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Archive for June, 2011

Now we know why Anthony Weiner tweeted his wang: his inner ape/caveman made him do it.

Funny how when reporters are trolling for “expert” sources on sex, evolutionary psychologists seem to be their first stop. They could consult some of us gender studies types, but they don’t have us on speed-dial. Anyway, I wouldn’t be able to give them a pat explanation, because I think that masculine sexual entitlement isn’t the whole story. We all have an unruly id. Men aren’t the only folks playing at sex on the Internet. Every hetero man playing around in the vast cyber sex emporium is interacting with female partners (or at least, so he thinks). I do think it’s true that a congresswoman who’d sent naked coochie pix would be shamed even more ferociously than Weiner. For both genders, though, sex is messy – emotionally, physically, and now technologically. Sex is humiliating when it’s reduced to screen shots, and that goes for all genders. Maybe someone like Gail Dines could reduce the Weiner saga to a tale of female victimization, but I tend to think that she, too, would see more nuance and complexity. (Echidne, for one, delivers on the nuance beautifully. So does Lilith at Evil Slutopia.)

The ev psych crowd, by contrast, provides the sort of soundbites that practically write the article for you. Consider Jeana Bryner’s piece, “Sex, Lies, and Weiner,” at LiveScience:

“I don’t think that people really take into account an accurate sense of just how risky a text message or a little picture is,” said Daniel Kruger, evolutionary psychologist at the University of Michigan. “There are probably a hundred different things they’re doing in their day.” …

From an evolutionary perspective, men are here to sow their seeds, so a sexual transgression here and there would make sense. They desire more sexual partners, and even lower their standards when it comes to one-night stands, studies have shown.

“The ultimate currency here is reproductive success and if there’s an opportunity for sex that is a goal that is worthy of such a risk,” Kruger said. …

This evolutionary urge, combined with modern technology that lets a person send off a note or photo to anyone in the ether, takes such risk-taking to a new level.

(Read the complete article here; note that the ellipses are mine.)

Here’s the kicker, though. Weiner’s chances of “sowing his seed” through social media were precisely nil. He took his bouncing bulge into the shower, from whence his seed could at best fertilize a female rat. His chats with blackjack dealer about a junket to Las Vegas sound like empty flirting, not serious trip planning.

It’s a basic tenet of standard evolutionary psychology that men’s sexual behavior is oriented toward fertilizing as many women as possible. That’s of course not synonymous with reproductive success, anyway, given that human offspring are uniquely vulnerable for an extraordinarily long time, and so “paternal investment” – sticking around to help raise the baby – actually amplifies a man’s chance of having his spawn live until adulthood.

But even if we ignore the importance of paternal investment in offspring, there’s a bigger gap in the ev psych explanation of Weinergate. Mainstream practitioners of ev psych systematically avoid theorizing about pleasure. It’s all about “reproductive success.” And yet, the quest for pleasure is by far the more parsimonious explanation for Weiner’s actions. What’s more, it even explains his partners’ actions! Weiner and his partners were looking to get off. They wanted the thrill of being wanted. They enjoyed the thrill enough to risk (or repress) the potential for embarrassment, should they be caught out. Of course it’s true that Weiner, as a congressman, had more to lose, but the women have also been dragged through the mud in ways that were foreseeable. They, too, took a risk.**

But that interpretation evidently isn’t as, well, sexy, since it presumes that men and women don’t come from Mars and Venus. They come from Earth. And they like getting earthy together, even if only virtually. Men and women both willingly take risks for the sake of pleasure. That’s actually quite a stunning story in the hands of an imaginative reporter who’s not cowed by the new dogma of ev psych. (Calling Natalie Angier?)

**(With the possible exception of Meagan Broussard, who provided pictures to Breitbart, including the sole copy of the cock-shot that Breitbart swore he wouldn’t release until … well, until it was no longer a useful chip in his little game of blackmail. Broussard may well have had motives that I’d consider much baser than pleasure.)

