“My gorgeous wife,” the white pastor says, going on a bit too much about how beautiful she is or even, if he’s more of a Driscoll-ish pastor, about how “sexy” she is. After Talladega Nights filtered into the white evangelical subculture, some pastors even weirdly latched onto the “my red-hot smokin’ wife” joke used in that 2006 Will Ferrell comedy.*
Thankfully, most pastors don’t do this, but quite a few did and still do — as do lots of male CEOs and politicians. And it’s almost always painfully awkward for almost everyone involved. That awkwardness is intensified because it causes you to instinctively glance over at the pastor’s poor wife who is usually wincing through the ordeal. Sometimes the pastor will acknowledge this, making it out to be a running gag between them by saying, “She hates it when I do this.” And he’ll grin mischievously because he’s sure that, deep down, she secretly likes it when he does this, no matter how many times she tells him to stop.
It’s possible, of course, that he’s right — that she doesn’t really hate it when he does that. Maybe she’s as enthusiastically into this whole bit as he is, and maybe this is a little ritual that they share equally in the pleasure of. That’s possible, and where that’s true, I suppose, no harm, no foul. If she’s OK with that, then there’s no reason I shouldn’t also be OK with that.
But it often seems like she’s not OK with that — that she really does hate it when he does this, and wishes he would stop, and is only hanging in with the whole bit because he’s kind of bullied her into it, every time. And that’s just skeevy.
That skeeviness is what I was trying to get at in a recent tweet — posted before full reports of Jerry Falwell’s throuple affair — talking about the “vibe” he often seemed to project:
Ever been at a bar on vacation and then had a slightly off couple sit down next to you and start chatting? They buy you a round of drinks then, at some point, abruptly, the guy segues to "So … do you guys swing?"
Jerry Jr. gives off exactly the same vibe as that guy. https://t.co/1wUxN79LHb
— SlacktivistFred's therapeutic language (@SlacktivistFred) August 20, 2020
If you can’t read that embedded Tweet, it says: “Ever been at a bar on vacation and then had a slightly off couple sit down next to you and start chatting? They buy you a round of drinks then, at some point, abruptly, the guy segues to ‘So … do you guys swing?’ Jerry Jr. gives off exactly the same vibe as that guy.”
This isn’t kink-shaming because the problem with That Guy isn’t that he’s kinky. The skeeviness doesn’t come from That Guy being a swinger, it comes from realizing that he’s utterly unable to recognize whether or not somebody else is. Including, perhaps, his own wife.
It’s skeevy, in other words, for the same reason the pastor’s unironic Ricky Bobby impression is skeevy — because we don’t know if he would know if his wife was really into this too. We cannot trust him to know, or to listen, or to realize if she wasn’t. And if she’s not — if she really does hate it when he does this — then something actually bad and not merely benignly kinky is going on.
“Kink-shaming” is bad because kinkiness is not shameful. What is shameful is forcing, coercing, bullying, or manipulating someone else into participating in your idea of a good time when it’s actually their idea of a Very Bad time. Depending on what all that entails, such coercion and bullying might make you a jerk, or it might make you a rapist.
To clarify what I’m getting at here, let’s consider the examples of two of Jerry Falwell Jr’s colleagues from Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign: the recently pardoned criminal Roger Stone and the likely soon-to-be-pardoned criminal Paul Manafort.
Roger Stone is a pretty kinky guy and he doesn’t care who knows it. I’m pretty sure he’d be insulted if anyone suggested that his sex life or sexual appetites were in any way average or plain vanilla. Back in the ’90s, he and his then-wife placed graphic ads in Swing Fever magazine seeking “similar couples or exceptional muscular, well hung, single men” for threesomes or group sex. This was something they both wanted to do and they were looking for other interested parties who wanted to do it too. Kinky, yes, but also enthusiastically consensual.
There are thousands of reasons to condemn Roger Stone as an awful human being and a pernicious, toxic presence in society, but his kinkiness isn’t one of them.
