Bartholomew Foley investigates our infatuation with political sex scandals
For better or worse, we are fascinated by politicians’ sex lives. But God only knows why – the political class are not exactly well known for their exciting private lives or for their physical attractiveness. You seldom hear of a ‘sexy’ politician who isn’t Zac Goldsmith or Chuka Umunna. So why are we so captivated by scandals such as the recent escapades of French President François Hollande? Why are the salacious doings of powerful men and women of such interest? And are they actually of any relevance or importance?
In theory, what an individual does in their private lives is a personal matter, even for those in public office. If their job is unaffected by their libido then what great crisis or genuine importance could come to bear? The evidence, however, does not support this.
Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky is a key example of where a private matter genuinely became a public matter; his impeachment trial was no brush-away problem. Neither was this the case in the Profumo affair, when a British cabinet member was accused of having an affair with a young woman who was simultaneously involved with a Russian naval attaché at the height of the Cold War. The former caused the second impeachment trial of a US president, and the latter arguably led to the fall of a British Conservative government.
Other examples, I will happily admit, are quite humorous. Former Congressman Anthony Weiner has a record that fits this bill: one lewd photo posted to Twitter, one public resignation, two public apologies and six to ten female sexting recipients, none of whom were his wife. Indeed some people do not need help to make their private lives public.
Yet, this does not seem to provide any basis for why we ought to care about sex in politics. How do such sexual doings have any bearing on an individual’s political outlook or direction? Why exactly is sexual intercourse a case of public interest? And what purpose is served by gratifying our curiosity?
In the case of Hollande, British journalists have chastised the French media for their timid enquiries on the goings-on and consequences of his affair. But why bother? Surely in our post-Leveson world this ought to be fodder for tabloids and sketch writers, not the public at large. If the state of a politician’s relationship is a reflection of their capabilities then we’re certainly in a sad state. It seems it is ultimately fascination and not genuine significance that stirs interest in politicians’ sex lives.