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.”