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.

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And so now we have. Or sort of—what no one understands are Weiner's motives, such intense stupidity from such a very smart guy. But perhaps the motives, too, are hiding in plain sight? "When you're named Weiner, it goes with the territory." As USA Today reiterated in an article about the name jokes, "With a name like Weiner, it was just a matter of time before the adolescent humor got out of hand." You can't help wondering what it was like growing up with that name, what sort of playground mockery was involved. If the recent media coverage is any indication, it must have been damaging in all sorts of ways—names are our identities. Then why set himself up for a reprise of adolescent humiliation?

According to Stoller, the experience of humiliation plays a larger role in erotic life than we like to think. What looks like risk-taking sexual behavior—exhibitionism is the example he uses—is a way of attempting, unconsciously, to transform those early humiliations into triumphs. The risk taker seeks out dangerous situations as a proving ground, to measure his success in avoiding an even greater risk: humiliation. But what's concealed is far more crucial: the mark that humiliation has left on erotic life. It's a treacherous strategy: The real-life consequences can be devastating. In Weiner's case, rather than converting humiliation into any sort of triumph, he's succeeded only in reliving it, and quite possibly worse.

Still, I'm going to make a sweeping claim: The dialectic between exposure and concealment in the Weiner scandal offers us a way of conceptualizing the ever-growing archive of politician sex scandals—the nonstop parade of highly accomplished men performing acts of breathtaking self-destructiveness in public. Just as it was impossible that a congressman sending lewd pictures under his own name wouldn't soon be exposed, it was impossible that any of the crop of recently humiliated politicians wouldn't be exposed, from Clinton, to Edwards, to Vitter, to Spitzer, and so on. Punishment was inevitable. What we're looking at, in other words, is a species of male masochism.

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But this isn't an individual diagnosis; it's a cultural one. Men being flailed in public has become a dominant trope in our political sphere, with excruciatingly real-life spectacles of self-destruction playing out in the headlines, courtesy of a scandal-hungry media in collaboration with individual propensities for risk-taking and humiliation. And there seems to be no end in sight.

What is it with these guys? Or to put it another way: What does it mean to be a white male in power at this moment in history? In one of the photos Weiner sent to an online pal, he's pointing to himself while holding up a handwritten sign with an arrow pointing to himself, labeled "Me." It's as if he's picking himself out of a lineup.

For what crime? There are so many to choose from. The story of male power has been under revision for some time now. Watching men in power use their positions of power to take themselves down is just the latest twist in a still-unfolding story. Will trauma finally be converted to triumph? It seems not.

Laura Kipnis' new book, How To Become a Scandal, will be out in paperback in September. Her previous books include Against Love: A Polemic, and The Female Thing: Dirt, Sex, Envy, Vulnerability.

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