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It’s true I didn’t friend Anthony Wiener on Facebook, but I did follow him on Twitter. His voting record on feminist and LGBT issues is impeccable. That adolescent picture of him on Twitter? To die for! Weiner is funny and self-deprecating, in a profession where the ability to laugh at oneself is rare.

So I followed Weiner (even though I follow very few folks on Twitter). And one day, in the midst of congressional horse-trading (uterus-trading??) on Planned Parenthood, I boldly tweeted him this:

I didn’t call him my boyfriend, straight up. Just a simple declaration of love! Nor did I keep tweeting him. Nor did I look him up on Facebook (much less call him my boyfriend there). But I could have! Just look at the guys I’ve called my boyfriend on or off line. Jon Stewart. Stephen Colbert. Hugh Laurie. Our school’s superintendent (as documented for Internet-posterity on this here blog). And, in fact, Anthony Weiner joined this boy-harem of mine after the White House Correspondent’s Dinner. Good thing the tomatoes on my Twitter icon only give a glimpse of my face. Had I displayed my true hottness, who knows? I might have become sext-partner seven.

When the scandal broke, I thought it was complete bunk. I mean, Breitbart! BREITBART!! The man is a sleazy, lying, slimewad on a stick. The most pernicious consequence of this scandal won’t be that we lose a strong progressive voice in Congress and cable TV (though that seems inevitable, and lamentable, in the short run). It’ll be the rise in Breitbart’s fortunes.

Breitbart has made a career thus far of slinging political spaghetti against the wall and hoping it will stick. Unfortunately, his spaghetti has not been made of good ole North Dakotan durum wheat. It consists entirely of fecal matter. With each lob of it, he has discredited himself further. Even the mainstream media was starting to see through his tricks, and that’s saying a lot.

Until now. Much like the National Enquirer, which booked a permanent gain in credibility when it busted John Edwards hiding an affair and a child, Breitbart just scored. From here on out, no matter what vile lie Breitbart propagates, the media won’t dismiss him as a liar and propagandist. Breitbart comes out of this a huge (and undeserving) winner.

As for Weiner, considering that his missteps were private and (as far as we know) legal, I’m glad he’s refusing to resign. Those conservatives lawmakers who call him “creepy” forget about their own David Vitter, still a senator after being busted with a DC prostitution ring, engaging in clearly illegal activity and allegedly donning a diaper to boot. They ignore the fact that sexuality is changing. For young people – as well as those immersed in the new social media – sexting is not a kink but merely a new way to express one’s sexual impulses.

I suspect that Weiner truly believed that his activity was really just “frivolous.” That somehow, because it took place in cyberspace, it wasn’t real. Fidelity to one’s marital partner is one of the few values on which most Americans agree, and yet many of us fail to live up to our ideal. People seem to reconcile lapses in one of two main ways: 1) “This isn’t real because it’s online/at a conference/with someone I could never love” – or 2) “Yes, this is wrong, but my life will be hollow without some pleasure to relieve the drudgery and self-abnegation of my daily life.” I’m guessing that Weiner falls into the first group. I also suspect that these two rationalizations are gendered, with men tilting toward #1 and women toward #2, with lots of exceptions, of course. (Readers, if you have other interpretations – or other theories about how people rationalize infidelity – I’d love to hear them.)

In the end, it’s up to Weiner’s wife, Huma Abedin, to decide what Weiner’s online dalliances mean. She’s the one person who has been seriously wronged here. She didn’t give him carte blanche to flirt with women online and send them pictures of Weiner’s weiner at full staff. While it’s true that some people have open relationships, that’s a moot point here (and Amanda Marcotte only creates a distraction by bringing it up). Weiner and Abedin obviously did pledge monogamy; otherwise, why the public apology to her? I applaud Abedin’s refusal to perform the aggrieved wife for the ravenous gossip machine, and I hope she’ll find future happiness, whether through a fresh start or through Weiner making amends.

