Most Americans these days are impatient with judgmentalism and self-righteousness when it comes to sex scandals. But mocking humor flows naturally. They find it easier to smirk than to censure. Politicians caught in money scandals look corrupt. Politicians caught in awkward sexual situations look weak and risible. And often — as in the cases of Rep. Mark Sanford and Sen. David Vitter — they are forgiven.
This is consistent with broader social trends. The bourgeois virtues surrounding money have survived the last few decades in better shape than those surrounding sex. Middle-class standards now include the expectations of delayed marriage, of multiple sexual partners making responsible use of contraception and of cohabitation before marriage. This is not regarded as relativism but as an updated version of bourgeois stability. And sex itself is often viewed as a fundamentally private matter.
In politics, some of the effects are positive. Public officials should not be forced to be public all the way down. Given the complexity of human relationships, every couple requires enough personal space to work through difficult times. And the notion that being faithless in private responsibilities inevitably leads to the betrayal of public responsibilities is ahistorical (see Franklin Roosevelt or Dwight Eisenhower). Marital infidelity is destructive to spouses and children and a violation of the Seventh Commandment. It is not, by itself, a disqualification for public office.
But just as it is not sufficient to say that sex is always relevant, it is not sufficient to say it is never relevant. It can also reveal less sympathetic character failings than a weakness of the flesh. The problem arises with sex plus other things.
One problematic category is sex plus compulsion, as we see in the case of Anthony Weiner. He engaged in his online activities after previous exposure, after resignation from Congress, after the promise to seek treatment and shortly before resuming his political ambitions. In his reported contact with a 22-year-old, Weiner employed his scandal-based celebrity as a lure. If this is a clinical addiction, akin to prescription drug abuse, then no psychologist would recommend a campaign for mayor of New York as part of the healing process. If this is not a clinical addiction, it is recklessness bordering on predation (particularly when the alleged offer of career and financial benefits is considered). In either case, Mayor Weiner would be a likely source of future scandal.
Another category is sex plus hubris, as we saw in the case of Eliot Spitzer. As governor of New York, Spitzer signed a law making paying for sex a Class E felony, which he serially violated. The problem here is not mere hypocrisy. (All adulterers engage in hypocrisy, unless they are public advocates of polyamory.) As a law enforcement officer, Spitzer seemed to believe he was above the law, exempt from the rules that cover normal citizens. This is not only a view of morality but also a view of power.
Then there is the category of sex plus misogyny, which seems to be the case in San Diego’s scandal by the sea. Mayor Robert Filner stands accused of a variety of reprehensible acts against women unfortunate enough to be within groping range. Filner, it should be noted, disputes at least some of those claims. He has also said, “I am embarrassed to admit that I have failed to fully respect the women who work for me and with me.” He added: “I need help.” If these accusations are true, it is difficult to argue that dehumanization and mistreatment based on gender are purely personal matters.
Mostly, sex is properly private. Combined with recklessness, the abuse of power or cruelty, however, it can take on public implications. While rejecting judgmentalism, it is still appropriate for voters to exercise some judgment.
Michael Gerson is a columnist for The Washington Post.