. . . . . . . Supervalent Thought

Against Sexual Scandal

If I were an actual public intellectual, here’s an op-ed I would write. I don’t know actually how to write this kind of thing, it’s more pop-ed than op-ed since it popped out of me when I woke up at 5 this morning. Advice, emendation, commentary are very welcome, and I appreciate it especially if you comment here rather than via email, because then it really is world-building.

Shockingly, a slightly altered version of this post is now up at The Nation. Also, a critical read of it has been posted at Pandagon. I left a response there.

Against Sexual Scandal

Whatever happens to Elliot Spitzer as a result of the revelations about prostitution the force of this story is not, once again, why big men do stupid sexual things, or why Type A’s get tired of being so good and have to become bad just to attain some balance.

The story is also not about how righteous moralists always have a dark secret they’re creating noise to distract us from paying attention to. It is not really, either, 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 the person falls 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 bad 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 was not really gay, as he claims, but had sexual desires that seemed incoherent from a normative perspective? 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.

So when a sexual scandal happens, people indulge in projections of what makes them uncomfortable about sex: its weirdness (I was just standing up and talking and now I’m doing this?), its sloppiness, its awkwardness, its seeming disconnection from so many other “appropriate” drives (to eat, for example). Then there’s one’s fear of becoming a mere instrument of someone else’s pleasure, in a way that one doesn’t want.

Nonetheless, I’m just saying, I really like sex. We have no idea what sex would be like in a world that saw it basically as a good. A weird good. A good that can tip you over and make you want to do strange things. A good that can reveal your incoherence, your love of a little disorder, your love of a little control (adjust the dial as you like). A good that can make you happy, for a minute, before the cat starts scratching the corner of the bed, or the phone rings, or the kids mew, or you’re hungry and sleepy, or you need another drink, or the taxi comes.

In “queer theory,” where I live, sex is often associated with shame. It is not only that people shame us because of our association with sex (see “erotophobia,” above). Sex itself is said, variously, to reveal our narcissism or regressive tendencies, and our aggressions too. It is not just “pastoral,” an expression of goodness or communication between (or among!) hearts. It is not just lovely and loving. It’s a drive, and that’s shaming. And exciting. It needs “sexual ethics” for taming.

At the same time, it’s also playful, if you can remember that part; it’s also ridiculous and hilarious, if you can remember to notice that. It can also be very interesting and various, if you want it to be, as lots of people do.

And who knows what else it could be if so many people didn’t fear and hate it so much that people with complicated needs have to hide and secret it from their loved ones, to whom they have promised to make more sense than anyone can make. Who knows what sex could be if people were encouraged to enjoy it as play rather than as a drama, a genuine test of recognition, or tool of unwanted control over selves and others.

I feel sorry for everyone in Spitzer’s nimbus; but I feel really sorry for sex. Once again it has appeared in public, as it usually does, as a bad thing that people do to people. Sometimes, too often, it is. But realism about sexuality, about what it could be, deserves better. It deserves comedy too–not romance, and not, so inevitably, more stories about tragedy and scandal.

17 Comments so far
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Perhaps we should call it Sexenfreude. Certainly the glee I feel when a Spitzer or Craig gets his comeuppance has to do with the hypocrite sex-bully getting hoist with his own petard, but I think you’re right that indulging in sexenfreude on such occasions does participate, however momentarily, in the general sense–even if you don’t “really” believe it–that sex is bad. Of course sex bit you, stupid! Sex bites.
The part that makes me sad, though, is when Kristen says in the affadavit that she wasn’t a moron–she knew very well why she was there and what her purpose was. She’s no victim, but still, the whole thing has a melancholy air to it. And his wife just looked tired. And does he get that he’s an asshole? And would I feel better if he did? In the end we just see him as a weak hypocrite, and mostly forget that he happily rode the wave of sex hatred until it bucked him off, and now he’s sitting in the mud, and I am laughing at him, and that damn bull is trotting off unscathed, in search of more riders seeking to make their fortunes on a dare.

