Yes, that's former U.S. Congressman Anthony Weiner getting all the attention in the New York City mayoral race. Yes, that's former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer running for New York City comptroller. Yes, that's former U.S. Congressman and South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford once again sitting in the House of Representatives. And yes, that's Bill Clinton who's emerged as an emeritus force in the American political landscape.
So who's next? Should we expect to see Gary Hart, John Edwards, Pete Domenici, Herman Cain, Mark Souder, Larry Craig, Mark Foley and/or any of a hundred or so other politicians of note who've been caught with their pants down (both figuratively and literally) suddenly back in the limelight? In other words, has the "permanently ruinous political sex scandal" gone the way of the dodo bird?
Well, yeah, it pretty much has.
The Weiner Wangle
Let's take a look at one politician in particular, Anthony Weiner, since he's the one getting the most ink, tweets, and airplay these days. In case you've forgotten, Weiner is the former U.S. congressman who resigned from office in June 2011 after he was caught sending a series of digital sexts -- some of which were actually taken in the congressional gym's locker room -- to half a dozen (or more) women. According to Weiner, he'd been engaging in this type of behavior for about three years. And now he's admitted that his sexting activities continued even after his resignation from Congress.
In recent days I've spoken with numerous major media outlets about Weiner's latest revelation, and the basic question is always the same: Why did he continue with his inappropriate sexual behavior even after he was caught? The answer is simple: He might be a sex addict. Think about the gambler who tosses away his kid's college fund at a casino, gets confronted by his wife, and then takes out a loan the next day to gamble some more. Why does he do this? He does it because he's addicted to gambling. Think also about the drinker who gets thrown in jail for drunk driving and then, immediately after being released, heads to the liquor store. Why? Because that's what alcoholics do. The story is no different with Anthony Weiner, except his probable addiction is to sex rather than gambling or booze. The simple, sad truth is that even after they've been caught and are facing potentially severe consequences, addicts typically continue with their problematic behavioral patterns because that is how they cope with life. At best, being "found out" will drive someone with a self-destructive addictive disorder into treatment, where the lengthy and somewhat arduous process of eliminating compulsive behaviors can begin.
So is Weiner's recent revelation the death-knell for his political career? We'll have to wait and see. But let's face it, just two years after sneaking away with his tail between his legs, he's returned and become a mayoral frontrunner in our nation's largest city. And he's achieved this status without the support of the city's Democratic power brokers! That, in and of itself, is utterly amazing. Yes, this recent revelation will likely hurt his cause, but it's not likely to bump him from the race.
So how the heck has Weiner accomplished this remarkable comeback? Amazingly, he's used the same social media networks that led to his downfall. For instance, he announced his mayoral candidacy with an online video. In the video he is seen with his wife and new baby, looking more than a little bit domestic, apparently attempting to create the impression that he is "cured" of whatever it was that ailed him and everything is now just fine, perfectly normal, thank you for asking. His underlying message seems to be: My wife trusts me now, so you should too.
Rather interestingly, very few people seem willing to challenge him on this. He has stated that after his 2011 resignation, he spent three days at the Gabbard Center, an outpatient psychiatric evaluation facility specializing in the assessment of high-end professionals in crisis. The center's website lists "sexual disorders" as being among the major diagnostic groups it assesses. Nevertheless, he adamantly denies having an addictive or compulsive sexual disorder, despite the fact that his highly problematic sexual behavior continued for many months after first being discovered. Regardless of the diagnosis Weiner may or may not have received at Gabbard, a three-day evaluation hardly qualifies as "treatment" for a three-years-plus repetitive pattern of sexual misbehavior. An evaluation simply identifies the issues that need to be worked on and suggests a pathway for change -- no more, no less.
