At the Museum of Sex in New York City, one wall currently features a giant copy of a racy Facebook conversation between former New York State Congressman (and NYC mayoral candidate) Anthony Weiner and Lisa Weiss, a Las Vegas blackjack dealer. On a recent visit, I read the first few lines and, at first, rolled my eyes. Was anyone actually interested in the pathetic details of Weiner’s sex life?
Turns out, I was. After my initial bout of skepticism, I spent at least 10 minutes standing in front of that wall until my neck got tired from straining to read every word. Did he really say that? What was she thinking?
At least in New York, the November 2013 elections look something like a reality T.V. show. There’s Weiner, the former New York City Congressman now running for mayor, who accidentally tweeted a photo of his genitals to all his followers in 2011. Then there’s Elliot Spitzer, the former governor now running for comptroller, who was caught soliciting prostitutes back in 2008. While an official reality T.V. program, such as “Jersey Shore,” is based on cast members’ sexual escapades, politics is (supposedly) about something bigger. So why does it seem as though our minds will be trapped in the gutter on Election Day?
What’s the Deal?
When it comes to why we’re attracted to political scandals, there’s no one unifying theory. Some voters say they want to know about a candidate’s character so they can determine whether he or she is fit for office. Others figure it’s a lot easier to pay attention to the details of a sext interaction than it is to understand a politician’s position on education reform or food stamps.
Then there are more complicated psychological theories, such as the idea that political scandals let us find out what would happen if our own biggest fears — think cheating on a spouse or committing a crime — turned into reality. Moreover, the chance to label a politician “immoral” or “corrupt” can make us feel better about ourselves and our own (comparatively less dire) shortcomings.
Yet another part of our obsession with these sex scandals may be the fact that we tend to idealize celebrities, said Greatist Expert and psychologist Dr. Mark Banschick. We hold politicians to standards we would never apply to ourselves, and “we resent them when they fall short,” he said.
The Internet, and the fact that it allows us to access information anytime, anywhere, further complicates our relationship to celebrities. Even citizens who are tolerant of a candidate’s transgressions may feel as though they have a right to know about them (though there’s much debate over whether political figures have a right to privacy in their personal lives).
“There’s definitely a sense that a politician’s personal life is fair game,” said Dr. Hinda Mandell, a professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology who studies news coverage of scandals. “I think people are very curious about the foibles of others, and when the information’s there it’s hard to resist consuming it.” Mandell noted the media isn’t necessarily responsible for creating our obsession with sex scandals, but it does feed our desire to know more about them.
The question is whether, and how, our obsession with politicians’ sex lives affects our willingness to vote them into office.
Why It Matters
For all our talk about a candidate’s corrupt or disgusting behavior, we often end up voting for them anyway. One study found members of the House of Representatives who were involved in political scandals only lost about five percent of the vote when they ran for reelection. And a recent poll in New York City found most voters were actually willing to give Weiner and Spitzer a second chance in office (although that poll was conducted before Weiner's second sexting scandal).
Some experts say that’s because the American public is growing more empathetic toward political leaders involved in sex scandals. With as many as half of Americans saying they’ve been cheated on, people might actually be relieved to see celebrities engaging in behavior that resembles real life. These voters might be frustrated from aspiring to fairy-tale celebrity relationships, and ready to see something that more closely mirrors their own experience. The trouble, of course, is that in fixating on politicians’ relationships instead of their politics, we may fail to pay attention to the issues that actually affect our lives.
Still, political sex scandals do have one unifying effect: They remind us what it means to be human. Sometimes that means having an extramarital affair; other times it means being glued to the T.V. in order to find out more about someone else’s escapades. Whether we identify as Democrat, Republican, or somewhere in between, there’s nothing like a good scandal to remind us what we’re all capable of — for better or for worse.
Got something to say? Share your thoughts in the comments below or tweet the author at @ShanaDLebowitz.