Sex and politics American style


Sex and politics perhaps combine together the two oldest professions, if not avocations. Maybe it started with Marc Anthony and Cleopatra. But whatever the origins, the two continue to be perhaps not so strange bedfellows.

Anthony Weiner’s revelations about his continued sextexting after resigning from Congress and now while running for mayor of New York again raise the question about whether a candidate or a politician’s sexual behavior is anyone’s business? The simple answer is that is that there is not one. Public opinion is shifting on the topic and it is just not clear where the lines should be drawn between public/private behavior and how the sexual conduct of public officials should be judged when determining fitness for office. But nonetheless, we can learn something about sex and politics in America.

Sex and Politics in the World of Ozzie and Harriet Nelson

Sex in American politics has followed changing public opinion and pop culture views and depictions on the subject. Go back to the 1950s and early 1960s and the sexual image of American politicians was sterile. Politicians were of mostly male, but they were depicted as sexless beings. This reflected an Ozzie and Harriet Nelson, Lucy and Ricky, and Dick Van Dyke world where married couples on television slept in separate beds and where in reality unmarried couples were not supposed to have sex before marriage. Sex outside of marriage, “deviant sexual activity,” and all forms of homosexuality were illegal. Even talk of sex inside of marriage was dirty. Sex was taboo on television and the media would not have dared ever to discuss the sexual behavior of public officials, except in terms of scandal.

JFK and the Sexual Revolution

President Kennedy tested the media. We now know of his infidelity, of his liaisons with Marilyn Monroe, and of stories of women being flown to the White House or Camp David. Yet the media never covered it, never discussed it, just simply ignored it. JFK was a handsome sexy guy but he was sexless–except for the two children he had.

Then the sixties happened. The 60s Sexual Revolution changed so much–at least initially for men. Many of the old sexual don’ts collapsed. One change was that the media could now talk about sex and politics, except it was all scandal.

In1974 Congressman and Chair of the House Ways and Means Committee Wilbur Mills was stopped by police for drunk driving. In the car with him was Fannie Fox, an Argentine stripper who fled the scene. The story was well covered but despite it he was reelected. After the election he appeared on stage at a strip joint with Ms. Fox’s husband while she performed. He resigned.

In 1980 Congressman John Jenrette confessed to having sex with his wife Rita behind a pillar on the steps of the Capitol. This story made headlines, but it was not the cause of his downfall. He was convicted of taking bribes in the Abscam sting. Few people remember Abscam, everyone remembers the sex and his wife who eventually posed for Playboy.

In 1990 Minnesotan Republican Jon Grunseth ran as a family values candidate for governor and was forced to abandon his candidacy on October 28–just days before the election–when stories emerged that he and several of his middle-aged male friends had gone skinny dipping with Grunseth’s daughter and three of her teenage friends. There was also allegations of an extramarital affair. The scandal had such a backlash on the media that it brought down Rudy Perpich and Rudy Boschwitz and led to the election of Arnie Carlson and Paul Wellstone.

Coming out of the Closet

No one was GLBT in the world of Harriet and Ozzie Nelson. It was either illegal or abnormal. Politicians who were gay had no political future. But as public attitudes toward homosexuality changed, so did view on gay sex and politics.

In the mid 1980s stories leaked that the then not-out-of-the-closet Massachusetts Congressman Barney Frank had hired a gay prostitute Steve Gobie. As the story evolved Frank and Gobie became close and Barney hired Steve to work for him, eventually firing him after learning that Gobie was hooking. The House of Representatives attempted to censure and expel Frank for this, with the effort led by Larry Craig, a Republican Congressman and later Senator most famous for being arrested in 2007 in a Minneapolis airport bathroom on charges of soliciting gay sex. Frank was re-elected several times, Craig served out his term and opted not to run for office again.

Bill Clinton

Then of course there is Bill Clinton. He was impeached but not convicted for lying about having sex with Monica Lewinsky. We learned of this after Republicans and Special Prosecutor Kenneth Starr spent $44 million taxpayer dollars to find out that the Clintons did nothing illegal with Whitewater (a financial deal gone bad when Clinton was governor). What we got was a $44 million price tag to find out that Clinton had sex with an intern in the Whit House. The media and the Republicans were all over the story as well as accounts of affairs with Gennifer Flowers and harassment of Paula Jones. But Clinton seemed to portend a sea-change in sex and politics. He left office more popular than ever and the public seems while in office and to today to have discounted Clinton’s private life as irrelevant to a judgment regarding his political career.

Sex and Politics in New York (City) and Elsewhere

Eliot Spitzer resigns as governor because stories emerge that he is seeing prostitutes while he was attorney general (and while prosecuting prostitution) and then still as governor. John Edwards is forever tainted because of his nonmarital child and affair he had while still married to his wife who was dying of cancer.. Anthony Weiner is forced out of Congress because of his sextexting. And then former governor Mark Sanford is forced out of office because of an affair with a soul mate in Argentina (not Fannie Foxe again) , but a few years later is re-elected to Congress.


So what do we learn for all of this sullied discussion of sex and politics? First, public attitudes towards sex and politicians have changed. . .somewhat. In 1965 it would not have been possible to discuss presidents or elected officials as sexual beings at all, or except in terms of scandal. It would not have been possible to make the 1995 movie The American President–with Michael Douglas and Annette Bening–telling the story of a widowed president and a lobbyist dating. The president is sexual but still there are dark overtones and rumors of conflict of interest as Bening’s character is lobbying for legislation and there are hints she is exchanging sex for political favors.

Second, Clinton and now Sanford suggests that in some situations the public will discount personal sexual behavior. They will do so if the candidate does not make their own personal character an issue or put the issue in play. By that, candidates such as Grunseth or Craig who run as family values conservative candidates have a harder time putting the issue behind them than candidates like Clinton who do not try to make claims about personal virtue.

Third, coming clean seems to be important. Clinton was at his lowest when he lied about the scandal. Candidates who are honest about their affairs seem to recover. Often the cover up is worse than the sex. If Eliot Spitzer wins election as NYC Controller this will attest to that. Weiner’s downfall will be that he continued to law about his persisted sextexting (BTW: Look for a great headline in a NYC newspaper when he abandons his mayoral race “Weiner Pulls Out”).

Fourth, being gay no longer seems to carry the inherent stigma it once did. However, with same-sex marriage becoming legal, it will be interesting to see how infidelity among gay and lesbian politicians is covered.

Fifth, so far all of the major sex scandals have involved male politicians involved with women. The one exception in Minnesota was state senator Amy Koch. How this might change in the future with more women as elected leaders is yet to be seen. Conversely, the role of politician’s wives so far has generally been that of a Tammy Wynette “Stand by Your Man” stance. Think of Hilary not leaving Bill and Silda standing next to Eliot. Now some wonder why Huma Abedin is there for Weiner? Many are asking why is she still with this guy, what does he have on her? The notable exception was Jenny Sanford–she refused to stand by Mark at his press conference and she divorced him.

Finally, what we don’t know about sex and politics is more about voters and more research on how sexual scandals affect voting decisions would be interesting. In a 1991 humorous essay I wrote for the Texas Observer I found evidence that more sexually active voters were less likely to vote. This raises all types of great questions Anthony Weiner–those most likely to vote for him may be too busy having sex on election day.