Toronto
3 min

On celebrity sex scandals: What exactly have they done wrong?

I think we’re going to have to teach people to have more sex.

How else are we going to get past these endless bouts of moral recrimination, hand-wringing and tut-tutting? With every sex scandal, there’s more and more of it, and the only way I can think to stop it is to reduce people’s reasons for envy.

Some days you’d think the sexual revolution had never happened. The stocks and pillory may be gone for good, but the new media ritual of confession and apology is just as humiliating.

And what exactly have these guys done wrong?

Well, let’s see. Bill Clinton had lame sex with a blowsy intern. Tiger boinked some Barbie Doll impersonators, and poor beleaguered Adam Giambrone did what every city dweller over the age of 20 has been doing for at least the past four decades — he had sex with more than one person.

It’s not cool to object to sex per se, and those who inveigh against the evils in our midst are always careful to couch their objections in terms everyone can understand. So Clinton was guilty of lying, Woods of cheating (like love was a game and he had a few undisclosed cards up his sleeve) and poor dear Adam Giambrone of — well, actually, I’m not sure what he did wrong. He wasn’t married, and the depth of his commitment to the live-in girlfriend wasn’t clear to me at least, but I think some people thought he’d “used” his primary partner as political cover.

Okay, fair enough. But what’s really bothering you? I mean, is there any among you who has not “sinned” repeatedly in your quest for sex? Like maybe lied about your “roommate,” neglected to mention the itch in your crotch or simply implied you were available when you weren’t? Is there anyone “who doesn’t suffer/ Some sore of guilt, and mostly bedsores, too,” as the gay poet Daryl Hine once wrote. Objecting to bad behaviour in sex is a little like objecting to humanity in general.

All this Biblical wailing and gnashing of teeth brings out the exegesis-freak in me, and I just want to wave the good book and say, “Judge not that ye be not judged.”

Half a century after the sexual revolution began, sexual moralism is alive and well, and I suppose gays and feminists have something to do with it. By insisting the personal was political, we let moralism return by the back door.

But this has less to do with culture and more to do with genetics. There is something in human nature that loves to disparage, denounce and deride other people’s sex lives, and there are so few places where you can do it with ease these days. In the good old days (irony alert), you could sneer at gays, whores and unwed mothers. Today the only acceptable targets are rich, powerful and attractive. Exactly the people you’d expect to be having a lot of sex.

The same people who wouldn’t dream of telling their real friends or colleagues how to behave sexually have no trouble reprimanding a virtual acquaintance like a politician or sports star. Celebrity sex scandals have become the arena of our inquisitions. It’s where we park our least charitable opinions, try out new forms of self-righteousness and judgment. The bile is so bad it makes you wonder what they say about gays behind our backs.

I’d like to think all this public tut-tutting is vaguely therapeutic, that by denouncing Tiger’s escapades as “emotionless,” his playmates as “sluts” and his behaviour as “morally reprehensible,” we are in some weird way working through our own fears and recriminations. Certainly the emphasis on “fidelity” suggests a deep-seated fear about the stability of people’s long-term attachments.

But underneath it all, you get the sense that people are just plain upset by sex. Either they’re not getting enough or other people are getting too much, but either way it’s a threat to their sense of self and society. Who knows what’s really driving this, but a safe bet is envy. Envy accompanied by anger, fear and barely muted disgust.

In the midst of the Woods scandal — highlighted by the apology “heard round the world” — I ran across a quote in a New York novel that seemed to say it all. The novelist was describing a group of schoolgirls sneering at one of their sluttier fellows. But she could have been describing half the tabloid-tutting world.  “Disguising envy as moral alarm,” was the way she put it.

If that’s what’s going on here, maybe the way to get around people’s fears and prejudices would be to start promoting Ashley Madison-style hook-ups. Not because adultery’s so great, but just to give people a feeling of what it means to be imperfect, desiring, sexual beings. Maybe then they wouldn’t carp so much. Maybe then they’d be satisfied.