I sext. I share scenarios, and sometimes images of body parts that used to be called “privates,” with partners whom I’ve never met. I have depended on the kindness of strangers, and, unlike Blanche DuBois, I have been amply rewarded. Fortunately I am not running for office.
The Democratic primary in the New York mayoral race is over—barring a possible runoff between Bill de Blasio and William Thompson—and the world can only hope Anthony Weiner has learned his lesson. But the enduring legacy of Weinergate remains. It has exposed some serious fault lines in the sexual-liberation generation. For if Weiner asked for his fate by continuing to contact women after assuring voters that he had stopped, and by misunderstanding the fundamentally public nature of social media, his critics responded to the scandal in a way that’s worth examining now that the furor has passed.
A throng of pundits rushed to declare Weiner’s candidacy void not because he appeared to have an impulse control problem, but simply because he engaged in sexting as a married man. Their self-righteous condemnation reflects the same bias toward repression that my generation struggled against when we were young. Even worse, it expands the definition of adultery to include mere representations of the body, as if images were the same thing as acts. And it turns virtual flirting into a new marker for perversity. One of Weiner’s mayoral rivals has called him a “self-pleasuring freak.”
In order to fully grasp the repercussions of this scandal it’s necessary to recall the climate in which sexual freedom arose. The big difference before and after the sexual revolution of the 1960s was not how many men had sex, but how many women did––women who, in the previous era, would have been ostracized as sluts. The birth-control pill made possible what the counterculture deemed desirable: that women’s libidos should be unleashed. The proper basis of sexual attraction was not a promise of fidelity but the “vibe”––the intangible sign of a bond. Whether a woman bonded with one man or several was not the mark of virtue. This is not to say that coupling didn’t occur in the `60s, but the rules of each relationship were up to the individuals.
What has happened to this ethos? Aging, and the insecurities that come with it, have made it difficult for many people of my generation to tolerate the flexibility they once reveled in. And respectability has turned once-ostracized groups into paragons of virtue. Gay pundits with a short memory now sing in the choir of contempt for Weiner. “Diaper-changing one moment, dirty talk the next,” clucks Times columnist Frank Bruni.
It’s important, in this climate of contraction, to reiterate the first rule of sexual ethics in the ‘60s: “First, do no harm.” The most salient question for heirs to the Revolution should be: Whom did Weiner hurt? If we take his wife, Huma Abedin’s, words at face value, she isn’t happy about his online escapades, but she doesn’t think they merit breaking up their marriage. This is the way many spouses might reason in a similar situation. Applying the values of sexual liberation we must conclude that each couple is entitled to make its own decisions about what behavior is acceptable and what is not.
These decisions may change as the relationship ages. Desire may not last as long as love, and then, perhaps, another arrangement is better than frustration. All sorts of understandings are possible––text but don’t touch being one of them. A deal breaker for one couple may be an aphrodisiac for another. But the pearl-clutching pundits are pushing a more rigid standard. If we follow their logic, married people must now keep images of their naked bodies monogamous.
The Weiner scandal was one of those occasions when the op-ed page of The New York Times concurred with the editorial page, which argued not only that he should have left the race but also that he should have been excluded from televised debates. Weiner “has turned shamelessness into performance art,” wrote columnist Maureen Dowd. Then Susan Jacoby weighed in with an essay about the role women play in “a coarse and creepy internet culture dedicated to the fulfillment of both male and female desire for virtual carnal knowledge.” Feminism, she argued, stands for pride in women’s bodies and mind, while sexting “amounts to a diminution, close to an absolute negation, of the context that gives human interaction genuine content.”
This may well be the case. Sexting appeals to many people precisely because it provides a relief from the burdens of being known that intimacy can create. I say this as a married man who cherishes the risk-free freedom that online flirting can create. I am, while I play this game, the rascal of my dreams. There is conquest, coquetry, intensity––all without threatening the love I feel for my spouse. And there is an almost literary ability to project myself into fantasies I would never want to act upon. Clearly many women appreciate this outlet as much as I do, since they participate in it. But have any of Weiner’s critics actually tried sexting? Presumably not. They are a veritable scout troupe of probity––or perhaps they have never learned to use a webcam.
The herd mentality is particularly strong when it comes to sexual conduct, and those who indulge in a disgraced practice seldom have the courage––or the opportunity––to speak up. How many people who enjoy pornography have said so? When was the last time you read a defense of an unorthodox marriage? (Bear in mind that nearly half of all married people, surveys tell us, will depart from monogamy at some point.) My generation has loosened the restrictions we grew up with by allowing for same-sex unions and single parenthood, only to contract them as tightly as our sphincters will allow when it comes to the medium that breaks most decisively with our past: the internet. It’s on the new, the peculiarly 21st-century aspect of this scandal, that Weiner’s critics have focused their most intense ire and mockery.
His injudicious screen name, Carlos Danger, has made him an even more tempting target. But no one creates an online alias because it is dignified. There is usually something grandiose about a virtual identity. Those who relish taunting Weiner for letting his imagination run riot clearly don’t understand that hyperbole is the coin of the virtual realm. Beneath their gleeful contempt one can sense ignorance and uneasiness before this brave new web and the options it makes possible.
In the Elvis era, many respectable adults worried about the impact of “jungle music” on the souls of the young. These elders couldn’t imagine that rock n’ roll was an antidote to repression. Might the same be true of online flirting? Or have we come to the point where we can’t imagine that sex exists for pleasure, not just the promotion of intimacy? This is the world of choice and variation that feminism has ushered in. If the middle-aged don’t like it, they have no one to blame but their younger selves.
Not every critic of sexting has forgotten the ‘60s. Gloria Steinem is no fan of Weiner, but her grounding in radical feminism prompts her to raise a less obvious issue. “Just imagine if there were a woman who had photographed her pubic area and sent it out on the phone,” Steinem says. “Would she be a candidate?” Indeed, the requirement that female politicians repress their sexuality is a nasty remnant of sexism. Hillary Clinton, if she is ever to become president, must present herself as a woman without a libido, a kind of virgin queen to a husband who differs from Henry VIII only in his mercy for his consorts.
Herein lies the key to the vehemence directed at Weiner. From its birth in the ‘60s, modern feminism has had two, sometimes conflicting, tendencies. One is sexual liberation and the other is sexual restraint, mostly directed at men. This code was valid as long as it involved acts that were coercive or roles that women felt forced to play. But now the standard of restraint has been applied to something quite consensual, since all you need do to get rid of an unwanted online suitor is to delete. And sexting among consenting adults is as safe as you can get, since no one will catch a disease from pushing send. There can only be reason for concern if you believe that it invariably involves duplicity, or that it is inherently degrading. But its impact is as varied as the individuals who engage in it. And attitudes toward this new option may be evolving much faster than the pundit class.
Many polls have been conducted since this scandal broke, but only one, as far as I know, broke down its sample by age. Though it may be an outlier, this survey, conducted by an online dating site, suggests that young women are more likely than their elders to find Weiner hot. The young have their own standards of probity, while the old are more likely to interpret new patterns in terms of their past experience and their current feelings of vulnerability. When it comes to self-display, perhaps the old maxim is worth heeding: Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.
There are good reasons why New York voters rejected the candidacy of Anthony Weiner, but enforcing a one-way-fits-all morality is not one of them. I propose a different approach, more attuned to the spirit of the ‘60s. Let a thousand flirts bloom.