Comment by Sfrajett

This is so very helpful, L. Many thanks for the posting.

I’m hoping that there’s *something* good for sex in this story . . . So just what was it about Spitzer’s requests that prompted his date to remark on their unusualness? Could millions of Americans now be curious and want to try for themselves?

Comment by Andy

So beautifully put, Sfrajett. Who will the sex bull bully next?! I don’t see anything good coming out of this (the way, potentially but not actually, Clinton’s scandal enabled a discussion of orality, sexuality, and adultery in the United States): a moralist, a high priced prostitution scheme, money laundering. It’s not about appetites, really or yet: so it isn’t about the place of desire in the career of personality, really or yet.

Comment by supervalentthought

Part of what makes your post so compelling and problematic for me is the possibility of sex as simultaneously that which bites but also tickles. This coexistence of drama alongside play raises questions about what possible pleasure and/or reassurance we derive from imagining sex as the powerful expression of all that is otherwise not expressed, or inhibited, contained, sublimated, denied, etc. Certainly, there is something beautiful and true about sex-as-shattering (like Bersani writes about it) that doesn’t preclude the possibilities of sex-as-play (or like getting up afterward and eating a banana, as you often point out). And yet, is erotophobia that inability to imagine the coexistence of these two (opposite?) views of sex? Is erotophobia even really a fear and hatred of sex’s appetitiveness that underlies our outrage at scandal or are we also just terrified that sex scandals parade what we don’t want to see about sex – that it can be amusing or silly, the thing you do because you merely ‘feel’ like it. Perhaps it is safer to understand sex as an impulse toward discharge, the indulgence of which tips you over, than sex as distraction or experimentation or mere friction because ‘just feeling like it’ is truly incoherent in a way that the desire for exploded subjectivity, or searching for intimacy and meaning never really can be?
For what it’s worth, I wish you would submit this pop-ed to a newspaper because in its combined playfulness and gravitas it seems to be arousing the very possibilities for arousal it describes.

Comment by ashtor

I liked it especially in The Nation–it works especially well there. And there’s more to say too, right? What feels inadequate to me, somehow, is calling all these moments “sex.” I think I know what you mean–that this *is* sex (these public scandal moments, for so many). I heard a woman on the radio last night say something like: “I cannot believe this person (Spitzer) would take the risk of ruining his own life and the lives of others just for sex.” And I thought: well, how about just for money? just for power? I mean, why not just for sex?

For me, locating the sex in any of these scandals is itself a difficult thing.

Comment by Mandor

And..you’re so much better at this than that other LB, Bersani. That’s something I like about it too–the injection of the fun even knowing the fun is also not always fun in the normal sense, or it is!

Comment by Mandor

Yes, Mandor, I also thought that I was synthesizing all of the queer theory I like (Sedgwick and Bersani traditions) in my clearest pedagogical voice, and that there was barely an original thought in this piece, if you live in queer theoryland–except that, as you say, I am trying to dedramatize the situation more than my teachers tend to, and also to introduce erotophobia into the public conversation which, like intimacy in other work, I meant to use to create a track that delaminates sexuality from “sexual difference” and “sexual ethics,” a phrase I find more oxymoronic or aspirational everyday (not a bad thing!).

Astor: brilliant. A few things. I think that often “sex is an appetite towards discharge” but often that model suggests some kind of hydraulics of the drive, which I’m not at all sure is correct about the subject’s rise and fall of intensities. For example, I could want to want to have sex, but not feel like it, but put myself in the position to have it in order to generate the energy to spread out a little, to dismantle, without there being that sense of internal pressure implied in discharge.

