it’s only a sex scandal if you’re scandalized by sex

by marc largrange

Image by Marc Lagrange via Gala Darling.

Eloquent reader R sent me a link to what I think is one of the best, most relevant and inspiring pieces of sex writing I’ve seen yet: Against Sexual Scandal by Lauren Berlant. It should be read far and wide; it’s not longer than a page but gets right to the point about many pertinent issues regarding so-called sex scandals, and what their chilling effect is on our wider conversations (and self-image) about sex. It’s really inspiring to me. Here’s a snip from the beginning:

Less than forty-eight hours after revelations that he had hired a prostitute emerged, New York Governor Eliot Spitzer announced his resignation. Whatever happens to him now–the ultimate force of the story is not, once again, why big men do stupid sexual things. It’s not about how righteous moralists always create noise to distract us from paying attention to a dark secret they have.

It’s not really even a good opportunity for dancing in the streets because one more powerful person has come tumbling down. After all, some powerful people are better than others, and when powerful people fall from the mighty, naughty force of their appetites, nothing about power is changed at all–quite the contrary. The law, the family, marriage–exit polls suggest that all of these will be the winner here, after being horribly maligned by a man who forgot his oaths to honor them.

Instead, what stories like this really do is to damage the reputation of sex. Whenever there’s a sex scandal, I feel sorry for sex. I felt sorry for sex during the Larry Craig brouhaha last summer. What if he liked being married and procreating and giving anonymous head? What if that was his sexual preference? What if he really was not gay, as he claims, but had sexual desires that seemed incoherent? Some of the response to Craig was like the response to moralists like Jim Bakker, Ted Haggard and now Spitzer–moralists deserve to suffer the same force of negative judgment they wielded on others. Shame on us? Shame on you, ha ha! But lots of the response was sheer homophobia. And all of it was sheer erotophobia.

Erotophobia: fear of sex, tinged toward hatred of sex. Public sexual scandals revel in the hatred of sex. Disgust at the appetites. The strangeness of sex, the ordinary out-of-controlness of sex acts and sex drives that we all experience (if we’re having it). Actually, usually, sex is not a threat to very much. But it feels like a threat to something, which is why so many people stop having it. (…read the rest.)

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  • I think the real issue is that Spitzer was a cape-wearing prosecutor who used any tactic to bend to his will those he found on the wrong side of the law. If you want to be a legal crusader, you should have the same respect for the law you demand from defendants, and demand, even more so, from juries.

    How many times does a prosecutor, faced with prosecuting some sympathetic defendant, pull out the whole “the law’s the law — respect it or our whole civilization will come crashing down” card?

    More to the point of this particular prosecutor, Spitzer was notorious for threatening to drag through the mud those he was prosecuting, threatening to “out” all kinds of non-related, personal business.

    So “Mr. Clean” had his whole career and family life come crashing down, and people are already beginning to say, “Hasn’t he suffered enough, already?” No. He hasn’t.

    Let him suffer until he develops a taste for masochism.

  • As others have pointed out, the moral transgression he is guilty of is not just dereliction of his sworn duty to uphold the (immoral) law, he actually signed a law toughening penalties for prostitution!

    But this is just a diversion from the real damage done to our liberties, sexual and otherwise by both centralizing terror-fighters and ostentatious, self-styled reformers like Spitzer.

    The non-crime that Spitzer was pinched for was the “crime” of moving money around. Widepread evasion of IRS rules that made banks liable to report transactions over $10,000 morphed into a requirement under the tragicomically-named “USA Patriot Act” that practically any significant transaction made by an individual with any other entity generate a “Suspicious Activity Report” to the Treasury Department.

    Even worse, this “structured” movement of as little as a few thousand dollars at a time is considered by the Feds to be prima facie evidence of wrongdoing.

    The practical effect of this is a complete evisceration of the first, fourth,and fifth amendments to the US Constitution, without which we can have no meaningful privacy, sexual or otherwise.

  • Agile Neuronz

    The tin-horning news media and their skillful penchants are just as responsible for the degradation of eroticism and reciprocative ‘deviant’ sexuality (sans pedophilia, in other words) as the blow-harding moralists thumping on their regulation manuals.

    The article just read like my own thoughts, seriously. Dissonant sexuality is one of the purer forms of self-expression. Society, in its constricting cubicles of social management, will never be able to fearlessly assess raw sexuality without formulaic structure. Cartesian emulation of an animal drive is predictable and controllable, therefore the conventionals zealously lay claim to their one-position sex and one-dimension drive.

    Remove the sexual coordinates and you have chaos. In our views (Violet, Berlant, I and others of minds alike), a chaos most mysteriously wonderful… Vast galaxies of emotion straining against barriers of coldness, calculation and a muttered disbelief- this is what sex is in today’s America.

  • I had to drop Lauren’s literature of trauma class while I was the University of Chicago due to a scheduling conflict, but I still occasionally see her around, and I have to say, she is brilliant, incisive, and quite underrated around the U of C (at least that was my impression).

    In terms of the essay itself, it is worth noting that Berlant celebrates sex without any romantic notions of sex during some murky human state-of-nature before civilization. Joyful, loving, celebratory sex probably isn’t very normal in the general course of human history. But like other of the dubitable and less dubitable accomplishments of human civilization, such a thing, I hope, is possible.

  • Magnus

    The scandal here isn’t so much about the sex as it is the breach of trust. He had a wife that stood by his side, even after he got caught screwing around behind her back (fool!) If he doesn’t deserve the trust of the most important person in his life, then why should the people of New York trust him?

    The very nature of sex requires a certain amount of trust in your partner. Especially once you move past the missionary position and start trying things that might be illegal in certain states. Spitzer violated that trust that his wife had in him.

    If the governor had been single, it might be merely titillating that he was putting a call girl through college.

    If it had become well known that his wife was sodomizing him with a strap-on, that might raise some eyebrows, but it would hardly result in the end of his career. It’s not about the sex. It’s about the trust.

    In this particular case, it’s also about the hypocrisy. He has aggressively prosecuted others for doing the very same thing that he got caught doing.