Private Lives

Andrew Sullivan joins the large group who think it's offensive to even discuss what Weiner did:

The key thing here is that we have dispensed with even the pretense of any over-arching justification for this attack on Weiner. He hasn't been accused of adultery or hypocrisy; he has committed no crime; it doesn't seem as if he has spent any public money. No one he corresponded with complained. No harrassment is involved. And yet this case of doing something which is ubiquitous online is equated, in some cases, with Dominique Strauss-Kahn's brutal alleged rape.

I'm just amazed at the resources of American puritanism. This is the first sex scandal I can think of in which there was no even faintly credible reason to do it, but pure partisan hatred, and no actual sex. And yet Nancy Pelosi wants an ethics investigation! Maybe the correct response is for everyone to get a Twitter account and send out some part of their torso. The more the merrier.
I don't think that what Weiner did is in any way equivalent to what DSK did, and anyone who has equated the two, or even mentioned them in the same breath, is being silly.  Tweeting pictures of yourself to strangers is ill-advised, and if you're married, it's also wrong unless you have the full support of your spouse.  But it's not a crime.  Most of the people calling for Weiner to resign are doing so because he's made himself look ridiculous, not because they think he's the next Pol Pot.

(I don't have any particular opinion about whether he should resign; ultimately that's between him and the members of his district.  On the other hand, I don't have any particular interest in an effective Democratic coalition, either; my sense is that a lot of the people who want him to resign simply want to dissociate themselves from his behavior, not because it's evil, but because it's juvenile and reckless.)

But I also don't think it works to say that it's nobody's business but the couple's whether people keep their marriage vows.  Andrew has been a great proponent of gay marriage--not civil unions, but marriage.  Why was it so important to call it marriage, if everything about it is entirely private?  Why not stop with legal equality and leave marriage to the heterosexuals?  If all the benefits are private, then a combination of legal visitation/property sharing rights, and whatever private arrangements the two parties choose to make, should be more than sufficient.

But it wasn't, because gay couples wanted public recognition of their commitment.   And well they should.  But the public recognition exists for a reason--marriage is a great deal more than just saying "We like to sleep together and pick out bathroom tile."  Did she show up at his campaign events?  If she did, they were both happy to have the marriage be part of a very public persona.  You can't use your marriage to shore up your political position, and then complain when people get curious about your performance as a husband--particularly when you piqued their interest in such a public way.

Society takes a greater interest in marriages than in other relationships because society, as well as the individual, has an interest in strong marriages.  Strong marriages support a strong society.  And society supports the marriage by encouraging people to do the very hard work of keeping their promises.  One of the ways in which society ensures strong marriages is by tut-tutting (or worse) at people who don't keep to their vows: who abandon spouses, treat them badly, or yes, violate their trust by engaging in covert sexual activity.  I'm a big fan of sexual privacy.  But you cannot have a public institution that rests in part on fidelity, and also complete privacy on those matters.

Call me old-fashioned, but I think that social sanction can be very helpful in assisting us in doing important but difficult things.  Marriage is stronger if people who find out that their friends are cheating don't say, "Awesome, is he hot?" but "How could you do that to Jason?" Marriage is stronger if people who cheat are viewed with slight revulsion, and so are the (knowing) people who they cheat with.  Marriage is stronger when people who decide not to care for seriously ill spouses are met with an incredulous "What the hell is wrong with you?", not "Yeah, I couldn't handle that either."  Of course it would be nicer if we didn't need this sort of help.  But we are a flawed species.

This is, to be sure, a bit trickier in an era when people like me and Andrew accept that there can be healthy non-monagamous marriages.  Maybe, folks have suggested, she was totally okay with this!   This seems possible, but not really very likely.  I know a decent number of people in open marriages, but they are very far from the majority of the people I know.  Looking at what polls and research we have on this sort of thing, plus an unscientific survey of my friends and the women who have written me, I'm going to go out on a limb here and speak for heterosexual married women as a class: I'm pretty sure that most of us are not okay with our husbands sending racy photos to strangers, or engaging in phone sex with same within weeks of our wedding day.  And if she's totally okay with this, how come she hasn't said so?

Because it would be embarrassing?  But if there's nothing wrong about what Weiner did, or about having a relationship in which the spouse has said it's okay to do what Weiner did, then why shouldn't she just say so?  Andrew has spent years hounding Sarah Palin because he thinks her stories about childbirth don't add up.  Why does Weiner have any less obligation to clear up apparent inconsistencies in his public story?

I'm not saying that we should spend weeks and months torturing the guy--that's up to his wife, if she wants to.  But I don't think that the media should have hushed up something that was, um, very public . . . or that it's somehow out of bounds to say that, unless she was really enthusiastically supporting his desire to text photos of his body parts all across our fair land, this was a really remarkably shitty thing to do to his wife.