Also: you write “what underlies our outrage at scandal or are we also just terrified that sex scandals parade what we don’t want to see about sex – that it can be amusing or silly, the thing you do because you merely ‘feel’ like it.” When I first read your sentence I thought, oh yes, right, to scandalize means to reinforce the image of sex as moral drama against the image of it as a whole range of non-events or pleasures. But I think that depends a lot on the case. Bill Clinton was clearly deemed impulsively appetitive as well as predatory–so his case wasn’t just a scary display of what’s light and interesting or comic and exploratory about sex, but also (to erotophobes) a case of self-acceptance of appetitive rights and a deliberate (if compulsive) de-consequentialization of sex beyond its event. (Didn’t he realize that the event wasn’t the act but its effects on immediate and non-immediate others *later*–that kind of thing.) Spitzer, we just don’t know a thing about him or the bargains of his ordinary life, apart from that he thought about the erotics of transgressing “safety.” But there’s little about the case so far that suggests its radiation of impulsiveness. Hmm.

Comment by supervalentthought

There’s also the idea that scandal serves mostly to shore up our sense of what is not scandal (or what is normal)–this is the space from which I enjoy the sex scandals–in the way there is some sanctioned degree of interest in looking at the car wreck (which is never a car wreck, or is the same car wreck we live every day). If we could do that (the pleasurable rubbernecking) without the other part–the way it is supposed to enforce all the not-scandalous, which, when it comes to sex, is silence and the silent agreement that we all do the same thing…

Comment by Mandor

P.S.: someone ought to note the ironic linkage in the careers of Obama and Patterson. Obama’s senatorial campaign was not at all in the ascendency until divorce papers between Jeri Ryan and her husband, Jack, revealed her claim that he coerced her to participate in sex club activity; Patterson, too, rises to the governorship, because of exposure of a more powerful white man’s sexual secret life….This is like the ironic logic of the buddy movie, where the white star has an African-American sidekick who has putative but not actual equality presence, being a sidekick and all. Revolution of the sidekicks!
slang (orig. U.S.).


[Back-formation from next.]

1. A companion or close associate; spec. an accomplice or partner in crime; a subordinate member of a pair or group. More loosely, a friend, a colleague.
1906 H. GREEN At Actors’ Boarding House 85 The Red Swede..sat over a pint of champagne with Dopey Polly..and his side kick, the Runt. a1911 D. G. PHILLIPS Susan Lenox (1917) II. xvii. 394 ‘Now, what d’ye think of that?’ said Black Mustache to his ‘side-kick.’.. ‘Guess we’d better run her in, Pete.’ 1927 J. M. SAUNDERS Wings iv. 173 ‘I want two of you,’ the Major said, ‘who is your side-kick?’ ‘Armstrong,’ Johnny admitted unwillingly. 1934 Bulletin (Sydney) 25 July 47/1 Snowy was good at soft things; as a rule, you could trust him as a sidekick to help you to a clear getaway. 1956 M. PROCTER Pub Crawler viii. 102 He’s Frank McGeen’s sidekick. They team up together in jobs of this sort. 1960 Times 14 Oct. 18/7 Miss Moira Redmond, as an ex-wife.., made a takingly crisp and sub-acid side-kick. 1976 New Yorker 23 Feb. 82/3 Christopher Lloyd was funny as a drug~ridden sidekick of the defunct singer. 1981 ‘J. MCVEAN’ Seabird Nine xiii. 154 It was the White House… And not just some little cotton-tail sidekick either, but counsel to the President.

2. Criminals’ slang. = SIDE-POCKET 1. U.S.
1916 Lit. Digest 19 Aug. 424/2 Pockets range from ‘side kicks’ to ‘double insiders’. 1935 Amer. Speech X. 20/2 Side-kick [formerly] one’s pal. In modern argot a side pocket in the coat; it is doubtful if there is any connection. 1955 D. W. MAURER in Publ. Amer. Dial. Soc. XXIV. 125 The outside pockets in an overcoat are called side kicks (from which we get a venerable American idiom).

