And The Lesson That Never Gets Learned
As news stories go, the tale of Congressman Anthony Weiner and his recent online activities seems rather limited. It’s not a story about war, or disease, or a major environmental disaster. But given what it hints at – online sex – there’s little surprise it’s front page news in the U.S.
In a tearful press conference Monday, the six-term New York Democrat admitted to sending provocative photos and exchanging intimate messages with at least six women via online services such as Twitter.
“I’ve made terrible mistakes,” Weiner said, recounting that for several years – before and since marrying his wife Huma Abedin – he had used various social networks like Facebook to meet and start up online relationships with women. Expressing “deep regret” over his actions, Rep. Weiner confirmed a story that he initially denied; namely that he had sent a picture of himself wearing little else than underwear to a college-aged woman in Washington State via Twitter.
When the photograph first emerged last week, the congressman denied it was his picture, saying his Twitter account had been “hacked” by someone clearly trying to make fun of his pun-worthy last name. But his less-than-clear denials only fueled suspicions, for example when he told one news cable network that he couldn’t say “with certitude” whether or not the picture was of him.
Now that the world knows the truth, it’s natural to ask, ‘Why would he do it?’ But the ‘it’ here doesn’t refer to sex; politicians all over the world have been caught in similar scandals. Rather, the question now is ‘Why would he do this on the Internet?’ How could someone as smart as a U.S. congressman get so publicly snarled on Twitter?
It’s been less than six months since another U.S. congressman, Rep. Christopher Lee (R-N.Y.) got caught posting shirtless pictures of himself on the website Craigslist likely in hopes of meeting women. Initially Rep. Lee denied the stories, claimed hacking, eventually told the truth and resigned. The only difference in this case: Rep. Weiner says he intends to remain in office.
Writing this morning in Salon.com, Tracy Clark-Flory has one theory: the Internet. “No, the Internet didn’t make him do it,” she writes, “but I suspect it is a significant factor here, and it’s worth considering how it’s changing the nature of personal fantasy within relationships.”
Human sexuality, Clark-Flory writes, is a very complex thing, difficult even in the best of circumstances. Social codes of “appropriate” behavior ebb and flow, and can take centuries to evolve. But the Internet is so new – and so powerful – that Clark-Flory wonders if humans have yet to really understand how it can affect our wants and desires:
“These rules can be complicated enough in the real world, but in the Wild West of the Web it’s even more so. People pretend to be something they’re not, and share things they never would in-person. What happens online is real, but it also isn’t; it’s whatever you want to believe that it is. Given that, it’s incredibly easy to justify to oneself that online flirtation doesn’t ‘count,’ that it can be categorized within the realm of porn and personal fantasy, as opposed to actual cheating and betrayal – especially when it isn’t actually consummated in person.”
Longtime political observer William Saletan, writing in Slate.com, parses Weiner’s language at his press conference, detailing how the congressman didn’t “cheat” on his wife because he never “met” the women he texted, therefore “wasn’t unfaithful.” Saletan says that story doesn’t add up:
“In the annals of lust and sin, Weiner is just another straying husband. But in the unfolding story of information technology, he’s a milestone worth thinking about. The trajectory of political sex scandals—Clinton, Mark Foley, Kwame Kilpatrick, Mark Sanford, and now Weiner—has taken us from phone sex to chat rooms to sexting to email to Facebook and Twitter. We’re finding new realms in which to wander, meet people, and flirt. You can call these adventures whatever you want to. But we all know what they are. They’re relationships.”
There’s already a lot being written about what Rep. Weiner should or shouldn’t do. Considering this is a “news” story that affects a very few people, we’re not likely to say any more about it.
Except this. Perhaps the best thing that can come from all this is teaching the lesson – for the millionth time – that the Internet is not built for keeping secrets. If you don’t want someone to know something about yourself, don’t put it online.