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

Arts, entertainment, and more.
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.

Advertisement

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.

TODAY IN SLATE

The World

How Canada’s Shooting Tragedies Have Shaped Its Gun Control Politics

Where Ebola Lives Between Outbreaks

Gunman Killed Inside Canadian Parliament; Soldier Shot at National Monument Dies

Sleater-Kinney Was Once America’s Best Rock Band

Can it be again?

Paul Farmer: Up to 90 Percent of Ebola Patients Should Survive

Is he right?

Science

“I’m Not a Scientist” Is No Excuse

Politicians brag about their ignorance while making ignorant decisions.

Technology

Driving in Circles

The autonomous Google car may never actually happen.

In Praise of 13th Grade: Why a Fifth Year of High School Is a Great Idea 

PowerPoint Is the Worst, and Now It’s the Latest Way to Hack Into Your Computer

  News & Politics
The World
Oct. 22 2014 6:30 PM The Tragedies That Have Shaped Canada's Gun Politics
  Business
Continuously Operating
Oct. 22 2014 2:38 PM Crack Open an Old One A highly unscientific evaluation of Germany’s oldest breweries.
  Life
Gentleman Scholar
Oct. 22 2014 5:54 PM May I Offer to Sharpen My Friends’ Knives? Or would that be rude?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 22 2014 4:27 PM Three Ways Your Text Messages Change After You Get Married
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Oct. 22 2014 5:27 PM The Slate Walking Dead Podcast A spoiler-filled discussion of Episodes 1 and 2.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 22 2014 9:19 PM The Phone Call Is Twenty Minutes of Pitch-Perfect, Wrenching Cinema
  Technology
Future Tense
Oct. 22 2014 5:33 PM One More Reason Not to Use PowerPoint: It’s The Gateway for a Serious Windows Vulnerability
  Health & Science
Wild Things
Oct. 22 2014 2:42 PM Orcas, Via Drone, for the First Time Ever
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.