed informs us that Leathers posted a comment on Facebook in June 2011: “Rep. Wiener can continue sending dick-pics every single day for the rest of his life as long as he continues to legislate like he does. I decided.” This was nearly a year before the cyber-affair began. Enough said?
She eagerly showed off her butt to him, now easily accessible online (thanks to Richie’s investigative-journalistic efforts). The fact that she cooperated in collaborating The Dirty’s story reflects the fact that the two had a falling out and she became disillusioned last November.
Afterwards, according to CNN, she wrote to Colagiovanni, about the prospect of telling her story. “I hope we make some $ out of it,” she wrote. And he replied: “There is not a doubt in my mind that we won’t makes (sic) thousands and thousands of dollars.” Such nobility of mind!
Sidney’s said in the last couple days, with an air of disillusionment, “He once described himself to me as an argumentative, perpetually horny middle-aged man, and that’s completely correct.”
Well, welcome to the world of perpetually horny middle-aged men. There are a lot of them, proud of being such, and also a lot middle-aged men who wish rather badly they could be that way. Hence the ubiquitous advertizing for testosterone supplements. (Speaking as a perpetually horny middle-aged man, I resent this apparent attack on my sexuality, as though it were a bad thing. It could just be heredity and hormones.)
As to the (private) moral aspect. Wiener may have “cheated” on his loyal long-suffering wife. But we don’t even know that for sure. Every marriage is different. Perhaps there is in that therapy-mediated relationship an established division between what’s fantasy and what’s real. Huma Abedin may keep a close eye on Wiener’s movements but not his cyber-life, thinking that’s his own masturbatory thing. (I understand that’s become the European norm.)
There are relationships like that, you know, among sophisticated people who love one another and prefer that others just not barge into their personal affairs, blind to psychological complexities and negotiated behaviors they cannot understand.
Many men (and women) are promiscuous beyond marriage, F. D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy being classic examples. Some moralists might argue that they should have been exposed and hounded from office for their behavior. But these people, typically posturing as defenders of women, have their own moral agenda that isn’t necessarily that of the masses.
Many men are proud of their male members, which are a part of their identities. That middle-aged, perpetually horny Anthony could not help but show off his in 2012, despite his devastating fall from grace in 2011, is both a function of middle-aged horniness and a naïveté about the cruel nosiness of others in this internet age that at once liberates the mind and subjects us all to unprecedented intrusion.
So might at least a section of the New York City electorate think, including men and women who sex-text as a lifestyle choice and don’t see why the hell this matter should make any difference.
I have no axe to grind for this guy. I’m not a NYC voter and think the whole electoral process is fucked up. I’m just opposed to the bludgeoning of someone, on the basis of pompous moralizing and the obvious invasion of privacy.
Again, to cite Leathers, whom Wiener’s apparently never actually met, in her Facebook comment in June 2011:
“Rep. Wiener can continue sending dick-pics every single day for the rest of his life as long as he continues to legislate like he does. I decided.”
That she decided again (hoping to make some $ out of it) is her problem. That the entire establishment is oh, so appalled, is theirs. Frankly I’d be pleasantly amused if the man stays in the race and wins by a landslide.
GARY LEUPP is Professor of History at Tufts University, and holds a secondary appointment in the Department of Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa Japan; Male Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org