Power and Privilege in the Anthony Weiner Sex Scandal

From looking at mainstream coverage of Anthony Weiner’s ongoing scandals, it would seem there are only two possible positions to take on the embattled politician. On one side are those who denounce Weiner’s sexting and lies as disqualifying him from office. On the other are those, mostly liberals and progressives, who argue that Weiner’s behavior is a private matter, and its eruption into a public scandal is yet another sad sign of American prudishness and misplaced political priorities. (What most seem to agree on, unfortunately, is that Huma Abedin is both to be pitied and shamed for the misbehavior of her husband.)

It’s certainly an indictment of U.S. politics that a sex scandal poses a far greater risk to a politician than supporting unjust or violent policies (for example, Weiner’s position on the occupation of the West Bank). But it’s also the case that there are real issues of sexual harassment, consent, and abuse of power at play in Weiner’s case that make it dangerous to dismiss as just another example of puritanical attitudes.

The crotch pictures that ultimately led to Weiner’s resignation from his congressional seat in June 2011 were sent unsolicited to a woman who had never exchanged any sort of sexual message with him before. Were a man to coerce a woman to look at his crotch in person, many liberals would agree that this was at least harassment, if not assault. The woman whose communications with Weiner set off the most recent controversy alleges that he promised to secure her a job and real estate—if true, a clear abuse of power in a sexual relationship. Both women were private citizens barely in their 20s—considerably younger and far less powerful than Weiner.

It’s a sad commentary that most progressives are in agreement with mainstream media that these troubling power imbalances and patterns of predatory behavior are irrelevant. There has been little room to air concerns about these aspects of Weiner’s behavior in the midst of louder discussion of salacious details, progressive back-patting about our open-mindedness to non-normative sexual expression, shameful speculation about Huma Abedin’s state of mind or political ambitions, and unsolicited “advice” on Abedin’s behalf.

Even less evident is any real attempt to put Weiner’s behavior in context of broader power dynamics around gender, race and power in American society. It’s worth trying to figure out why it is that almost all political sex scandals involve white men disproportionately targetting younger, white women.

Progressives who insist that any criticism of this behavior is making a mountain out of “just sex” miss a crucial point: The political and cultural capital afforded to white men in particular encourages and enables predatory sexuality and a sense of invincibility, and it insulates them from the consequences others face for similar behavior. It’s difficult to imagine that black men, or women of any race, caught “straying” as frequently as white male politicians would so easily expect, much less receive, the public’s forgiveness—as have numerous white men who’ve rebounded from political sex scandals.

The expectation on the part of white male politicians caught in “indiscretions” that they can stay or return to politics speaks to a considerable entitlement that is the special province of white patriarchy, and to the reality that Americans are often quite willing to forgive powerful white men for behaving badly. The boundaries within which men of color and all women in the spotlight can operate are much narrower, and the costs much higher for those who run afoul of them.

Redemption may be possible for men like Anthony Weiner, who got a second chance despite all the red flags, despite lying to the media, despite breaking the trust of his constituents and jeopardizing the political stability of his district for his own personal satisfaction. But such grace doesn’t come so cheaply—if at all -—for politicians of less-privileged identities caught up in similar scandals. ForbBlack men and women already subjected to sexual stereotypes, even the insinuation of culturally unsanctioned sexual activity can be enough to sink a campaign. And, as Roxane Gay notes at “Salon,” for the women caught up in scandals with powerful men, the notoriety and public humiliation that comes with being the “other woman” or the wife who was cheated on never goes away.

–T. F. Charlton

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