Weinergate: What we can learn about the congressman—and about human sexuality—from his ill-advised photographs.

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June 9 2011 10:28 AM

Why Did Weiner Do It?

What we can learn about the congressman—and about human sexuality—from his ill-advised photographs.

 Rep. Anthony Weiner. Click image to expand.
Rep. Anthony Weiner admits during a press conference sending risque photos

Exhibit A: A photo of a man with an erection thinly concealed behind gray boxer briefs. The photo is obviously taken by the man who is portrayed. He's the auteur—scriptwriter, stage manager, costume designer, and star. Every element in the photo is there by his design.

So what exactly are we looking at? To begin with, at an oscillation between concealment and exposure: The erection is apparent but not fully visible; the body is exposed, but the face isn't. He could have snapped the photo in a mirror, as auto-pornographers often do, but he chose not to, even though he wasn't concealing his identity. Who is this man? Someone for whom excitement is defined by taking risks, and who's staged this performance for that purpose. It wasn't contrived for the ostensible recipient of the photo alone, obviously, or the rest of us wouldn't be looking at it now. In other words, we're watching a performance that turns on a sort of pun: The man is exposing himself to expose himself. (As I write, a new photo sans boxer briefs is making the rounds, upping the stakes even further.) Danger is sutured into the photo. It didn't come later, after the (inevitable) public outing, hasty lies, and eventual mea culpa; it was there all along. As with the erection, the danger was apparent but not fully visible. Let's say it was hidden in plain sight.

How much do we really know about the vast array of oblique purposes to which people apply their erotic capacities, drives, and appetites? Our information sources are limited. The early attempts to catalog the range of sexual variance came largely from psychiatrists and doctors, notably Freud, though as a practicing clinician, his sample group was limited to the cure-seekers who presented themselves at his consulting room door. Later generations of sex researchers widened the data pool with large-scale surveys but were limited by the notorious unreliability of sexual self-reporting. In the supposedly authoritative 1994 survey by the National Opinion Research Center, 64 percent of the male sexual activity reported couldn't be correlated with the female sexual activity—or rather it could if, in a pool of 3,500 responses, 10 different women had each had 2,000 partners they didn't report. In other words, these numbers make no sense. If you're going to investigate sexual behavior, clearly the least effective method is asking the participants.

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Which is why sex scandals are so socially useful—here's a ready-made trove of data about what people really do behind closed doors. So instead of decrying scandal, why not treat it as a research archive? Of course what's here is the raw material: What it all means is left for us to construe. Once again, the participants themselves are useless; when asked to explain themselves, their answers are inevitably bland and generic. As we saw with our latest scandal victim, Anthony Weiner, the above-mentioned auteur. "I don't know what I was thinking," he said, after finally admitting he'd sent the incriminating photos. "This was a destructive thing to do." "If you're looking for some kind of deep explanation for it, I simply don't have one."

Fair enough. Anyone in possession of a libido probably has some experience of the deep fissures between brain and groin, and how carefully these must be monitored to avoid personal catastrophe. Still, the general view is that when the brain suspends operations, it's in the pursuit of pleasure. "I just wasn't thinking" is the customary code for "I decided to stop thinking in order to have some fun." So what are we to make of those who use sex in ways that are guaranteed to produce unpleasure—national humiliation and possible job loss? When we look at the snapshots Anthony Weiner sent his online pals and, indirectly, the rest of us—what are we looking at?

I know what you'll say: at a guy and his erection. But according to psychiatrist Robert Stoller's Observing the Erotic Imagination, which explores the aesthetics of erotic fantasy, every erection tells a story—by erection he means both male and female arousal, by the way. (Women are capable of acting out sexually, too.) An erection isn't a physiological fact alone; it's a narrative event. It's the culmination of a fantasy, comprised of "meanings, scripts, interpretations, tales, myths, memories, beliefs, melodramas, and built like a playwright's plot, with exquisite care, no matter how casual and spontaneous the product appears." Nothing is left to chance: "[E]very detail counts." Even when it seems unplanned or spur-of-the-moment, erotic excitement is a series of aesthetic choices, and we return to them again and again, like a habit.

When the sex photos surfaced last week, and Weiner was still maintaining that his Twitter account had been hacked, he tried to brush the whole thing off as a joke on his name. While denying to CNN's Wolf Blitzer that he was responsible for sending the photos, he repeatedly linked his name to the mysterious hacker's purpose: "When you're named Weiner, this happens a lot." "When you're named Weiner, it goes with the territory." By my count he mentioned his name five times in the space of a four-minute segment. "We have to get to the bottom of this," he added, repeating the sentiment at least six times.

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