Comment by supervalentthought

What will the public do with Kristen/Ashley — she’s everywhere today, mostly through her MySpace pictures. There are roles ready for her: vamp who brings down the star, exploited bird in golden cage, etc. Will she need to be punished? Will she need to publicly repent? (“I just don’t want to be thought of as a monster.” (Monster? Hillary???)) Or is the position occupied by Paris Hilton now available to a working (class) girl? Transcending sexual shaming to a career as a celebrity? (She’s probably less talented than Vanessa Williams, but at least as talented as Paris Hilton.) Perhaps her music career will take off, and she’ll become the new Britney.

I’m rooting for my homegirl; she reminds me of a lot of girls I saw on the boardwalk.

Comment by BrianZ

And speaking of Jeri and Jack Ryan, it was apparently common knowledge, at least among swingers, that they were part of a swingers network for some time before their marriage blew apart. It wasn’t swinging, or non-monogamous sexual practices, that ended the marriage. It was an escalation of demands on his part that she do things she wasn’t comfortable doing. The press simplified it into the “he wanted me to swing and I didn’t want to” story we ended up with. Which basically proves your point about beating up on sex, I think.

Comment by Sfrajett

some workers perspectives…


Madeleine Dash, Sex Workers Action New York (SWANK), 877-776-2004 x 2 swank@riseup.net

Audacia Ray, 718.554.1714
Sarah Bleviss, Sex Workers Outreach Project NYC (SWOP-NYC), swop.nyc@gmail.com
Prostitutes of New York (PONY), pony@panix.com
Desiree Alliance, http://www.BoundNotGagged.com

Sex Workers Blow Spitzer a Farewell Kiss

New York, NY – In the wake of former Governor Spitzer’s resignation, sex workers and human rights advocates remain concerned about the representation and future of “Kristen” and other sex workers, who do not have the legal and social privileges that will be afforded to Mr. Spitzer. The identity of the sex worker implicated in this case has already been made public, a situation mirroring many a sex worker’s worst nightmare. “Kristen’s” exposure may entail not only bring her legal repercussions, but invasion of privacy, financial hardship and social opprobrium.

Rather than continuing to sensationalize Spitzer’s actions and those directly involved, we urge the press and the public to shift their focus to the legal climate under which sex workers operate, while respecting “Kristen’s” agency to have chosen sex work as a viable source of income. “Everyone wants to know how high her rates were, all the salacious details, but the real issue at stake here is that the hypocrisy of criminalizing sex work has been exposed! It’s a part of our society, of every society, and we need to take this opportunity to stop with the value judgments and start coming up with policies that respect the human dignity of all people, sex workers and all workers. ” says Dylan Wolfe of SWANK (Sex Workers Action New York).

Former Governor Spitzer took a lead role in developing the NY State Anti-Trafficking Law as well as other initiatives that stigmatize sex workers and their clients. It is the stigma of sex work that leads many individuals like “Kristen” to keep their occupations a secret, creating further isolation and opportunities for exploitation. This same stigma compromises the safety and well-being of people like “Kristen” when their private lives become public knowledge. Sex workers are then forced to work further underground, rendering them more vulnerable to abuse, while denying them access to the basic civic participation, health and social services available to other people. “Hopefully Mr. Spitzer’s unfortunate public decline will send a message to all like him who pass laws that endanger the safety of sex workers while indulging in the service themselves,” Sarah Bleviss of SWOP said, “Sex workers clearly provide them a very valuable service; it’s time for lawmakers to return the favor.” Too little attention has been paid to what the repercussions of this case will be for those most directly concerned, sex workers, and more generally to the impact of laws and attitudes that marginalize them. It is time for a change.

