Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Governor Sanford Should Have Just Said NO: Sex Education for Politicians

I generally don't blog twice in one day, but Governor Sanford's admission that he was in Argentina having an affair instead of governing this week brought to mind a post that I wrote last year for Huffington Post called "Sex Education for Politicians." With a few minor updates, here's what it said.

Governor Sanford joins the long line of exposes of public figures' sex lives. Many have been heterosexual men who have potentially risked everything for a sexual encounter or thrill. Think Eliot Spitzer, Gary Hart, Marv Alpert, Bill Clinton, Jim Bakker, Jimmy Swaggart, Bill Cosby, and Bill O'Reilly. Mr. O'Reilly and Mr. Cosby continue with their work; others have not been so lucky. It remains to be seen what will happen to South Carolina's governor.

But these men have either forgotten, or never learned, some basic rules for sexually healthy adults. So here they are:

Honor your commitments to your partner. A sexually healthy marriage is based on honesty and trust; only you and your spouse know what you have agreed to, but don't put her in the position of having to stand by you at a microphone while you confess to the entire world. Keep that picture in your head as you are considering your behaviors.

Understand that you can have a sexual feeling without acting on it -- without even telling anyone about it. Think about it -- if Bill Clinton had thought to himself, "Cute intern. Too young, too risky" and moved on, he would not have been impeached.

If your partner isn't interested in exploring a particular part of your eroticism with you, the safest thing is to explore it only in the confines of your mind. Nothing, really nothing, is ever private between two people. Someone always tells someone. And the less the other person has to lose, the more likely they are to tell more people. In fact, unless it's your life partner, only have sex with someone who has as much to lose as you do.

Sexually healthy adults discriminate between sexual behaviors that are life-enhancing -- for themselves and their partners -- and those that could be destructive, of themselves or their partner(s). If there's a chance that the behavior could cost you your partner, career, reputation, just say no. Visiting a sex club, a sex worker, having sex with an employee, taking time off from your job to go to a foreign country without telling your staff how to find you, soliciting someone in a public bathroom or park: chances are it's going to land you on the front page, and you'll lose your job. It's even worse if you've campaigned or worked against other people doing the same things.

Remember that a moral sexual relationship is consensual, nonexploitive, honest, mutually pleasurable and protected. Does the relationship meet those criteria? We don't know much about Governor Sanford, but it sure sounds like he hasn't been honest with his wife. If you can't answer yes to all five criteria, say no.

Always ask if the behavior is consistent with your values, expressed and internal. Let's start with South Carolina's more than $3 million dollar a year commitment to abstinence-only education, Governor, and your party's comments on marriage. Do those lessons only apply to others?

Of course, this ethic applies to all of us, not just people in political power. It's just that other people don't end up on the front page. Bottom line: don't have sexual relationships or engage in sexual behaviors that put your family, your career, and your future at risk. It's basic sex education that everyone needs.


Unknown said...

Beautifully said, Rev. Hafner. Do you think a higher percentage of politicians cheat than people in other lines of work? Is it the hubris that comes with the job? Or is it just the finding-out part? (And frankly, I don't give a rip when I find out about a politician IF that politician hasn't made hypocritical statements. Clinton, gross though he could be, never told us he wasn't a lech, right? Nor do I remember him dissing anyone else's sexual behavior - he was more of a don't ask-don't tell guy.)

Marc Stier said...

Hi Debbie,

I'm been reading you frequently enjoying get to know you again virtually. I should apologize that my first comment is a disagreement when I love so much you write.

But here I think you are missing something important: I don't think adulty is always about sexual desire. In fact I suspect sexual desire, narrowly understood, has little to do with it. Sex, as you know, is connected to so many other goods and the most on is love.

The cautions you put forward are likely to dissuade someone from pursing a fling that is primarily sexual in nature. (And you might have added that great sex is not the usual result in a one night stand.) They won't speak to someone who has found someone who, somtimes, inadvertently comes to touch his or her soul deeply.

Desmond Ravenstone said...

In response to the previous question ... I don't think it's that politicians are more apt to cheat, so much as their lives are more subject to public scrutiny and exposure than most people.

It's also more of a scandal - and a betrayal - because even the most cynical among us hold up political leaders as role models.

And with that in mind ... Let me put forward the case of Roy Romer. In 1998 he admitted to having a relationship with a former aide - and that his wife and daughter knew of it and consented. They even agreed to be interviewed with him for an article in The Denver Post.

Polyamorous people would agree that ethical and healthy sexual relationships are consensual, nonexploitative, honest, mutually pleasurable and protected. We simply don't think this has to be confined to one relationship at a time.

Similarly, folks in the BDSM community also agree that sexual relationships should fit these parameters - our most well-known ethical maxim is "safe, sane and consensual". We simply choose from a wider menu than the rest of the world.

Forty years ago, it would have been unthinkable for a gay or lesbian political leader to come out when the vast majority of the electorate believed that homosexuals were "sick" people who preyed on the young. The same could be said today of political leaders who are poly or kinky. The issue, then, is how far our culture has come in developing a sexual ethic which focuses less on specific forms of sexual expression, and more on the emotional and relational context in which they are done.

Lyn said...

I agree with MarcStier. The most dangerous relationship isn't the spark that ignites between a politician and his intern. It's an emotional affair than can become sexual. It's the woman at the office who affirms his work, the intern with a great sense of humor (who never scolds when he forgets), or the mature and confident woman who has continued to keep herself up, vibrant, and alive when the Mrs. looks dowdy, haggard, and tired. It's starts out with the satisfaction of an emotional need OUTSIDE the marriage (that that presumably should be filled inside). THEN it becomes sexual.