Sadly, Weiner's post-scandal behavior mirrors that of many of the powerful men (and women) we treat in sexual disorders programs. Nearly always these clients are neck-deep in denial about their actions. They create any number of rationalizations to justify their behaviors (in their own mind). Sure, they agree that anybody else engaging in the exact same behaviors would be crazy to do it, but somehow they see themselves as unique, different and entitled. And this sort of misguided thinking often continues even after they've been caught and scandalized, as they stubbornly tell themselves and others any number of lies to justify what they've done (and very often are continuing to do). In the biz, that's what we call DENIAL.
This misguided denial is what we all saw from Anthony Weiner two years ago, and it's what we are continuing to see today. "I'm a new man," he says, but somehow this doesn't ring true. In my professional experience, men and women whose sexual behavior leads them to crash and burn as badly as Weiner did nearly always need intensive residential treatment followed by long-term outpatient recovery, and that needs to occur in an addiction (rather than an analytic or family therapy) setting. This is especially true if the behavior that derailed the person continues after the initial crisis! At the very least, Anthony Weiner should have a solid understanding of the demons he is battling and the recommended path toward recovery. In this regard, he seems to have no clue. Instead, he has called his sexual acting out "a blind spot" that is "in the past."
Seen It, Bored Now
It appears that the American public has become desensitized to the political sex scandal. The more it happens, the less that people seem to care. In many ways this is part and parcel of the digital onslaught. Nowadays cable news stations, websites, Twitter feeds, Facebook, and the like provide an endless barrage of news -- much of it salacious in nature. People seem to require a constant array of "new and different," meaning that our collective memory and our ability to hold a grudge are greatly reduced. Once we were elephants, remembering everything, but nowadays we're gnats and fruit flies. The only reason any of these scandals has a shelf-life longer than a few days or weeks is that the media must sometimes wait for the next indignity to occur. Without something new to report, content-starved media mavens tend to rehash the old stuff in ever-more-titillating ways, even if the public no longer cares. Such is the case with this summer's "Weiner Roast."
There also seems to be a growing realization, with so many people living such large chunks of their lives in the online (hence, public) universe, that the only reason most of us are not in the news like Weiner, Spitzer, Sanford, Clinton and the like is that we're not as famous as they are. In other words, we're beginning to understand that almost everyone engages in regrettable behavior at least occasionally, so judge not lest ye be judged. Or whatever. Basically, if we have jobs and health insurance and the schools are open and taxes aren't too high, we seem to be relatively willing to overlook whatever it is our elected officials are doing between the sheets.
So can politicians do whatever they damn well please and get away with it these days? Probably not. Infidelity seems to no longer be a big deal, even with prostitutes. An abuse of power, however, such as Nevada Sen. John Ensign's affair with an aide, still draws quite a bit of public ire, as does dallying with someone who is underage or a member of the same sex (especially if the politician's power base is conservative).
That said, it seems like almost anyone can make a credible comeback these days. The formula seems to be: acknowledge your mistake (but not that you might have an ongoing problem), insist that your issues are in the past, get your wife or minister to corroborate this, and then take advantage of the name recognition you earned in the midst of your ignominy. And this recipe really does work! In fact, one study of post-Watergate congressional scandals found that nearly three-quarters of the disgraced politicians who decided to run for office again survived their primary, and of those who made it to the general election, 81 percent won.
So here we are. Sanford is back in office, Clinton is a respected elder statesman, and both Weiner and Spitzer have pulled a Stella and gotten their New York groove back. Essentially, it appears that we no longer care all that much about the sexual peccadilloes of our elected representatives. To be honest, I think it's pretty cool that America has gotten a lot more forgiving lately, but can we really trust these guys with our political well-being? Only time will tell.
Robert Weiss LCSW, CSAT-S is Senior Vice President of Clinical Development with Elements Behavioral Health. He has served as a media specialist for CNN, the Oprah Winfrey Network, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and the Today Show, among many others. He is author of Cruise Control: Understanding Sex Addiction in Gay Men, and co-author with Dr. Jennifer Schneider of both Untangling the Web: Sex, Porn, and Fantasy Obsession in the Internet Age and the upcoming 2013 release, Closer Together, Further Apart: The Effect of Technology and the Internet on Sex, Intimacy and Relationships.