So we have now gone through another more high-profile sex scandal with its obligatory mix of power (did you know there was talk Eliot Spitzer was going to be the first Jewish President) and money (Spitzer didn’t have sex with just any street hooker whose more gritty stories we get to see on HBO but with diamond or was it emerald escorts who earned more in an hour than the entire recently passed tax rebate our government spent weeks debating that our president thinks will raise our spirits and address our economic meltdown), a Harvard Law trained beautiful wife from a small southern town who stands by her man (as if she wasn’t beautiful and did not go to college her husband’s trysts would somehow have been more understandable or even justified), three young daughters (had they been sons would we feel the same way?) whose pictures we can drag through the media all the while proclaiming our genuine sympathy, and of course a lead character whose arrogance, self-righteousness, and prosecuting zeal – especially for prostitution rings — made for the perfect karmic payback and who surprising for a politician did not have one friend.
We have been here before and know all the predictable entertaining narratives that define our public morality. Right-wing sexual moralizing zealots, for whom sexual ethics trumps any other ethical questions, who demanded with great intensity that Spitzer resign while not showing any self-consciousness at the variety of sexual improprieties or should I say sins which so many of their own – politicians, religious leaders, and media personalities – have been guilty. Then we had our New York State Republican leaders, who have been responsible for a dysfunctional state government for years, telling Spitzer, who they despised and whose fall they celebrated, that for the good of the state, which of course was all they cared about at this difficult moment, he needed to resign. Given the moralizing of the right which always and absolutely knows exactly what is right and wrong with regard to other people’s sexual behavior and is thrilled to judge as quickly and viciously as it can, we ought not be surprised that we had our morally relativist left that sheepishly could only say how sad they were for the family but had no moral insight to contribute as this was a victimless crime and merely a personal matter between the governor and his wife. We had our feminist narrative of horror that one of its own – a person who went to the mat to fight against prostitution rings which are indeed among the businesses most oppressive to women – had been caught as a major customer of a prostitution ring. And there were our libertarian narratives reminding us that prostitution is legal in many countries in the world and in Las Vegas (another country so to speak) and who suggested that prostitution ought to be legalized which would eliminate the criminal and drug element from this age old profession thereby protecting women from bad men while also insuring the health of prostitutes.
Of course there is a partial truth in each of these narratives. But perhaps the most important story is we who take in each of these narratives as essentially a form of entertainment and voyeurism – making our public morality an odd sort of soft core porn and our private morality a mixture of prudishness and repressed shame. Rather than deal with the incredible sexual dysfunction and dissatisfaction in our relationships and the explosion in our culture of ever more extreme pornography that objectifies and demeans women we conveniently deflect any questions or conversations yet alone guilt about our own sexual lives by scapegoating a rich, arrogant, powerful, politician who we can collectively feel good was brought down to size. Of course, no one really learns or grows in this public drama – a soap opera that will inevitably repeat itself.
It seems to me that as long as we have a public culture that swings between fear and shame of sex, of sex as basically sinful – including our private fantasies and lusts and desires (generated more often than not by repressive religious views) – and a Madison Avenue/MTV view which manipulates our desires by sexualizing everything from a song to a cleaning detergent we will have these eruptions of duplicitous, deceitful, and tawdry sexual relationships. We need a different sort of conversation about sex – one that is honest, like the biblical King David story, which teaches us that people who have achieved great power in the external world often feel an emptiness and loneliness on the inside that is not addressed by spouse or friends and seek a relationship outside conventional boundaries in order to feel any connection. We ought to grow up and again as with King David realize that the personal moral inadequacies of leaders do not automatically undermine their public leadership roles.
We need to have a different sort of discussion about sex – one in which rather than demonize or deny our lust and desires and fantasies we reconnect them to a deep recognition of the other as the great wisdom texts on love like Nahmanides Sacred Letter or the Sanskrit Kama Sutra teach. And we should, as the best of our religious traditions teach, practice forgiveness with regard to the hurts and sexual betrayals that we are honestly ready to face up to as flawed human beings. Finally, perhaps we ought to ask ourselves, in the tradition of Jewish wisdom’s emphasis on the higher standards and responsibility of public leadership, why we and our media are so obsessed with a politician’s personal sexual immorality which ultimately hurts only his family but are not far more morally outraged by leaders who lie to take us to war and whose incompetence, greed, and desire for power keep them from honestly addressing the fundamental economic, health insurance, and environmental crises – the moral issues that affect us all.