Why Anthony Weiner's Behavior Wasn't Harassment

He may have acted in a self-centered and dishonest way, but the congressman's behavior wasn't abusive or actionable


If the first stage of sex scandal coverage is gossip, the second is cultural analysis. The second stage helps justify our prurient delight in the first. (I suspect that the only people who don't enjoy sex scandals are the scandalees, not the scandalized.) But it also represents an instinctive desire to make sense of stupid or reckless conduct by people in public life who we presume should know better.

Besides, like gossip, analysis of sexual behavior is a game almost anyone can play. Unlike most national or global crises, its exegesis demands no particular expertise. Common sense, sexual experience and, these days, a little understanding of social media provide all the necessary analytic credentials. Professional sex scandal experts—pop psychologists who claim special, secret knowledge about our psyches—are generally fools or hucksters, like pop politicians on the other side of the looking glass who claim that solving complex economic, environmental or international problems and potential catastrophes requires mere common sense and a commitment to passing legislation no longer than three pages.

But as much as I value cultural analysis (and indulge in it) I'm sometimes wary of the generalized lessons it tempts us to draw from particular cases. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and one man's sins or indiscretions tell us a lot more about him than the rest of us. So while Anthony Weiner's apparent self-centeredness, exhibitionism, and instinctive dishonesty seem quite familiar and reminiscent of other successful or temporarily successful little power mongers, his lamentable failings are, in my view, universally human, although they may be expressed in culturally specific ways.

The lens of culture can also distort analysis of a scandal. Consider the insistence that Weiner's sextual escapades constituted harassment. Only in a society obsessed with sexual victimization and sexual predators, very broadly defined, could this assertion be taken seriously. The gravamen of a harassment claim is abusive behavior inflicted on a captive audience (typically an audience of one), behavior that inflicts actual harm, not highly speculative, indirect harm, on its targets. Usually the abuse involves an imbalance of power between a superior and subordinate, although peer to peer abuses in the workplace and school may also be actionable.

Weiner's puerile sexting was simply not abusive, partly because he had no actual power over its recipients. His audiences were not captive: The women to whom he directed his texts had unmitigated freedom to delete and ignore him. In fact, his recklessness gave the women all the power in their virtual relationships, which they've exercised most effectively by publicizing them. If Weiner is a harasser than so are millions of others who don't ask and receive explicit permission to send sexually explicit texts to people they've never met and over whom they have no power.

This thoughtless characterization of Weiner as a harasser was perhaps predictable, given our cultural and political obsessions; and it accompanies the jaundiced view of philandering male politicians and romanticized image of female politicians that a scandal like this invokes. Given their minority status in Congress and persistent double sexual standards, it's not surprising that women in office are caught in far fewer sex scandals than men. A hundred years ago their apparent fidelity would have been attributed to the moral superiority of the presumptively gentler, less animalistic sex. Today, female politicians are often credited, or credit themselves, with a less self-interested, political seriousness: "Women run for office to do something, and men run for office to be somebody," according to one canard (that predated Sarah Palin.) Sometimes cultural analysis offers lessons not to learn.

Image: Andrew Burton/Reuters