The private lives of public people

By Dan Delmar on March 25, 2010

Over one decade after American conservatives tried to demonize oral sex in the oval office, public figures are still being unfairly chastised for behaviour that should have remained private; behaviour that likely has no negative impact on their roles as politicians or professional athletes; behaviour that, while not admirable, is completely natural and may understandably result from attaining a certain level of success. 

The tawdry behaviour to which I refer, this unforgivable sin that destroys careers and humiliates men is, of course, sex! Dirty, immoral, forbidden sex; more specifically, of the extra-marital variety, which is still seen as a violation of public confidence. Two notable cases of late are those of golfer Tiger Woods and Toronto politician Adam Giambrone. Both have had their careers derailed, perhaps permanently, because they were not faithful to their partners. Details of the affairs were slowly unveiled to a voyeuristic, sex-starved public, like a leggy blonde performing a striptease for a group of rabid Tokyo businessmen. 

The sins – and I use that term in jest – are fairly common and impertinent. Much of the outrage surrounding the scandals may have something to do with a fascination for sex lives more exciting than our own; it borderlines on jealousy. Arguments that an individual’s infidelity points to more grave abuses in his professional domain are merely red herrings to justify the scrutiny afforded to emails, text messages and other titillating details that media are all too eager to report as news. 

Some of the outrage is surely genuine; at least when it’s coming from religious fundamentalists who hold public figures to a higher standard, a holy standard. Some Republicans sincerely believed that Bill Clinton was not fit for office because he cheated on his wife, eight years of economic prosperity be damned. Years later, of course, it was revealed that some of these same Republicans also cheated on their spouses, a few with members of the same sex! If there is a God, he is surely taking note of those double-sins. Some did hard drugs, hired prostitutes and tried to solicit sex across airport toilet stalls. But it was Clinton who received the most scrutiny for his transgressions. Leaders on the religious right never fail to demonize people whose sexual impulses are brought to the fore to distract from their own deviances, resulting from lifetimes of repression and restraint.  

Text messages from Woods to his pornstar mistress, on top of being hilariously entertaining, are actually providing some insight into the man’s character. They point to an obsession with keeping his many dalliances secret, for fear of ruining business deals, “ruining his life.” Yet the affairs and the sexting persist, and the messages suggest that he has a sense of entitlement when it comes to sex. He clearly enjoys humiliating and degrading his partners. Men with fame, riches and power quite commonly engage in kinky sex, if for no other reason than they can easily find partners who are all too willing to accommodate their every fetish. Is Woods the only public figure to privately “hold you down while I choke you and fuck that ass that I own?” Of course not. Let’s not be so naïve. 

Stories of public figures, particularly politicians, engaging in all kinds of behaviour deemed to be lewd are routinely the subject of gossip among journalists and the political class, but rarely publicized. It has been said that great men have great appetites, and given the pressures of public life, that can hardly be surprising. Did some prominent Canadian politicians frequent an underground brothel? Did a former Premier enlist the services of a dominatrix? Did a media tycoon financially support a mistress for decades? These are all questions that may never be answered, and rightfully so. Even if the answers were, ‘yes,’ there is no reason to believe it would have any impact on public policy. It would only serve as news-pornography, killing otherwise distinguished careers.

That might be the fate in store for Giambrone, a Toronto city councillor and head of the Transit Commission, who was a candidate for the mayoralty. Instead of laughing off calls for him to bow out of the race because he cheated on his girlfriend and telling media to stay out of his personal affairs, Giambrone beat everyone to the punch, hanging himself by acknowledging the infidelities publicly and deciding that he could no longer pursue the top job. It was a rare absurdity in Canadian politics; a seemingly bright, young rising star, ruining his own career before columnists and pundits on moral high horses could do it first.

Have we learned nothing from the Clinton-Lewinsky fiasco, how it monopolized the public discourse and distracted America from critical policy issues (notably, healthcare reform)? Judging from all the unjustified outrage surrounding the Woods and Giambrone affairs, it does not appear as if we have advanced one iota with regard to our collective attitude toward sexuality. 

We still feel the need to look down on the Woods and Giambrones of the world who, through their infidelities, have somehow let us down. Woods didn’t simply cheat on his Swedish model wife, he cheated on all of us and all of our children who foolishly looked to him as a leader in the domain of morality and purity. That is part of the reason why some of us are so disappointed; because we idolize other human beings more fortunate than us and we are bewildered when it is revealed that they too have fairly common character flaws. Scolding these men for an act that is committed in, according to estimates, 30 to 60 per cent of marriages is unfair and irresponsible. Calling them liars for trying to keep information that anyone would want to remain private, private, is completely childish. And no, just because someone denies that he is cheating on his wife, doesn’t mean that he will lie about matters that actually affect his constituents or his fans. If there is one lie that a married man should tell, to protect his wife and children, it is the infidelity lie. 

Monogamy is difficult, especially for powerful men with attractive options. It is not our place to condemn nor condone their indiscretions. It is not our place to even know of the indiscretions to begin with. But, in an internet age where information is evermore plentiful and salacious, details leaking out regarding Woods’ penchant for rough anal sex and golden showers are inevitable. As consumers of media, it is then our role to put sex in its rightful place: In the bedroom. Or in Tiger’s case, the fire escape of the Hyatt Lodge in Oak Brook, Illinois.  As Churchill said, “Great men have great faults.”

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