Spitzer pushed through penalty enhancements against clients of all sex workers. Sex worker advocates fought against such provisions because these policies drive people who need help further underground. Often prostitution is wrongly conflated with trafficking and vice-versa. People are trafficked for many kinds of work, be it domestic labor, farm work or other jobs, and this kind of exploitation undoubtedly needs to be addressed. The majority of men, women and transgendered people working in sex work, however, are ’normal’ members of society who have used their own intellectual agency to decide to make a living in a sexually-oriented way. Laws, like the Mann Act (against inter-state transportation for the purposes of commercial sex), are too often used for punishing sex workers and their clients rather than those who profit from their exploitation.

Sex workers make a living in an industry with the potential for high risks and little by way of protection from abuse. The stigma surrounding our work can be lethal at its most extreme: we are often the targets of notorious serial killers, like the Green River Killer, Gary Ridgway who targeted prostitutes because he thought he “could kill as many of them as [he] wanted without getting caught.” If sex work were decriminalized and legitimized as a form of paid labor like any other, or seen simply as an intimate exchange between consenting adults, the associated harms would be greatly diminished. Furthermore, sex workers could access their basic human rights and social services without fear of legal reprisal or personal upheaval. “Eliot Spitzer has represented himself to the public as a law and order man, and ironically, has been in the vanguard of further criminalizing sex workers and clients. . . However, it’s a shame that so much time, energy, and tax payer resources are being spent to criminalize consensual sex between adults. It’s time to decriminalize prostitution.” says Sarah Blake of Prostitutes of New York (PONY).

Incoming Governor Paterson and other law-makers need to create policies that actually reflect the realities of their own lives and those of their constituents, including sex workers, rather than the harmful legislation of morality, whereby private matters become public scandals.

Comment by someworkersperspectives

On an orthogonally related topic,
check this out!

Comment by supervalentthought

Basically, I wrote this in response to your article, so I thought it would be appropriate to put it on your blog, though I was only introduced to the blog after the fact, so it is not exactly formed for blog consumption…

I’ve been obsessing over Spitzer, but not about the consequences of his scandal on the reputation of sexuality, but on the nature of a man who would risk a hard-earned governorship by engaging in activities not only grossly illegal, but also in direct conflict with morals he made into law. Sex is constantly being used as a pivot point for institutions of power and as a way of scandalizing someone for something not “naturally” scandalous, as you point out. But it’s not everyday that people display such monstrous qualities. Assuming that Spitzer is not a monster, but a mortal like the rest of us, how can this be explained?

I think that there is more to the response against Spitzer than, “Shame on you, Ha, Ha,” (Though I’ve heard that one also, mostly from people who I could imagine being in a similar position one day.) The weirdness is not just about sex. It’s a weirdness having to do with the paradox in Spitzer between a moral righteousness, a belief in morals that had been the foundation of, at least, his public identity and the contrary to this belief, manifest in private acts that make his morality seem totally incoherent. Many people’s reactions have been to say that this is not surprising, that it could practically be expected of public officials, but the scandal still seems somehow more unsettling than most. Infrequently do politicians rise and fall so fast. I believe that a NY Times headline pointed this out.

The purity of Spitzer’s hypocrisy is what’s so disturbing, at the very least, to myself. Few people, even in Spitzer’s position, have the power to betray their constituents so profoundly. Spitzer seems less like a person, more like an anti-hero. He reminds me of the character from There Will Be Blood, a combination of hatred for mankind and a redemptive sense of morality, a love for humanity, a hate for humans. Mr. Bruno called Mr. Spitzer a spoiled brat (before this scandal surfaced), which seems very apt. It is clear that Mr. Spitzer did not appreciate his position. It is almost as if he intended to reveal himself as a hypocrite. The risk he took certainly outweighed the benefits of the sex he received and it was risky, meaning, definitely possible that he would get caught. Maybe Spitzer needed that sex, in that form, because he was too anti-social to get the ladies, as one Times editorial argued (by that middle aged brown hair dude with the glasses). But to simply say that Spitzer was an egomaniac does not explain why he would undermine himself in a way that got him caught and defamed his public identity.