But it’s silly to say that the public at large was victimized by Weiner’s conduct. I can’t get too worked up about Weiner lying to the media and the country about entirely private behavior. I can’t even care much about whether he sexted during “work hours” because congresscritters – like professors – are rarely truly off the clock. If the public is screwed, it’s due to the power of special interests and corporations in Washington, not Weiner’s private fantasies.

The other genuine victim here is the final recipient of Weiner’s sexy tweets, college student Gennette Cordova, who appears not to have invited any sort of sexual attention. She has my compassion, too. She didn’t ask for the media circus. If indeed Weiner sent her his famous crotch photo out of the blue, then it’s harassment and a demonstration of sexual entitlement that clashes with Weiner’s perfect congressional record on women’s issues.

To my mind, though, there’s reasonable doubt that Weiner really sent that photo to Cordova. As Joseph Cannon argues, the only way to make the scandal go away was to confess to the real dalliances. (Via here.) Having admitted those indiscretions, it would be difficult for Weiner to argue credibly that he hadn’t sent Cordova his underwear shot. Cannon has explained the evidence for a third party having uploaded the picture to Twitter. Moreover, Breitbart evidently has possession of a photo of a naked, erect Weiner, which means – as Cannon again notes – Breitbart can essentially blackmail Weiner. Cannon can’t (yet) prove his case, but I think it’s plausible.

In addition, sending a sexy photo without prior contact completely breaks the pattern. With his consensual partners, Weiner first made conversation and flirted. Only after establishing a flirtation did he proceed to send them pictures. The fact that those flirtations escalated quickly and even recklessly shows that Weiner had developed a comfort level with sexually-charged online relationships. As one of his partners, Megan Broussard, said, “This is something that’s regular, he’s done all the time, he’s comfortable.” But sending women photos without prior flirtation was not his regular modus operandi. Add to that the fact that a gaggle of conservatives were gunning for him on Twitter, and Weiner’s confession regarding Cordova looks ever more contrived.

Weiner’s other sext-buddies, including Broussard, appear to have been completely consensual. But the now-public evidence for this raises other troubling questions. His entire Facebook exchange with a Las Vegas woman, Lisa Weiss, has been reprinted at a gossipy site called Radar. How did these screen shots become public in the first place? Were they captured when Weiner’s account was hacked (as he claimed a few weeks ago)? Was Weiss coerced or paid or even blackmailed? How secure are everyone’s Facebook transactions?

The other question is why women have now “come forward” to describe details of their consensual relationships with Weiner. What induced them to do so? They will be subjected to slut-shaming in the media.Private details of their fantasy lives have been made public. Why is Broussard giving interviews to ABC news? Is it really, as she claims, to shield her toddler daughter? As a parent, I don’t buy it. At three, her daughter is too young to understand any of this, and she won’t be protected Broussard releasing oodles of photos and electronic messages – quite the opposite. So is Broussard just responding to our reality-TV culture and grabbing her 15 minutes of fame? Could she, too, have been a target of blackmail?

Above all, how did Breitbart get his paws on compromising private photos in the first place?

The end of the FB conversation between Weiner and Lisa Weiss indicates machinations to put these women under pressure. This section of their chat is not reproduced as screen shots at Radar, but is included at the very end of the pdf transcript:

So yeah, Weiner behaved stupidly. He committed a breach of private ethics. He hurt his wife. He left himself open to the machinations of his enemies. He was so reckless, even I could have become one of his Facebook girlfriends.

But behind the scandal is a problem of bigger proportions: right-wing propagandists who have already shown no compunction about lying and now prove willing to stoop to blackmail and coercion. Weiss writes: “someone contacted me about u …” Who is that someone? Breitbart? Drudge? One of the wingnut Twitter conspiracists who were out to destroy Weiner? (See also a similar article at the NYT if you want a “respectable” take on these Twitspiracists. They look no better there.)

This right-wing smear machine – and not Weiner’s dick pics – is what constitutes a real threat to democracy.

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