I weep for Anthony Weiner — not a big, blubbering flood of tears, mind you, but one or two. Picture a Native American contemplating a crumbling ecosystem, and you’ll get the idea.
All the evidence of Weiner’s cyber-flings — the pec-flashing photos released by Andrew Breitbart, the the explcit Facebook messages now in the hands of Radar and the Star — show him doing something that few people can do with real dignity, and that is make love. I use the expression “make love” both in its current sense, meaning “to have sex with,” and in its traditional sense, meaning “to flirt, to pitch woo, to talk someone into the sack.” On cyberspace, the two meet, collide, and stagger off arm-in-arm.
Think about it: only given the physique and stamina of a sex industry professional is it possible to complete the act of coitus in such a way that will favorably impress an audience. For many, approximating the act in words is even harder. It requires not only a lowered set of inhibitions, but also an inventive mind and a facility with words. It also requires a sense of taste and timing that spies the line that separates daring from cheesy. A kind of social IED, this line has a way of concealing and disguising itself until it’s too late — especially, so to speak, in the heat of battle.
As Sandra Tsing Loh writes: “We see talking dirty as a leap across the abyss. If you make it, well, you’ve just saved yourself a lot of time, and had some chuckles in the process. If you don’t, you plummet to a humiliating death.” Think of Prince Charles telling Camilla Parker-Bowles: “I’ll just live forever inside your trousers or something”; or, for that matter, Bill O’Reilly spinning fantasies about showers and brown women. You’ll just have heard the sound of a body going splat.
Another way to say this is that it’s hard to look or sound sexy when you’re actually sexed up, hard to look or sound cool when you’re hot. For many, I suspect, this is the real draw of l’affaire Weiner — not the chance to cluck the tongue at a faithless husband, but the chance to giggle at a middle-aged man making like Tarzan. God, what a dork.
A friend of mine — a woman of deep mind and great heart — recently told me, “Those pictures of Weiner shirtless really skeeve me out. I have no fondness for sickeningly skinny men.” An honest response and a reasonable response. Weiner might just have a build and a cyber-sex style that only a lover could love. How many of us could really say differently? Would a shirtless webcam shot of Chris Christie go over any better?
So what indeed. For political candidates, restraint around enticing technology is key when the technology consists of nuclear or chemical weapons. But the internet? To exchange hot text or pictures with a consenting adult? Come on. To put a twist on Andy Warhol’s prediction, soon, many of us will be porn stars or writers of erotica (if we’re not already). Only a few will become famous, but they’ll represent the tip of a very big iceberg.
Now, Ms. Ball complained of sexism, and she may have a point. In certain quarters, any woman spotted in suggestive photos may be judged a slattern. But I would argue that the old double standard has more than two dimensions. If that woman is young and conventionally attractive, she will never look quite so pathetic as a middle-aged man attempting the same feat. The question of whose political fortunes will suffer more is hard to answer in the abstract; there are too many variables to consider. The social penalties for a woman are too arcane for me to weigh — hopefully, some gender insider will help me out. But with those caveats in mind, I argue that to be seen and judged not just wanting but silly, represents a special kind of blow to a man’s sense of manhood.
For a while now, members of the so-called Men’s Movement have been carping that their gender is falling behind — 57% percent of all college undergrads are women; young female professionals earn more than their male counterparts. Me, I’m not completely sure I’m on board — I don’t like viewing relations between the sexes as a zero-sum game. But in holding Weiner up to such elaborate mockery, we have an instance where masculinity really is being devalued. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that much of being a man amounts to a painful series of clumsy attempts at being a man. Once society starts marking men down so brutally for each shortfall, then society will have started thinking like a chick. And when that happens, an awful lot of us will have to throw in the loofah sponge.