A 'does it or doesn't it?' debate is taking place among female voters in New York as they consider the candidacies of two politicians whose careers were rocked, at least temporarily, by sex-related scandals: Anthony Weiner, a former U.S. congressman now running for New York City mayor, and former New York governor Eliot Spitzer, in the race for city comptroller. The questions: Does it matter when voters know some of the most intimate details of their candidates' lives? Does it matter if they don't approve?
Both men resigned their posts in the wake of scandals that included, in the case of Weiner, sending dirty photos and messages to half a dozen women he'd never met and, for Spitzer, spending up to $1,000 an hour on high-end call girls, many of whom traveled from one state to another to service him. Both men were caught, denied, admitted, apologized, and then handed in their resignations. Both men were married at the time, and still are.
Both men are currently ahead at the polls.
The majority of women, it would seem, are leaning towards absolution regarding both Spitzer and Weiner. A poll conducted by the Wall Street Journal, NBC New York, and Marist found that, among registered Democrats, 62 percent of men had a favorable opinion of Weiner, compared with 45 percent of women. A Quinnipiac University poll, meanwhile, found that 50 percent of registered female democrats viewed Spitzer favorably. Many women voters I've spoken with concur. "I just don't see what the big deal is," Alexis, a friend in her 30s who plans to vote for Weiner, told me. "So he sent a few gross texts to some girls. That's a problem between him and his wife."
But is it? Many in politics and the media have positioned the return of Spitzer and Weiner, in combination, as an affront to women. These critics have been women, but they have also been men, including New York City mayoral hopeful John Liu, who told reporters, "If you think about what these two individuals have been responsible for, and to continue the denigration of the women they've been involved with, this is--it just doesn't smell right." Meanwhile, Sonia Ossorio of the National Organization for Women told the New York Observer, "[They] think they can mistreat women and that women voters are going to dash to the polls to bring them back, to elect them to represent them.... Are these men really going to be in tune to the needs of women or are they just going to see us as objects?"
Pitting women as victims of continued denigration, of course, isn't entirely the point, especially if the women Liu is talking about are Weiner and Spitzer's wives--because that is a clearly personal matter. It's not a question of women banding together to punish these men out of some sense of female solidarity with the women who, it must be said, remain their wives. Women are smart enough to know the difference between choosing a politician and choosing a husband. What's more, many argue, and I'd concur, that neither man should be condemned for sexual exploits that, in fact, weren't all that exploitative, given that most of the women were willing participants.
That said, sex does matter. The role that sex--illicit and, in at least one case illegal, sex--played in the lives of these men does tell a fuller story of who they are, how they think, and how they act. Take out the sex and infidelity and you have questionable ethics, willful deception, and, quite possibly, obsessive natures. You have risk takers. You also have hypocrisy, and men who championed values and the law yet broke the codes of both. Both men lied in the face of being caught.
The issue at stake in these elections isn't the personal sexual lives of men, but it is personal. And not just for the women who share their most intimate lives with these men. Women voters don't have to want to marry, or even like, Weiner or Spitzer.
But they do have to be able to trust them.