The Filner Scandal Isn't a "Sex Scandal"

AP Photo/Gregory Bull

San Diego mayor Bob Filner has refused to resign amid multiple allegations of sexual harassment, saying that he will undergo therapy instead. As Alexandra Petri of The Washington Post notes, it seems implausible that two weeks of therapy can fix Filner's very serious issues with women. But there is a much deeper problem with Filner's refusal to resign. His invocation of therapy suggests that the scandal is a purely private affair without direct implications for his conduct in office. This is dead wrong. It's crucial not to conflate consensual and nonconsensual actions together into a single catch-all category of "sex scandals."

The current media environment and sexual privacy for public figures are often incompatible, and reasonable people can differ about whether the increased attention to personal questions of sexual morality is good for public discourse. My own view is that being a good spouse and being a good public official have virtually nothing to do with each other. My choices for the two greatest presidents of the last century, Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson, were bad husbands for reasons that only started with adultery. George W. Bush, on the other hand, seems to be a decent and faithful husband, which will be little consolation to the families of those killed in the Iraq war. And speaking of George W. Bush, the 2000 presidential campaign is a particularly important illustration of the damage that can be done when the media is excessively focused on random personal trivia rather than substance.

If I were a typical voter in the 1st Congressional District of South Carolina, I would have voted for Mark Sanford—his adultery is good grounds for divorce but does not provide any serious basis for concluding he would be an ineffective representative from the perspective of a conservative Republican. A liberal-leaning voter in that district would have voted against Sanford even if he had been a perfect husband and his Democratic opponent had more affairs than Tiger Woods.

But what Filner is accused of doing is an entirely different category of behavior from what Sanford did. He's been repeatedly accused on nonconsensual, physical sexual advances. He has been sued for sexual harassment by his former director of communications. This is not a "sex scandal." He's being credibly accused of violating the rights of other women, not of betraying marital vows.

The distinction between consensual and nonconsensual behavior is important morally. And it's also important in terms of evaluating a candidate's fitness for office. Filner is an executive official, and even non-executive elected officials have to run staffs. An adulterer can be a good boss; a sexual harasser, by definition, is not. Someone's ability to supervise staff without violating their rights is unquestionably relevant to the public.

Comparing Filner's actions with those of Anthony "Carlos Danger" Weiner is a more complex question than comparing his actions to someone like Sanford's. The most recent revelations of Weiner's puerile online behavior seem to suggest that his latest crotch shots were sent to a knowing and willing partner, granting that there's something more than a little creepy about how quickly he escalated correspondence from a young woman into pressure to share nude selfies. However, the previous round of lewd tweets that led to Weiner's resignation involved at least one sent to a woman without her consent. This is not bad behavior on the same scale as Filner's and it's not clear that it's enough to permanently disqualify Weiner from public office, but it is relevant to his fitness for office. Young women should be confident that their innocuous inquiries to political representatives are not responded to with unsolicited pictures of genitalia. However New York City voters choose to evaluate Weiner, the distinction between his consensual and nonconsensual actions is an important one.

The conflation of consensual and nonconsensual behavior has the dual bad effects of trivializing the real scandals and overinflating the trivial ones. And the trivialization of sexual harassment is a serious problem. Consider the case of Sheldon Silver, the speaker of the New York state assembly, who quietly settled sexual harassment claims brought against Assemblyman Vito Lopez with taxpayer money rather than making them public. In a thoroughly unsurprising development, Lopez was accused of sexual harassment again. Lopez was finally forced to resign, but for Silver to have allowed young women to continue to be unknowingly assigned to Lopez given his history is unconscionable. Alas, it seems as if Silver will keep his job. If Filner does too, it will be a depressing commentary on the ongoing failure of too many political elites to take sexual harassment seriously. That's a real scandal.

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