Paul Manafort — Stone’s longtime business partner in the dictator-defending lobbying firm of Black, Manafort, Stone, and Kelly — is also a really kinky guy, but he doesn’t seem to care about consent. Thanks to his role running Trump’s 2016 campaign, much of Manafort’s private life has come to the public eye, including his “public affair as a sugar daddy to a much younger woman” and his “his membership in BDSM sex clubs.”
That sex-club membership, like the affairs, was extra-marital — a betrayal of his wife. Far worse was the cruel stuff that Manafort forced his wife to be involved in. Maya Gurantz discussed this, as delicately as possible, in an LA Review of Books essay last year, “Kompromat: Or, Revelations from the Unpublished Portions of Andrea Manafort’s Hacked Texts.” But it’s not really possible to discuss this behavior delicately. It involves, as Gurantz summarizes it, “Over a decade of coercive and manipulative sexual behavior, in which Manafort allegedly forced his wife, vulnerable from having sustained brain damage after a near-death horseback riding accident years before, to engage in ‘gang bangs’ with black men while he watched.”
This was something he wanted but she did not, something he bullied and manipulated and coerced her into doing against her will. That’s not kinky. That’s just cruel.
I hope that the distinction here is obvious even to my conservative evangelical cousins who distrust (and often distort) the ethical significance of consent. I appreciate that those folks tend to misapprehend any reference to consent as calls for an “anything goes” ethical free for all. But surely even they can recognize that there’s a huge and important and meaningful moral difference between Mr. & Mrs. Stone sharing in the choice to enjoy what most evangelicals regard as sinful sex and Mr. Manafort coercing his wife to do participate in something she emphatically did not enjoy.
Which brings us back to the Falwells and the “pool boy” and all that we do not know and cannot be sure of about their alleged long-term three-way affair, which began with the couple showering gifts and attention on a then-20-year-old Giancarlo Granda:
Granda said that while he entered into the sexual relationship with the Falwells willingly, today he feels the couple preyed upon him. “Whether it was immaturity, naïveté, instability, or a combination thereof, it was this ‘mindset’ that the Falwells likely detected in deciding that I was the ideal target for their sexual escapades,” Granda said.
Consent is hugely important. It can also be hugely complicated — particularly when more than two people are involved and when the power dynamics are far from equal. This situation made respectful respect for consent exponentially more complex. It’s not necessarily true, as one character on the dark satire The Politician joked, that “The problem with a threesome [is] someone always ends up in tears,” but it’s a likelier outcome if everyone involved isn’t aware of that increased complexity.
Granda believes he willingly agreed to participate in this affair, but that he was also, to some extent, “preyed upon” and manipulated. Perhaps the same could be said of Becki Falwell. Perhaps it was true of Jerry Falwell. It’s even possible — in a kind of sick twist on “The Gift of the Magi” — that it was true of both of the Falwells, that they both felt pressured into going along with something they mistakenly thought was necessary to maintain the other’s affection. Maybe they were both fully into it and just presumed Granda always would be as well. Or maybe they recognized his “immaturity, naïveté, instability” and therefore consciously singled him out as someone they could manipulate.
From where we sit, outside of this arrangement, we can’t know. Maybe this whole affair, this whole time, was free of coercion or bullying or the kind of dismissively “joking” attitude of that pastor saying “she hates it when I do this.”
But maybe not. So while I do not wish to engage in any kink-shaming about this affair, I’ll also withhold any judgement about whether it was just innocently kinky because, from our vantage point on the outside, we do not know if that was the case.
* That movie remains quite popular in white evangelical circles despite its PG-13 rating and despite the fact that it’s often as much of a satire of white evangelicalism as it is of NASCAR. The whole “smokin’ hot wife” bit itself comes from a scene that spoofs white evangelicals’ ideas about who Jesus was.
That same scene from that same movie is also probably the source for the single-word sexual slang “hotwife,” which seems to be specifically pertinent here.