Public Exposure and Private Voyeurism: Why Don't We Do It in the Road?

06/20/2011 05:11 pm ET | Updated Aug 20, 2011

Anthony Weiner's pecker and Arnold's mistress. The tabloids, and even the more "respectable" publications like the Huffington Post, are increasingly filling their pages with celebrity gossip. Apparently most Americans are fascinated with people who think they can get away with things we can't, or don't, but might like to. The cult of celebrity gives us the seductive opportunity to judge virtually and get off vicariously on the people who play out our fantasies. We pronounce them sick or sinful, and congratulate ourselves for not being "like that" (without ever quite defining like what). Imagining ourselves safe from temptation, we return to our own self-righteous, hypocritical lives with a sigh of relief. Thus we feed our cynicism and resignation watching the great fall, not for public crimes against humanity, but for private faux pas. We paint a scarlet A on them. We feel entitled. It's part of our Puritan heritage.

But, not so fast. Why are we watching? Why are we discussing the private lives and shames of people we don't know or care for? Why are we filling our minds and souls with the prurient claptrap that journalists, who have already sold their souls to the highest bidder, are spoon-feeding us? Isn't there something creepy about our desire to know all this? Be honest: Don't you feel a little bit ashamed of yourself when you succumb to the media circus? Say what you will about the media; you and I are the ones consuming it.

When I was a teenager, and especially vulnerable to peer pressure and pop culture, my mother would put her hand on my arm if she saw me pause on the supermarket check-out line to check out a headline in the National Inquirer. "Oh come on," she 'd say, "You don't want to waste your time on that! You have better things to think about."

She was right. Call me old-fashioned, but I'd rather not know. I do have better things to think about.

I understand the wrongness of sending unsolicited sexual content through social media. It is demeaning, invasive, and as much a violation as any other sort of public exposure. That's the point: Public Exposure. But public exposure has become a way of life in pop culture. Working out at my gym the other day to hip-hop pumped in on the speakers, I heard ," target="_hplink">Rihanna boldly declare " Sticks and stones may break my bones, but whips and chains excite me." Well, OK, but do you have to tell me about it while I'm doing my sit-ups? Call me a prude, but I felt embarrassed. I mean, isn't that sort of private?

As far as Weiner's exposure goes, it's gross, but I can't think of it as high crime, like molesting children, selling public favors for private gain, or torturing prisoners. How is it that we let child molesters, torturers, and thieves off the hook with a scolding, while indignantly shaming a man who did what a lot of clueless guys do on Internet dating sites -- send pictures of their weenies to women who are not impressed and are actually somewhat repulsed? (Note to men: Most women are not turned on by disembodied pictures of organs!)

It's as old as Greek tragedy, the hubris of a great man, fallen to some venal sin and and felled by the crowds. And as " target="_hplink">Rachel Maddow had the solitary guts to point out , Democrats lost a potentially great politician in the bargain.

Nor do I wish to minimize the damage infidelity can do to a marriage. I am truly sorry that Maria Shriver was deceived and humiliated. But I am even more sorry that it was a public humiliation in what should have been her private pain. It is not my business to commiserate with her, defend her, diagnose her husband, or anything else, unless I am asked to by an interested party, which is extremely unlikely.

When Jesus said, "Let him who is without sin among you cast the first stone," (John 8:7) he wasn't only defending the accused adulteress. He was defending the souls of the people who were selling themselves out, people like you and me, prey to gossip and self-righteousness. When we expend our precious attention on gossip, judgment, shaming, and poking about where we have no business, we become party to witch-hunting and inquisitions, not an elevated morality. We are demeaned, dragged into the very dirt we think we are above.

I think there is serious confusion in our world between public and private. The difference is not one of artifice, but of intimacy, not of phoniness, but of boundaries. When an intimate image or story is shared in public, what is precious in private becomes pornography. That was Weiner's sin. But it is every bit as much a sin, if not more so, to peep at his private shame and judge him as any worse than many of us, including Rhianna. We are all guilty of Public Exposure.

There is a line in the oft-quoted Wiccan prayer, the "Charge of the Star Goddess": "...All acts of love and pleasure are my rituals." (Book of the Goddess, Co-edited by Julie Ann Rhoads and Ann Forfreedom in 1979-80; The Wings of Vanthi Coven. Doreen Valiente; "The Charge of the Goddess"). Love AND pleasure: what my lover whispers in my ear, what we do and feel when we're alone together, what covenants we make and keep, or break, is a private affair. I think celebrities and other people should be free to do the same, in love and in privacy. But please, don't tell me about it, unless I ask, and I won't, unless I care. Maybe I am getting old, but I don't want to know. I want to expend my energy on my own life and passions, sexual and otherwise. Unless I ask, or am in some way party to it, please keep your own and anyone else's private life, and parts, to yourself.

The question the Beatles asked in their 1968 White Album, "Why don't we do it in the road?" is, after all, not a very interesting question. The more interesting question is: Why on earth would anyone want to?