I’ve written a version of this column several times before. I think the first one was pre-blogging in a piece on Bill Clinton. Most recently, I wrote a similar blog on Anthony Weiner and John Edwards. Herman Cain is the latest public figure in the long line of men in or seeking public office who have risked their families and careers for sex. In addition to the allegations of sexual harassment that have come to light over the past month or so, a woman is now alleging that she and Mr. Cain had a long-term affair that started over thirteen years ago and ended only when he began his campaign. Surely if the allegations are found to be true, Mr. Cain had to know that they would likely come out during his campaign. Surely he might have remembered what happened to Gary Hart during his run for the Presidency.
There’s not much new about this. There have been many well-known men who have potentially risked everything for a sexual encounter, relationship, or thrill. Think Gary Hart, Marv Alpert, Bill Clinton, Jim Bakker, Jimmy Swaggert, Bill Cosby, Elliot Spitzer, Bill O’Reilly, and Mark Sanford. Mr. O’Reilly and Mr. Cosby continue on with their work and Mr. Spitzer got a TV show; others have not been so lucky.
One can legitimately wonder whether it is appropriate for us to know about politicians private sexual lives, particularly as a qualification for office. While Mr. Cain was denying the affair on CNN, his attorney Lin Wood said just that:
“This is not an accusation of harassment in the workplace—this is not an accusation of an assault—which are subject matters of legitimate inquiry to a political candidate. Rather, this appears to be an accusation of private, alleged consensual conduct between adults—a subject matter which is not a proper subject of inquiry by the media or the public. No individual, whether a private citizen, a candidate for public office or a public official, should be questioned about his or her private sexual life. The public’s right to know and the media’s right to report has boundaries and most certainly those boundaries end outside of one’s bedroom door.”
Sex. Abortion. Parenthood. Power.
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I support that right to privacy, and think that the best answer is, “this is a private family matter that I will not discuss” rather than “I did not have sex with that woman” which only impels the media investigation forward. We already know about Newt Gingrich’s divorcing two wives, one while she was in the hospital, and so his past stays off the front page.
But I also think that in our 24/7 tabloid-driven news cycle people in the public eye, whether politicians, clergy, or celebrities, need to know that nothing is ever really private for them. And more importantly, that a sexually healthy adult understands the difference between sexual behaviors that are life enhancing and those that might be harmful to oneself or other.
Here are some other basic principles for sexually healthy adults. My fantasy would be that every public figure would read them.
Honor your commitments to your partner. A sexually healthy marriage is based on honesty and trust; only you and your spouse know what you have agreed to, but don’t put her in the position of having to stand by you at a microphone while you confess to the entire world. Keep that picture in your head as you are considering your behaviors. I think it is unlikely that Mrs. Cain had agreed to an open marriage or one where her husband could have private dinners and cab rides with a succession of women.
Understand that you can have a sexual feeling without acting on it—without even telling anyone about it. As I have said—if Bill Clinton had thought to himself, “Cute Intern. Too Young, Too Risky” and moved on, he would not have been impeached. If your partner isn’t interested in exploring a particular part of your eroticism with you, the safest thing is to explore it only in the confines of your mind. No one has ended up on the front pages because of a privately held fantasy.
Nothing, really nothing, is ever private between two people. Someone always tells someone. And the less the other person has to lose, the more likely they are to tell more people. In fact, unless it’s your life partner, only have sex with someone who has as much to lose as you do. Sex workers don’t. Neither do women or men in their twenties. And sexual bantering, sexting, tweeting, emailing and Facebook messaging are NEVER private. We tell our teens don’t post anything you don’t want your grandmother to see. To men in public office, don’t post anything you don’t want to see on the front page—anywhere or ever. And as Mr. Cain has just found out, your cell phone history isn’t private either; one has to wonder how he can explain away a 4:30 a.m. phone call to a woman he barely knows.
If there’s a chance that the behavior could cost you your partner, your career, or your reputation, just say no. Visiting a sex club, sexual encounters on the Internet, using a sex worker, having sex with an employee, tweeting a sexual photo, sexting, or soliciting someone in a public bathroom or park: chances are it’s going to land you on the front page and you’ll lose your job or prospects and probably your marriage. It’s even worse if you’ve campaigned or worked against other people’s sexual rights, like Cain’s support for a federal ban on same-sex marriage.
Remember that a moral sexual relationship is consensual, nonexploitative, honest, mutually pleasurable, and protected. Does the relationship meet those criteria? My advice is that if you can’t answer yes to all five of these criteria, just say no. It appears that if this latest allegation is true Cain and this woman were in a long-term consensual relationship. The four women who have brought sexual harassment allegations against him, however, seem to be arguing that their interactions with him were not consensual. And again, I’m guessing that honesty in his marriage about his time with other women may be missing.
Always ask if the behavior is consistent with your values, expressed and internal. If you’re found out, will you be accused of hypocrisy? More importantly, can you live with yourself?
Of course, this ethic applies to all of us, not just people in political power. May we once again be reminded that sexuality is both sacred and powerful, and we need to honor its role in our lives.