My stepfather used to say, “You can do whatever you want in private, as long as you look good when you’re out in the world.” He adored that sentiment, appreciated, I believe, being able to play the good and loving father when we were out to dinner or spending time with family friends, and then come home and either sexually violate one of us, say, or spend the night either psychologically torturing his us with mind-numbingly long talks about how some small aspect of one family member’s behavior was an indication of a larger pattern of disrespect and bad thoughts (akin to the re-education techniques used during the Chinese cultural revolution). He counted on this public-private split, the well-developed expectation of a man (particularly a man of a certain class) to act however he wants to at home or in private as long as, in public, he keeps himself together.
In yesterday’s NYT magazine (you may notice a pattern here, with respect to the place where I find things to rant about these days), there was an article about how the FBI apparently sent a letter to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, threatening to expose his sexual liaisons with women other than his wife. The article makes reference to a press that was, in the early 1960s, “more cautious” than today’s media:
“F.B.I. officials began to peddle information about King’s hotel-room activities to friendly members of the press, hoping to discredit the civil rights leader. To their astonishment, the story went nowhere. If anything, as the F.B.I. learned more about his sexual adventures, King only seemed to be gaining in public stature. […]
Today it is almost impossible to imagine the press refusing a juicy story. To a scandal-hungry media, the bedroom practices of our public officials and moral leaders are usually fair game. And a sex scandal is often — though not always — a cheap one-way ticket out of public life. Faced with today’s political environment, perhaps King would have made different decisions in his personal affairs. Perhaps, though, he never would have had the chance to emerge as the public leader he ultimately became.
Luckily, in 1964 the media were far more cautious. One oddity of Hoover’s campaign against King is that it mostly flopped, and the F.B.I. never succeeded in seriously damaging King’s public image. Half a century later, we look upon King as a model of moral courage and human dignity. Hoover, by contrast, has become almost universally reviled. In this context, perhaps the most surprising aspect of their story is not what the F.B.I. attempted, but what it failed to do.” (emphasis mine)
Back in September, the NYT magazine ran an article pulled from the recently released book about the same topic, claiming that the way the press dealt with Gary Hart’s extramarital activities caused the downfall of American politics, creating a press that cared more about character than causes, that spent more ink and column inches on what politicians did in the bedroom (or hotel room, or bathroom stalls — hello, Larry Craig) than they did in Congress or the Oval Office or state houses.
Both articles seem nostalgic for a time when a man could stand in front of the country and expect the people to focus only on that man’s public words and deeds, when he could count on the hard split between the public and private spheres, when a man could get a little on the side and not be questioned about it. For goodness’ sake, a man’s private affairs didn’t have any bearing on his good public works! Access to women’s bodies (or young men’s bodies, in many cases) just went with the territory, and the press didn’t pay it any mind — that was simply the way things were. How come we can’t go back to the good old days?
This is the same logic that kept child abusers and wife beaters in power, the same logic that kept women and children quiet because a man could still hold (can still hold) positions of great power in public, be seen as a pillar of the community, while at home given full and complete license to behave however he wishes.
Now — it may sound like I’m comparing Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to a child abuser. No. I am, however, questioning the cultural longing for blinders that were meant to provide men in power with cover for behaviors that they kept secret (believing those behaviors wouldn’t stand up to public scrutiny), blinders we in the public were supposed to wear so that they could keep on engaging in those secret, private acts at their whim.
(I also question assertion of the author of the Dr. King story that a sex-scandal is a one-way ticket out of politics — please see Bill Clinton, Anthony Weiner, Eliot Spitzer, Mark Sanford, et al for more there.)
I am not a fan of mud-slinging, dirty politics. I, too, wish our campaigns could focus more on issues, the plans that each individual candidate has for improving our communities and our country, rather than on dealing dish about a candidate’s private life.
I also wish that folks comported themselves in private in a way that they themselves would stand up for in the light of the cameras.
Frankly, as a woman, as a queer person, as a survivor of sexual violence, I am grateful that members of the press — and the rest of us — are beginning to remove these blinders and take seriously the private behavior of those in positions of power in this country.
Neither article asks or even considers what seems to me to be a fairly straightforward question — why do these politicians (mostly male) continue to believe that they get to behave badly in private? Why do we as a culture think that someone’s private behavior doesn’t impact their public works?
I think about the men in power passing or enforcing homophobic laws who are, in private, meeting their male lovers or call boys. I think about men with constant access to the bodies of young men (football coaches, priests, let’s say) who decide that it is their right to misuse those young men and boys, sexually violate and debase them, while absolutely expecting that their professional communities — and the community at large — will support them.
And we do. We as a culture have developed massive institutional constructs within which men of power are given license to access the bodies of women, young men, and children, and we as a culture are still supposed to turn a blind eye if those same men also do “good works” for the community.
It sounds to me that this is what the authors of these books and articles are actually decrying: the fissuring of these institutional infrastructures, and the fact that just a little bit of light has begun to shine into these secret rooms.
I have an idea for politicians who don’t want the press to focus more on their private life than their public works: comport yourself in private in a way that you are proud of, that you are willing to invite your constituents to be proud of. If you are a politician who, for instance, likes BDSM play or has an agreement with your partner that allows for relationships with other people, stand up for that part of your life. Notice what happened when queer folks started refusing to be ashamed of their desire, and began claiming publicly all of who they were. Be willing to own your consensual sexuality and then get back to talking about the matters at hand, the work you want to do for your community or country; think about how to respond to the questions that call your consensual, adult sexuality into question, rather than shrinking from the fullness of your sexual self and hiding behind the safe haven of shame. If you choose to access the services of sex workers, then work to improve the conditions of their labor, just as you say you want to improve the condition of all of your constituents’ working conditions. Ensure them a living wage and health care; legalize their work. Don’t take advantage of trafficked children or others. Don’t sneak around, taking advantage of a system that harms everyone but you.
I am mostly curious about the profoundly overdeveloped sense of entitlement these men seem to have. What convinces them that they will be the one whose dalliances with underage pages or sexual harassment of coworkers or multiple extramarital affairs will escape public notice? What assurances have they received along the way that their private behavior will not be used against them? Why do they set themselves up for blackmail and public excoriation?
I decided a long time ago that I wouldn’t use a pseudonym for my erotic writing, in large part because of my stepfather’s philosophy of a public/private split self — I never wanted to be blackmailable. I wanted to be the same person in all parts of my life. Of course, I understood that this decision might limit my chances to, say, run for public office — thank goodness that this has never been an aspiration of mine.