Jul. 27, 2011 - Issue #823: The Naked Truth
Scandal: Sex & Politics
Sex and politics don't mix when you're a dame
If we had a choice, our sexual histories would remain our own, the mistakes and that adventurous, experimental phase. Sexual partners would keep to themselves those private moments of exposed vulnerability. Unfortunately we sometimes don't have a choice, especially if you happen to become a public figure. Your history is a matter of debate, another forum to learn of your moral choices and perhaps predict how you'll lead society, based on your wardrobe choice in college.
Democratic candidate for Congress in Virginia, Krystal Ball (who admits her father made an ill-advised choice in naming her) had to confront that past when Republican opponents pulled from her Internet-documented history a few photos of Ball in a scantily clad situation. Dressed as a sexy Santa with her husband, a dildo-adorned reindeer, Ball knew what she was dealing with. "They wanted to make me feel like a whore," Ball would write later, as a response to her accusers. In Ball's case there was no instance of infidelity, as her husband was a full participant, no indiscretions involving young pages or interns, simply a photo at a party in her youth.
At the age of 28 Ball was one of the younger candidates, but also one of the more promising. She was listed in Forbes magazine as one of the top 25 most powerful women in the midterm elections and was endorsed by the Women Under Forty Political Action Committee. But qualifications could not save her from overt photos of her sexual history. After losing the election to Republican Rob Wittman, Ball wrote a response published in the Huffington Post, stating, "Society has to accept that women of my generation have sexual lives that are going to leak into the public sphere."
But there is a reluctance to accept women as both sexual and political actors. A paper undertaken by Dr Melissa Miller, a political science professor at Bowling Green State University, examines the treatment of Hillary Clinton in the Democratic nomination against her male counterparts. While Clinton managed to overcome the traditional problems women face in entering public office—not enough media coverage and having most coverage focus on appearance—Clinton's problem was rooted in the view that women should not take on too many masculine traits, that they should be viewed as feminine, despite applying for a job traditionally rooted in masculine traits.
Miller's study examined the traits upon which Americans choose presidential candidates, two of which revolve around their masculinity, both their dominance masculinity (attitude and leadership abilities) and their expertise masculinity (technical experience). Clinton outperformed her nearest competitor, Obama, by nearly double. But for Clinton it was a drawback. Many viewed her as cold, calculating and "scary." Her performance as a former first lady—creating strong policy choices—was viewed as "lacking characteristics of femininity," a perception that dogged her throughout the presidential campaign.
In the game of politics, being a decisive, strong woman is unacceptable, and to have a sexual life constitutes a greater transgression. "People still have a perception of female politicans being caregivers," says Carmen Gustafson, a former town councillor in Golden, BC. "We still talk about what they wear, [and] that gets more press time than what they think, so it shocks people and they get uncomfortable with images of women not as caregivers and not as soft creatures."
Of course Ball is not the first political candidate to have their sexual life broadcast in a very public manner, or for it to become part of our consideration of their leadership capabilities. For Ball, however, the impact was negative, while for someone like Scott Brown, it turned out to be a positive. Brown is now a US senator from Massachusetts, but at 22 he was a male model. And not just for LL Bean sweaters—he did some rather explicit work as well. But Brown was elected and his transgression was chalked up to "youthful inexperience." Ball—who was 23 when the original photo was taken—had no such luck.
Neither did Ray Lam. Lam, who attempted to run for the NDP in the last BC provincial election, was found in some questionable photos on Facebook. He quickly resigned from the campaign, a decision Gustafson finds disappointing. "There should have been some leadership to say, 'Look this isn't appropriate,'" says Gustafson, who would like to consider a run provincially. She believes NDP leader Carole James should have stood up for Lam and defended his abilities as a capable candidate, despite the photos. "It's a different time," says Gustafson. "We aren't going to bar candidates based on some pictures that have no context or explanation. That's not appropriate and we're going to focus on the issues."
First elected at age 24, Gustafson believes the increased ability to access private lives will weigh on youth candidates as they decide to run.
"Whose values do you use?" says Gustafson. "It does play into the minds of younger people who want to be involved, not even in politics but in a public role, it takes away from their abilities and intelligence, compassion for constituents and their passion for the job. And those are the important things."
As Ball wrote in her response to her accusers, "We are young women. And we are dedicated to serving this country. And we will run for office. And we will win."
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