Red Hot Politics

Everyone loves to talk about sex, but Americans make politics out of it


It’s not that the French media doesn’t report on the private lives of their various presidential candidates. Every newspaper stand I passed in Paris this weekend had a series of tabloids speculating on whether President Nicolas Sarkozy’s wife looks disheveled because she has a new lover or merely because she has a new baby. The gossip about current president Sarkozy and once-hopeful Dominique Strauss-Kahn alone gets quite juicy. It’s just that somehow, no matter how scintillating the speculation, the French seem to leave it out of the voting booths. Consider, for example, how socialist candidate François G. G. Hollande lost patience when a reporter asked him about Sarkozy’s love life and immediately turned the discussion towards more public scandals. It was apparently not politically necessary (that is, useful) for Monsieur Hollande to gossip on national television.

In contrast to Sarkozy, Newt L. Gingrich has been battling much harder to get past voter prejudice about his various infidelities and serial marriages. When John King asked him a question about whether he’d asked an ex-wife for an open marriage on national television, he, like Hollande, lost it, saying: “I think the destructive vicious negative nature of much of the news media makes it harder to govern this country, harder to attract decent people to run for public office. I’m appalled you would begin a presidential debate on a topic like that.” But Gingrich's concerns are more serious than those of the French presidential contenders because many political commentators worry that his personal history will keep him lagging behind the more politically liberal Mitt Romney. It’s evident in this race, as in so many, that Americans are preoccupied with the personal peccadilloes of their political leaders in a way that doesn’t reflect concrete political concerns.  Certainly, a politician’s private life reveals his character in many ways, but we focus more readily on private than public offenses. For example, pundits have happily noted that Gingrich led the charge against Bill Clinton’s adultery while undertaking his own. But he faced comparatively little heat for his accepting a large salary for work of a dubious nature from Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae. Why do Americans care more about private hypocrisy than the kind that costs taxpayers millions of dollars?

It’s not just that sex sells and is more fun to talk about than tax policy. (After all, sex is interesting to the French, as well.) It’s not even that it’s what matters most to us—on the contrary, social issues are often voters’ least important concerns. Perhaps it’s that sex is also less confusing to Americans than politics. There is a quiet ignorance and ambivalence about the abstractions and complexities of non-sexual issues. Consider how many Americans confess that they don’t know how they feel about the debt ceiling (37 percent). Thinking about adultery (and contraception and abortion) is easier for Americans, perhaps, because they face personal decisions about these issues every day. We are less certain about how we feel about abstract political issues than sexual ethics, and we transform the latter into identity politics.

This leaves us vulnerable to harboring distorted political concerns. The evangelical Christians that Gingrich’s campaign has fought hard to win over probably are not concerned that his sexual scruples, or lack thereof, will directly affect their lives. Rather, they seek a candidate who represents them, and finding a candidate who shares (or onto whom they can project) their own moral views and aspirations is a bigger priority than creating better policies. It matters more what our politicians seem to say about us than what they do for us.

Our obsession with sex—more specifically, our readiness to immediately identify it as a moral issue in politics—probably explains in part why we so quickly turn to politicians’ sex lives when the time comes to vote. (It might even explain the recent explosion of discussions about contraception, which quickly devolved into argument about how women ought to run their sex lives.) All this is amusing but troubling. Sex is only one moral issue, and we would probably benefit from greater moral clarity about the rest. For that matter, Americans aren’t actually stars at managing their sex lives, yet it remains an issue about which we have strong opinions. How well can we make decisions about things we are less sure about? We are going to need to focus first on how the politicians we elect will affect the country and return to speculating about their bedroom habits later, perhaps once we’ve thoughtfully voted.

Sarah C. Stein Lubrano ’13, a social studies concentrator in Kirkland House, is spending spring 2012 in Cambridge, United Kingdom. Her column appears on alternate Wednesdays.