Governor Sanford, Senator Ensign—Their Hypocrisy, Or Ours?

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Two more “family values” politicians recently bit the dust, as Nevada Senator John Ensign and South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford both admitted to extramarital affairs. Prior to that, both men were known as vociferous critics of “immoral,” commercial, and non-traditional sexual expression. Each one had, for example, used the power of the government to punish President Clinton for cheating on his wife.

Of course, the media jackals immediately descended on the two, as did their self-righteous former allies. America loves a sex scandal, and it delights in seeing the mighty fall. Add hypocrisy and you have a made-for-TV jackpot. The Letterman-Conan-Fallon crowd are already making the standard cheap jokes. It takes no skill whatsoever to make fun of somebody caught with his pants down while he’s standing on the Bible.

As a credentialed sex expert I was asked for a juicy quote by TV, radio, and the press. Their angles were predictable. C’mon, we’ve covered this turf for years: Jimmy Swaggart, Ted Haggard, David Vitter, Elliot Spitzer, Larry Craig, Oral Roberts’ wife. Bill Clinton, for that matter.

I didn’t bother with “power as an aphrodisiac” or “repression hides kinky impulses.” It’s all been said.

But when the San Jose Mercury-News asked “why politicians are so prone to this stuff,” my answer surprised them. “It isn’t clear to me that politicians act out sexually any more than the rest of the population,” I said.

With the enormous demand for pornography and prostitutes, “sex addiction” treatment and faith-based fidelity classes, skyrocketing sales of sex toys (in stores, home parties, and on the internet), new policies trying to stop people from sleeping with their co-workers, and millions of sexual ads on Craigslist, Ashley Madison, and elsewhere, it seems clear that Americans are as randy as ever.

We just won’t admit it.

Instead, we become captivated with politicians getting laid, getting spanked, getting queer, or paying for it.

It’s the perfect opportunity to talk about “them.” You know, “them” (sexually dirty) as opposed to “us” (sexually clean). It’s a distinction that some people desperately need to assert over and over. Because, psychodynamically, they aren’t really sure.

Politicians are merely doing what everyone else is. Driven by sexual needs, feelings, or impulses, regular people across America gamble with their marriages, their jobs, and their health every day. It’s just that no one outside their small circle cares. Of course, ordinary people don’t have the power to regulate others’ sex lives. And they don’t have a big platform from which to talk about the bad people and bad behavior they’re trying to regulate.

Americans love when politicians get in sexual difficulty because it allows us to salute the norms we claim to live by—and don’t. It allows us to solemnly talk about how people should live, even though we don’t. It allows us to piously talk about what people shouldn’t feel, even though we do. We get to have our psychic cake and eat it too: we get to validate the sexual norms we want to pretend we follow, while continuing to defy them. As a bonus, we vicariously enjoy others violating those norms.

So Ensign and Sanford will be lynched by an ecstatic public mob. In a satisfyingly familiar ritual, a religious sacrifice will be made to appease the gods, as careers are ended and dreams are dashed. Still-trusted politicians will intone that since the public won’t trust people who lie about sex, those caught must go. And the public will eagerly agree, saying that such people shouldn’t be representing us in government.

Really. Are you also going to fire your eye doctor, supermarket checker, airline pilot, and the guy who cleans your street on Tuesdays? Because they’re doing it, too. Whatever you’re doing, they’re doing, just like Ensign and Sanford.

Ensign and Sanford are hypocrites, for sure. They spent years punishing and even jailing people for victimless sexual expression very much like what they were doing. But society is hypocritical, too. We set impossible, rigid standards for politicians, claiming we want to be represented by people with no sexual feelings or past. When they turn out to be like us—struggling to reconcile their sexuality and their values—we say they’re unlike us and beneath us.

We’re lying to ourselves.

And so we’re doing to Ensign and Sanford (as we’ve done to others, and will do again) what they’ve done to the public. We continue to demand politicians who say sex is bad. We get them. And when they accidentally reveal that they’re part of that bad sexuality, we disown them.

We’re now punishing Ensign and Sanford for not being who we pretend we are.

No one has clean hands in this affair.

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