Of all the restrooms in all the schools and bars and gas stations across this great land, rare is the stall inside of which someone has not paused to draw a penis. Erect, with tight scrotum on one end and a cartoon squirt at the other, it is characterized by a vigorous arcing line and a paucity of detail; no hairs or veins or rippled skin, no great variation in size or proportion, a Unipenis, really, the signal hieroglyph of our age. When we have blown or glutted or pummeled ourselves into extinction, alien archaeologists will find this symbol on crumbling viaducts and leeching scrap heaps, in the ruins of our cities and the overgrown remnants of our public libraries, and they will conclude, “Here was their god.”
Then they will find the cellphone of Andrew Breitbart with a close-up photo of a real penis, and they will say, “Here was His votary”… except if they dig any further and find a photo of that photo being offered like a two-bit peep attraction from Breitbart’s chubby hand; if they excavate a video clip from the Opie & Anthony radio show and witness the grown-ups’ little-boy glee upon passing the photo around (“Wowie!”); if they unearth a snippet of sound from a press conference, a reporter shouting, “Were you fully erect?” above the din; if they stumble upon a tranche of brittle headlines and scratchy TV clips, each one mixing the jokester’s fun and voyeur’s thrill with the bile of the moral disciplinarian; if they come upon a trove of the electronic currency of our time—an average porno site, an average episode of Jersey Shore, an average month of posts to guyswithiphones—and then discover, finally, the recorded spectacle of Representative Anthony Weiner’s tear-stained confession, a man brought low by a picture of a hard-on in boxer shorts.
Then the aliens will rub their antennas together and decide, “Here was an insane people.”
It is different for us. Social insanity may be our condition, but while we have a few brain cells left we have to try to make sense of the phenomena of the day. The Weiner scandal seems nuttier than most because, besides Weiner’s astounding recklessness, almost from the first report of sexting between the Congressman and a female fan the national media revealed themselves to have the sexual maturity of a seventh grader. That is probably a slur against seventh graders, who in many schools now range in age from 11 to 15, and at the older end are no doubt not only more nimble at fingering their cellphones and masking their identities than the Congressman but also more reasonable about the nature of sexual play in the era of instant messaging than the average reporter. The papers, the networks, the cable channels, the blogs, every news machine that led or almost led with the Weiner story for two weeks may not have used the words chosen by hollywoodlife.com to announce “New Naked Pictures of Anthony Weiner Emerge—Eww!” But in one way or another all betrayed the same giddy revulsion. Weiner was creepy, icky, weird, sick, a pervert—Eww!
The news machine deserves derision, but it’s too easy to wave off its adolescent obsession and Weiner’s as a distraction from really important politics: to say sex, panic, the tug of war between the private and public, the urge to take risks and the urge to punish, are trivial next to the stuff cooked up by the ghouls in Congress calling for Weiner’s head.
Sex scandals are politics by other means. At the simplest level this one is a matter of partisan combat. Breitbart has made scandal his capital. No matter of principle is at stake; the point is simply to win one for his side. He dissembles about his motives, and that’s politics too. He doesn’t care about whether all public figures are models of probity; he may not care about what people do sexually at all. Weiner texts Lisa, a Las Vegas blackjack dealer, “Wow, a Jewish girl who sucks cock!” Breitbart froths: “Can you imagine if one of these errant girls, you know in Nevada or the porn star, said, ‘Hey, you know what? I want some legislation passed. How about if you vote yes, even though you’re thinking no on this?’”
Both are farcical; each playing his part in a game of Catch Your Opponent With His Pants Down. For Weiner, the dangerous possibility of discovery had to be part of the thrill. But Breitbart didn’t just come up with an absurd example to fit a generalizable concern about “misbehaving” and the corrupting influence of backdoor alliances. He has no such concern. If he did, his websites would have pilloried Senator John Ensign, the Nevada casino heir who gave his best friends, a husband-wife team, important political jobs (and lent them money for a house they couldn’t afford, paid their kids’ tuition for a school they couldn’t afford, basically controlled their economic life) and then seduced the wife, fired the husband, sent him away to be a lobbyist, inveigled his Senate staff into activity they all knew was illegal, fired the wife once she withheld favors, finally paid the couple off with a measly $96,000 from his parents, and occupied the Senate for two more years until a damning Ethics Committee report hastened his resignation this spring.
It’s silly to talk of right-wing conspiracy. Breitbart is merely doing what political players have done for centuries: using sex to mobilize a constituency and achieve an end.
The media are doing something similar: using sex to sell papers and ads, obviously, but also, less consciously, to channel the anxieties of the age. Every story America has told itself—that it is strong, tough, cocky; that its problems are mere chinks in an otherwise solid roadbed; that it can outsmart, outfox and one-up its opponents; that it’s still got the juice, the balls, the mojo—has always been chauvinistic and phallocentric. Now those boasts sound tinny, desperate, like Weiner’s denials. Congress is a cesspool, no matter who controls it. The presidency is unaccountable, no matter who occupies it. There are only falling stars. The wars grind on, work drains away, privacy is as unreliable as the market, and… gosh, your mate does spend a lot of time on the computer at night, and, gosh, the kids are always in their rooms, and what is everybody saying and seeing and sending while alone, in the dark, in front of a glowing screen?
This is America’s first full-out political techno-sex scandal, and novelty often whistles up confusion. (Progressives who cheered Chris Lee’s swift fall following a bare-chested posting on Craigslist might reconsider what they celebrated; in terms of ideological, as opposed to tactical, sexual politics, the right won there too.) The tittering compulsion of so much commentary reflects that confusion, a lack of sure footing, for all the grown-ups’ professed sophistication, in the virtual world. Had Weiner been caught in a hotel room on top of, say, Lisa, amid their mutual cries of “big cock” and “tight pussy” and had there been a black book with other women’s names on the bedside table, the press would have had a good time with the story, but no one would call Weiner a pervert; he’d be a stud. As it is, what made the sex here safe, its noncarnality—no contact, no fluids, no baby, no payment, no strings—now makes it sick. The usual social controls aren’t operative.
Confusion in novelty cuts at least two ways, though. In the 1980s Gerry Studds survived a scandal over an affair with a 17-year-old Congressional page; Barney Frank survived a scandal over a male prostitute who was using the Congressman’s home as a bordello. Both men stepped out of the closet in the swirl of scandal, the first members of Congress to do so. It mattered that for decades already, countless anonymous others had fought and dreamed and died and, most important, lived so that homosexuality would be sprung from the cages of mental illness and blackmail bait. It mattered, years later, when Bill Clinton was being impeached, that pro-sex feminists and libertines of all stripes had long been moving the culture to recognize sexual reality. In this latest scandal the press solemnly reports Clinton’s disapproval of Weiner as if erstwhile presidential behaviors once deemed outrageous and unpleasant, if not quite sick—lying about an affair, engaging in blowjobs, rimming, cigar games, etc.—were just what people do, maybe embarrassing when hung on the line for a public pawing, but deeply human. Their disgust may be hypocrisy, but their nonchalance is the result of sexual politics.
When it comes to the Internet fantasyland, people are way ahead of politicians and the press in sorting out the relationship between individual secrets and social honesty, but it’s still a private-public Wild West. If some livable synthesis finally emerges from the clash of alienation and liberation on this new sexual terrain, it won’t be because we listened to the haters and the shamers. Sex is so much more than they have ever imagined.