Q – Does Rep. Weiner’s admitted act of sending out explicit photos of himself disqualify him from public office? Is this a new form of adultery? Given the fact that "sexting" is so common these days among young people, will it become a political albatross comparable to pot smoking for aspiring pols who came of age in the ’60s? After all, isn’t this just a byproduct of the Internet revolution in the way that drug use was the byproduct of the counter culture? Eventually, won’t the culture simply catch up to these new freedoms and no one will care that he did this?
A – I see what you are getting it. "I took the photo but did not send it" comes perilously close to "I didn’t inhale." And now, having inhaled pot in one’s youth does not even raise an eyebrow, much less disqualify one from office, as President Obama has proven. So will the same be said for "sexting" a few years from now?
I doubt it, at least in the case of Rep. Wiener. Politicians may get a pass for other recklessness, but our tolerance for sexual indiscretion while in office has been decreasing with each shocking new revelation (see my recent diatribe on "Men Behaving Badly") .
The analogy to Clinton that works best here is less his alleged use of marijuana and more his exploitation of Monica Lewinsky. The use of an illegal drug potentially harms only the individual using it, but the exploiting of another human being as an object for instant sexual gratification harms at least three parties: the user, the sex object and the user’s betrayed family.
If Weiner were not married, the act of sexting probably would not disqualify him permanently from public trust, just as, in a more quaint age, he wouldn’t have been eternally scarred for passing around issues of "Playboy" or contraband copies of "Lady Chatterly." I’m not thrilled that sexting, which had become shockingly common among teens over the past few years, has now spread to adults. But while the scale has increased exponentially, titillation is still titillation, the human body is still the human body and boys will be boys. We’re not going to stop it, so it’s best to focus on those cases where there are clear victims.
There are all types of infidelity, and as President Clinton discovered, many transcend the narrow definitions of sexual contact. Even physical proximity is not a prerequisite. Close office friendships involving the exchange of intimate marital details could be considered "emotional infidelity." Lawyers consider sexting to be a form of infidelity but not grounds for divorce, because, as one lawyer said to Fox news, "In this day and age, cheating is as prevalent as breathing."
I would have trouble trusting the type of person who can’t keep his privates private, whether in person or on camera. Personally, I prefer self portraits to be above the waist. Weiner can repair the damage, though, by following the path of teshuvah (repentance) laid out in Jewish tradition, by relinquishing the sin, confessing with a broken heart, and demonstrating sincere remorse. And it wouldn’t hurt if he began by telling the truth.
Eventually we’ll figure out how to rein in these new freedoms, much as happened with the Pill. After unleashing a national orgy that lasted well into the ’70s, we began to figure out how to use this new freedom responsibly. That is beginning to happen right now with social networking, and the Weiner case, for all its humorous overtones, is sending a key message to all those young and married Beltway wannabees considering zapping lewd photos of their private parts:
Keep your zip drive zipped.