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The Slut-Shaming of Anthony Weiner

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What would it look like to slut shame a middle-aged, heterosexual man? The Anthony Weiner scandal is giving us a clue.

After all, when women are slut shamed, they aren’t just being punished for having sex. They’re being punished for sexual desires and acts seen as disturbingly un-feminine. And in the seemingly endless stream of vitriol directed at Weiner, it’s not hard to see a made-for-men analog taking shape, a special form of repugnance that stems from the sense that Weiner’s transgressions are just not masculine enough.

But let’s be clear. I’m not talking about the vitriol directed at Weiner by family values folks or Fox News pundits (or anyone really who can say the word “fornication” with no trace of irony).

I’m talking about the invective coming from people I turn to for reasoned thinking on matters of gender and sex. The ones who recognize that, even though marital infidelity sucks, it can’t be a litmus test for public office because then we’d be hard up for candidates. The ones who gave Clinton a pass—critiqued him, perhaps, but eventually sighed and signed the petition that made MoveOn a “thing.” These are people who don’t bat an eye at consensual kink; who favor sex education in schools; who as a rule, I suspect, would love to make it a crime to stand before any legislative assembly and use the term “legitimate rape.”

These people are my people. But they’re confusing me right now. Because under all their scathing condemnation of Weiner, I sense a deeply buried mess of sexist logics.

Consider Salon’s Mary Elizabeth Williams, who writes often and persuasively from an explicitly feminist position.

Intriguingly, Williams has made her peace with former New York governor Eliot Spitzer. Indeed, she’s glad to know he calls himself a feminist. And why not? The term “feminist” is so very amorphous, reasons Williams, it’s hard to say who belongs. Plus which, we’ve just lost Susan Sarandon, so we could use an extra (deep) voice in the chorus right now.

No matter to Williams that Spitzer reportedly got rough with sex workers who don’t engage in rough trade. She sees no clear-cut harm in that. Possibly the only unfeminist thing a man can do to a prostitute, Williams speculates, is prosecute her—not beat her up.

No matter to Williams either that Spitzer reportedly refused to wear condoms. (Indeed, he reportedly refused so firmly with so many women that his long-time Madam was forced to drop him as a client.) Sure, you could look at condoms as a central, life-and-death issue for sex workers, and for unsuspecting spouses. You could even view sexual protection as part and parcel of a sex worker’s human right to health. Then again, like Williams, you could decide it’s a little too frivolous to mention.

Do these things disqualify Spitzer as a feminist? Who knows! Williams muses, but probably not. In the end, she assures us, it’s really the same kind of question as whether you can be a feminist “if you dress your daughter in pink.”

But don’t mention the name Anthony Weiner to Mary Elizabeth Williams. Not unless you’re braced for a non-stop stream of invective. Spitzer is a feminist—right on! But Anthony Weiner? Weiner is a “predatory jerk with a bulge,” a “class-A narcissist” whose actions “suggest an unnervingly escalating level of compulsive behavior.” Because Anthony Weiner . . .  Anthony Weiner . . .

Anthony Weiner did what exactly?

Now, let’s remember what we’ve taken off the table. We’re not prudes here; we get that sex is raucous and comes in fifty shades these days. As for marital infidelity—we don’t like it, but we’re mature enough to look away and let the spouses work it out. We do hate when politicians lie, but then again we’re okay with a little lying sometimes (like, say, the quantum of lying equal to Clinton’s denial of “sexual relations,” or the sum of all the little bits of lying Spitzer must have done over the years to protect his paid sex habit).

So what did Weiner do that makes stand-up feminists like Williams—as well as so many of my stand-up feminist friends—nearly apoplectic?

He sent sexy texts to adult women who also sent sexy texts to him.

He had no power over these women. He didn’t work with them; he wasn’t the source of their rent money; he couldn’t have tried to get rough with them physically because he never, you know, actually met them. If any of them wanted to get Weiner out of their lives, all they had to do was block his cell, or unfriend him, or just quit following him on Twitter.

It looks like Weiner did send one explicit photo of himself, the infamous boyshorts bulge, to a woman who had never expressed sexual interest. A gross affront to be sure, with emphasis on gross. But barring new information, it looks like Weiner stopped after one and apologized—which is, take note, pretty much the opposite of escalation. As for the pic in question, it was less pornographic than the average Calvin Klein ad.

Rep. Anthony Weiner Admits To Tweeting Lewd Photo, LyingIt may be the worst we can say about Weiner (once we’ve taken off the table all those things like infidelity and sex-related lying that lefties routinely take off the table when discussing cheating, male politicians) is that Carlos Danger was a totally dorky choice of names—and manifestly unfair to Latinos.

