Living in a Golden Age of digitally-mediated political scandal is an entertaining, if kind of insufficient, consolation prize for having politicians who don’t understand the way the internet works. In a decade, maybe, elected leaders won’t get caught so often misunderstanding the difference between a tweet and a DM. They’ll know better than to conduct erotic business on platforms easily screenshotted or printed out. They might even have a more realistic way of approaching the spectrum of sexuality available on the internet, in which case they might wonder why Anthony Weiner’s sexting scandal was so disruptive.
Yesterday, former Congressman, former New York mayoral candidate, and now formerly coupled human Anthony Weiner was outed by the New York Post once again for sexting with a woman he had no intention of meeting in the flesh. This time it was a Trump supporter who traded him bikini pics for shots of his chest and boxer-clad bulge. The two allegedly have been friends who also happen to sext for nearly a year. In response to the news, Huma Abedin, Weiner’s gracious and well-connected wife and a top Clinton aide, finally announced her separation from her husband.
Weiner’s political career, from his run as the youngest-ever city council member in his native New York to his failed bid for mayor two years ago, has been compared to a Shakespearean tragedy. For his sexting habit, the relentlessly energetic and publicity-seeking Weiner has been likened by Page Six to a sex offender and encouraged, repeatedly, to seek help for his addiction. The reverberations of each screenshot or text transcript have forced him to resign from Congress, tanked his (once quite successful) mayoral campaign, prevented him from seeking employment, and now have ended his marriage.
Weiner’s sexting has been reimagined as a range of moral failings: He’s too impulsive, likely a liar, too narcissistic to be trusted, too camera-ready, too hot-headed. This time it's his tastelessness; his toddler son is on the bed nearby. The slight that’s outshone them all, though, is the spectre of adultery, a story common enough in rising political stars as to completely capture and reform the narrative. As shown in this year’s documentary on Weiner’s 2013 campaign, in the course of hundreds of press clips and televised debates, no one can agree whether the highly accomplished and poised Abedin is the calculating engine behind Weiner’s career or a long-suffering stand-by-your-man type.
Amid all this hand-wringing, what’s left unexamined is why we’re so disgusted by sexting with complete strangers in the first place.
Because sexting isn’t banging staffers or engaging in lurid, long-term affairs; if it’s consensual it isn’t sexual harassment and if your conception of monogamy is about bodies touching it isn’t really cheating either. The vast number of erotic options online and the fantasies they facilitate are slowly losing their stigma. For many people, though perhaps not Abedin, sexting someone across the country might fall somewhere on a spectrum between talking to cam girls and watching porn. But very rarely does all this come up when we talk about Anthony Weiner: In part it’s that adultery is the easiest and most puritanically acceptable target. It’s also, in no small part, that internet sexuality is still considered something of a perversion.
In this particular saga, there is the scandal itself—played out in an unknown number of escalating Facebook and Twitter messages; the man is the patron saint of sliding into DMs—and then there are the supporting players. Most visibly, there’s Abedin, the subject of intense scrutiny. But there are also women like Sydney Leathers who out Weiner, ostensibly propelled not by a sense of violation but out of acknowledgement of their role in this cyclical sexting canon. Less remarked upon, there is Andrew Breitbart, without whom the original crotch tweet would never been flagged, and perhaps without whom Weiner’s sexting habit would have remained a private matter.
By way of contrast to Weiner’s endless freefall, we have Robert Bentley, Alabama’s “horndog governor,” who engaged in a very public extramarital affair last year with a subordinate, giving her what many claimed was unprecedented power over decisions (and, perhaps, state funding). He remains in office nearly half a year after the allegations. We have Bill Clinton, whose approval ratings were at an all-time high post-Lewinsky scandal and is now meme-ified not for his love of blow jobs but balloons.
If Weiner had engaged in a regular in-person affair, the New Yorker mused during his post-Congress, pre-mayoral press blitz, he would have had a better chance of salvaging his legislative career. But there’s something about the goofy details of his online trysts—the faux-desperado moniker Carlos Danger; his artless cotton-clad dick; the adolescent, unambiguous dirty talk over DM—that can’t be aligned with most stories we tell about our (male) philandering politicians. He used a text-based emoticon of an ejaculating cock as a flirtation tactic, for chrissakes.
In the documentary from last year, Weiner wonders aloud what track the scandal might have taken had he been single. We could also ask what we’d be focusing on in lieu of a scorned and stoic wife, if we’d still be imbuing his sexting with such intense shame, if every revelation would be so devastating. Weiner’s scandals were straightforward and unromantic—he wasn’t looking for a replacement for his wife, just a little attention from a semi-stranger, and obviously to get off. He may have suggested meeting up with lady friends, but there’s no guarantee it was anything more than an act of fantasy. And given that a number of his sexting friends operated under pseudonyms, the whole thing is about as homewrecking as porn.
But the narratives we have about digitally mediated sex aren’t really there yet, and Weiner’s sexting scandals conform to the idea that erotic communication online, even the casual kind, is the purview of teenage boys, nerds, or the creepy and perpetually underfucked. For a slightly younger generation, those who remember asking a/s/l, it might seems a little less weird. The revelations to be taken taken from the scandals and Abedin’s split are far less exciting than sexual perversity. Weiner is bad at covering his tracks, for one; his marriage-slash-political-alliance, already frosty, couldn’t withstand the embarrassment siphoned into it by the press.
But as the guy admitted himself in the documentary he claims to have never watched, what makes him impulsive and attention-seeking probably made him an aggressive legislator, an effective campaigner—in short, a good politician. They’re all pretty broken. Sexting doesn’t have much to do with that.