Sex at Dawn

Exploring the evolutionary origins of modern sexuality

3 Kinds of Ignorance Leading to Weinergate

On the inevitability of pixilated penises.

The offending appendage
Much as I'd like to avoid the whole Weiner fiasco, people keep asking, so here's my take on it. Before I get into what this situation may or may not say about him, a word about what it says about American culture. The image that launched a million blog posts appears at left. When that image of what appears to be a penis inside underwear was shown on NBC Nightly News, IT WAS PIXILATED! One would think the presence of the underwear obscured the beast enough, but no, computer enhancement was required as well. Think of the children...

 

To me, three types of ignorance/misunderstanding characterize this situation and others like it:

1. Lack of self-knowledge. "To thine own self be true..." But this requires knowing the self, which demands a continuing process of maturation. Many men, Anthony Weiner among them, seem to get trapped at an adolescent stage of sexual development, even as many other aspects of their personality may flourish and mature. Adolescence is a torturous time for many young men, in that every fibre of their being demands sexual fulfillment, but such fulfillment lies years into the future-if ever. A fifteen year old boy, despite his pimples, braces, and all-around dorkiness is a veritable sex machine (Yes, I speak from experience!). Half a dozen orgasms a day could easily-and gratefully-be achieved by many boys that age. Alas, all that erotic capacity often twists into frustration which can manifest as self-hatred (think, Catholics), misogyny (a hatred for women who could have given him what he wanted so badly, but didn't-think, Taliban and Christian fundamentalists), and/or a perpetually adolescent approach to sexual behavior when women finally become available (think, most other men in the U.S. and other erotophobic cultures).

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Take another look at Anthony Weiner's Twitter photo in light of this theory: it's him as a hopelessly dorky adolescent whom, I think we can assume, wasn't getting much in the way of sexual satisfaction. His point is to self-effacingly say, "Look how far I've come!" And yet, sadly, he really hasn't-at least as far as sexual sophistication goes.

As a society, we have little awareness of the pain we inflict on our adolescents who are biologically at their most sexual, but operate in a social context of denial and shame. None of this is unconnected to the facts that adolescent boys are, by far, the group most likely to commit acts of violence against themselves and others.

I have a friend who spent several years living in near-starvation conditions due to a civil war when she was young. Now, four decades later, she can't bear to throw food away. She walks out of cafes with sugar packets in her pockets, and stuffs her purse with bread, even at expensive restaurants. She's a medical doctor in no danger of starving, but after fixating on food for those years, she can't pass it up even now. Men like Weiner, Clinton, Spitzer are like that about sex.

2. Some men, being turned on by images of women's genitals, project this appetite onto women, thus assuming women are turned on by images of men's genitals. But they're not. Yes, there are always exceptions to any rule-even this one-but by and large, women are not impressed by crotch shots and find these "revelations" creepy.

3. While nobody can claim that Clinton, Spitzer, or Weiner are anything other than savvy, highly intelligent men, they all appear to have a huge blind spot in their understanding of how power functions. All of them dared to challenge very powerful interests (Weiner was demanding that Clarence Thomas recuse himself from cases that clearly present conflict-of-interest with his wife's paid lobbying firm), and yet they seem to have ignored the forces arrayed against them. I'm reminded of the Robert Duvall character in Apocalypse Now, standing tall on the battlefield while incoming mortar shells explode all around him and other (lesser? wiser?) men duck for cover. Sometimes, those brass balls will get you into trouble! Only a fool hands his enemies a loaded weapon.

The only other point I'd like to make about this is that anyone making assumptions about this being a betrayal of his marriage or of his wife is flying blind. We know nothing of his wife's opinions on this and no, it's not accurate to claim, as many have, that "any woman would be disgusted by this behavior." Weiner's wife is a practicing Muslim, a religion that allows a significant amount of wiggle-room where sexual behavior is concerned. It's quite possible that their marriage includes "an understanding." If so, such an understanding could specify that he's free to flirt with women as long as he doesn't actually have physical sex with them. If so, Weiner has not betrayed his wife or their marriage. Every marriage is different. Outside observers are wrong to assume we know what's acceptable within a private relationship.

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I haven't even mentioned the depths of journalistic and political hypocrisy on full display around this brouhaha. Glenn Greenwald puts it perfectly, writing:

Reporters who would never dare challenge powerful political figures who torture, illegally eavesdrop, wage illegal wars or feed at the trough of sleazy legalized bribery suddenly walk upright -- like proud peacocks with their feathers extended -- pretending to be hard-core adversarial journalists as they collectively kick a sexually humiliated figure stripped of all importance.  The ritual is as nauseating as it is predictable.

Greenwald's full piece is well worth a read.

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Christopher Ryan, Ph.D., is co-author of Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality (HarperCollins 2010).

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