If you’ve been brave enough to read whatever leftover Weiner tweets attorneys have failed to get scrubbed from various internet sites, you’ll know that Carlos Danger is not a creative sexter. He’s certainly no romantic, and his prime ask from a sexting partner appears to be copious amounts of praise for his beloved One-Eyed Carlito.

Also, sometimes? Weiner’s longings sound kind of sad.

Just like all our human longings sometimes do.

It’s curious. Mary Elizabeth Williams is flush with anger over the slut shaming of women who sexted Weiner, but she’s part of the chorus hating on him with abandon for doing the very same lust-addled, cyber things those women did—and for doing them in contexts far less lopsided, power-wise, than the contexts we’ve all apparently forgiven Clinton and Spitzer for doing some actually physical, lust-addled things in.

What’s more, my FB feed is telling me, Williams is far from alone.

So here’s my working theory, my way of making sense of it all. Weiner’s badness wasn’t any more bad than the badness of men we give a pass. The real problem is that Weiner’s badness just wasn’t manly enough.

Let’s face it. Spitzer did bad in such a normative way, with bucketsful of self-entitled confidence and a piquant hint of violence. Lord help us all, but apparently a man like that is particularly easy to forgive, even for feminists.

That’s because Spitzer’s brand of sexy acting out feels familiar to us. It’s routine. Perhaps if Weiner had merely accepted nude pics from women, we’d all have MovedOn by now—because what straight man hasn’t gotten off on looking at sexy images of women?

But those mini-me selfies of Weiner’s? They really stick in the collective craw. Men sending explicit pics of themselves to women may be an everyday occurrence in the world of online affairs, but it’s still shockingly new in the annals of hetero sex, and we haven’t quite figured out what box of human behaviors to put it in. It makes us think of flashing. Yet it’s certainly nothing like flashing, where a perp controls the place and time and length of the exposure.

Just the opposite: it’s a remarkably vulnerable act.

Indeed, it tends to make Weiner look weak . . . sexually eager . . . not particularly manly at all.

And deep down, I think, that’s really what’s driving our special repugnance for Weiner, what leads us to suspect something ultra-creepy in his deeds—even if, objectively speaking, his deeds were far less dismissive of women’s lives and bodies than the deeds of men we routinely forgive.

In any event, I floated this theory via Facebook, and the responses were utterly revealing.

One smart, tenured professor of English—a woman who teaches Cultural Studies—derided Weiner as laughable and sexually clueless, since no woman could ever be turned on by photos of a hard, substantial cock. “I don’t know of any woman anywhere who wouldn’t laugh out loud at a dick pic,” she wrote. “There’s nothing erotic about them. Weiner’s problem isn’t that he seems immoral; it’s that he looks ridiculous.”

Another woman, a highly educated stay-at-home mom with deep, feminist convictions, suggested that showing a woman your penis is pretty much always harassment, even if the woman (actually, truly) asked for them. Now, on the face of it that’s an old-school, anti-porn kind of take. I get it. But tellingly enough, this woman didn’t cast Weiner as macho aggressor. She just wailed on his lack of manliness, calling him “juvenile,” “lame,” “insecure.” And she seems to agree with the professor that he’s sexually clueless:

“It’s something I would expect a junior high schooler to do . . . to be insecure enough to want/need approval and to think that’s the kind of thing that’s sexy.”

If a woman politician had done this, maybe we’d forgive her. Maybe we’d be up in arms at the attempts to shame her repeatedly over the raw evidence of her sexuality, her willingness to show off parts of her body and write dirty things for men who wanted to see and read. (Though sadly I suspect we’d be particularly quick to forgive her if she wasn’t enjoying it so much as attempting to please a man like Spitzer—a man who isn’t “ridiculous,” “juvenile,” “lame,” “insecure” and sexually clueless. . . in brief, the kind of man we like in political life.)

But if a heterosexual man texts and talks dirty and gets off on showing his body to partners who claim it actually turns them on? Well, ugh.

That man is clearly a slut.

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First image by Flickr user Caligra Phuck


Roz Galtz is a Brooklyn-based researcher/writer who focuses on issues of environment and social justice--and also sometimes sex and dating. She is a former Fulbright scholar with a PhD in Sociology and a JD in Environmental Law who paints sentimental pictures of birds and small mammals in her spare time. She decided to be a feminist at age 9, and Susan Sarandon hasn't changed her mind. More from this author →