Spitzer’s legislation, from what I understand, increased the penalties for the “Johns” who purchased sex. Spitzer endorsed legislation, or maybe it was even his idea, to decrease the demand for prostitutes by making the law hold more accountable those who purchased them. Did Mr. Spitzer become a John because he wanted to indulge in something he believed evil? This is like saying that he didn’t believe in the values he made into law and did so rather maliciously, as a way to manipulate the public into giving him the power he wanted. Only a monster would do these things. Regular people do not intentionally do things that they know are wrong, they do them out of desire and though this desire may be confusing and incoherent it can point out the ways in which their value judgments were too absolute — like all of the value judgments that scandalize sex and make it wrong. Spitzer’s convoluted act shows that his judgments against the Johns of the world were too righteous and that’s why we get a particularly good laugh when he is made to pay for his sin, or we are particularly sad that he has made his career a waste, depending on whether his righteousness threatens our sense of well-being or whether we empathize with his fall. By becoming a John, Spitzer revealed himself as a hypocrite not because of a purposeful ruse he played on the world, but because his act made it clear that he does not feel that what the law made a black and white matter of right and wrong was in fact so absolute.

Mr. Spitzer must have, to some extent, considered himself right, even if the right came from a masochistic desire to undermine the values he put into place and revealed the an under appreciation for the life that he earned; even if the fact that he did it shows a certain amount of spoiled-bratness and an arrogance which made him feel that he was above the law. Perhaps Mr. Spitzer’s act demonstrated a deep seated resentment against all of the people who he let down in his administration and specifically those with whom he had worked for in order to create legislation that cracked down on the commerce of prostitution. Perhaps it also demonstrated resentment for himself, who went from prosecutor to prosecuted. Perhaps Mr. Spitzer believed both in legislating against prostitution and in hiring prostitutes at the same time. Perhaps he was trying to prove himself wrong. Perhaps he had an uncontrollable urge to purchase a fancy prostitute that he couldn’t explain. Of course the public will denounce Elliot Spitzer in terms it has used to denounce other people in the public light who have underwent sex scandals and it makes sense that those same values will to some extent become reiterated when people see Mr. Spitzer getting what he deserves. But Mr. Spitzer does deserve what he got; he betrayed the public trust in a deep way. He is unappreciative.

On the other hand, I think that Mr. Spitzer’s act, precisely because of its blatant hypocrisy, puts him in a somewhat different category than other sloppy politicians. Despite the public’s insistency on reaffirming values that make sex scandalous, Mr. Spitzer’s actions transcend the content of his scandal and they become subversive. Mr. Spitzer shows in himself the deep conflict between not his beliefs and his desires, but between what is true, that prostitution is wrong because it treats humans as commodities and what is true, that those who participate in this trade are not malicious. And the revelation of this conflict undermines the value system that declares sex scandalous and wrong and demonizes the people who choose to follow their desires instead of societal norms. Because Mr. Spitzer could have chosen a less risky way to quench his thirst, the public cannot ignore the fact that there must have been an intentionally subversive element in what he has done. Part of his motivation must have been, to some extent, the thrill of testing the limits, similar to the thrill an upper middle class white girl, such as myself, gets from stealing. Its not that I don’t want the $30 dollar eyeliner, or exactly that I don’t have the money to pay for it, its that I’m not supposed to have it because it is too expensive, but I want it anyways, so I steal it. But the risk of stealing an eyeliner on my lunch break at work, certainly outweighs the benefits of getting it and I decide to do it anyways, because I don’t like my job, I don’t appreciate what I’ve got.

At the end of his resignation speech Mr. Spitzer said, “I go forward with the belief, as others have said, that our greatest glory consists not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.” If that’s what Spitzer believes is humanity’s greatest glory, then you can see why he is so willing to make the fall. And I wouldn’t doubt that he finds a way to rise again, because that is self-righteousness, his outstanding quality.

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