Public Affairs: Politics in the Age of Sex Scandals

Public Affairs: Politics in the Age of Sex Scandals

Public Affairs: Politics in the Age of Sex Scandals
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Duke University Press Books


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Public Affairs: Politics in the Age of Sex Scandals

Public affairs—or sex scandals—involving prominent politicians are as revealing of American culture as they are of individual peccadillos. Implicated in their unfolding are a broad range of institutions, trends, questions, and struggles, including political parties, Hollywood, the Christian right, new communications technologies, the restructuring of corporate media, feminist and civil rights debates, and the meaning of public life in the “society of the spectacle.” The contributors to Public Affairs examine, from a variety of perspectives, how political sex scandals take shape, gain momentum, and alter the U.S. political and cultural landscape.

The essays in Public Affairs reflect on a number of sex scandals while emphasizing the Clinton/Lewinsky affair, certainly the most avidly followed and momentous sex scandal in American political history. Leading scholars situate contemporary public affairs in the context not only of earlier sex scandals in American politics (such as Thomas Jefferson’s and Sally Hemings’s affair), but also of more purely political scandals (including Teapot Dome and Watergate) and sex scandals centered around public figures other than politicians (such as the actor Hugh Grant and the minister Jimmy Swaggart). Some essays consider the Clinton affair in light of feminist and anti-racist politics, while others discuss the dynamics of scandals as major media events. By charting a critical path through the muck of scandal rather than around it, Public Affairs illuminates why sex scandals have become such a prominent feature of American public life.

Contributors. Paul Apostolidis, Jodi Dean, Joshua Gamson, Theodore J. Lowi, Joshua D. Rothman, George Shulman, Anna Marie Smith, Jeremy Varon, Juliet A. Williams

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822332763
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 01/14/2004
Pages: 288
Product dimensions: 5.64(w) x 8.80(h) x 0.91(d)

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Public Affairs

Politics in the Age of Sex Scandals
By Juliet A. Williams

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2004 Juliet A. Williams
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780822332763

Chapter One


Normal Sins Sex Scandal Narratives as Institutional Morality Tales

In the past two decades alone, national politicians have been accused of affairs with female and male prostitutes and pages, fondling or groping others and exposing themselves, attending drugs-and-sex parties, having intercourse with minors, and allowing sex rings to operate from their apartments. Entertainers have been revealed to have masturbated in movie theaters, solicited transvestite prostitutes, made sex videos of themselves, and simulated lesbian sex for photographers. Religious leaders have been accused of homosexual orgies with young Brazilian men, liaisons with church secretaries, and wife swapping, and similar charges have erupted in the military and in the academy.

Sex scandals, in which sexual activities (demonstrated or alleged) of public figures are widely broadcast, with an ensuing public discussion of these activities as "transgressions of certain values, norms, or moral codes," have a long history in Anglo-American culture. Historians have provided rich accounts of scandals in Victorian Britain andnineteenth-century United States, joined by occasional analytical accounts of individual twentieth-century sex scandals and nonscholarly books surveying the territory. Yet popular accounts of sex scandals tend to treat "each new case as if it sprung up sui generis" and sociologists have been remarkably reluctant to confront sex scandal stories as significant cultural phenomena. This is especially odd given that, as a small body of theoretical literature on the subject has noted, scandals constitute a cultural genre that is quite distinct and by now familiar: as outlined by William Cohen, the narrative is built "on the tripartite juridical model of plaintiff, defendant, and jury," in which "an accuser exposes an indiscretion or iniquity in the life of an accused and broadcasts that secret for public consumption, and the accused responds with denial." One can discern, both in others' accounts of sex scandals and in the cases considered in what follows, an increasingly common set of moments in mass-mediated sex scandals following a common scandal script: accusation or revelation, broadcast, denial and/or confession, and, frequently, a comeback or attempted comeback. Just how that script is constructed, and what it might be doing, remains understudied.

Perhaps the sparse sociological consideration of sex scandals can be attributed to their apparent transparency: they appear to be simply barometers of sexual moralities, moments in which a society reminds itself what is and is not acceptable sexual behavior by punishing, with public humiliation and the risk of status loss, those highly visible people caught doing the unacceptable stuff. Such a perspective is not exactly wrong. Behavior can easily be irritating roguery in one generation or country and sexual harassment in another, something people do in public in one century and something seen as behind-closed-doors activity in another, shocking and immoral in one decade and merely a bit unseemly a few decades later or earlier.

Yet, although sex scandal narratives are, generally speaking, carriers of social attitudes toward sexual morality, treating them exclusively as such can keep hidden their more puzzling and revealing aspects. To begin with, the actual sex they consider is strikingly banal. As Michael Schudson has argued, and as I will further demonstrate, "The scandalous act rarely involves anything exotic," and "of all the elements of a sex scandal, the scandalous act itself may be the least important." Historically, moreover, sexual conservatism(or, for that matter, sexual liberalism) and the prevalence of sex scandals do not line up consistently.

Even more tellingly, when one looks at nationally publicized sex scandals across institutional settings in the same time period, as does the current study, holding the national sexual culture roughly constant, it is hard to retain the notion that sex scandals are simply snapshots of societywide sexual values or values conflicts. When it comes to sex scandal narratives, a quick historical check suggests that the emergence of a scandal story is tightly tied to its institutional location. As John Summers has shown, even as the sexual activities of movie stars and sports heroes were being "relentlessly probed and devoured" in early twentieth-century mass culture's "agitation against Victorian values"-with Charlie Chaplin and Fatty Arbuckle embroiled in high-profile sex scandals, for instance-politicians were exempted from scrutiny, pursuing "illicit sexual pleasures ... evidently unafraid that a demand for accountability might lead to opprobrium." And amid all the strange, juicy details of contemporary sex scandals-the cigars as sex toys, the biting and the toe sucking, the steamed-up car windows, and so on-are the noteworthy facts that behavior that is scandalous in one institutional environment barely gets a mention in another. Indeed, what is underplayed in both the limited scholarly work and the voluminous popular commentary on scandal is the simple recognition that the scandal script unfolds, as Gary Alan Fine has asserted, "within an institutional structure (e.g., politics, business, the media) and, more significantly, must be said to characterize that structure."

Institutions matter in another way. Put simply, sex scandal stories are selected and conveyed by media professionals and, as scholars have routinely shown, this institutional mediation-the specific ways reporting is organized, the structure of social relations between media workers and those in other institutional worlds (religious, political, entertainment, etc.)-affects the storytelling. Again, historical evidence offers an anchor. When, for example, a period of regular public exposure about the sexual lives of politicians (e.g., in the 1884 presidential campaign, Grover Cleveland was subjected to accusations of "habitual immoralities with women" and of fathering an illegitimate child) gave way to "reticence and insulation" by the end of the nineteenth century (e.g., while Warren Harding's extramarital affairs were an open secret among politicians and journalists, "neither journalists nor rival Democrats disclosed his philandering to the voting public"), it gave way in large part thanks to the professionalization of journalism. The "promise of reticence," Summers suggests, "permitted elite reporters to get closer to the instruments of government power," offering "an expedient means by which reporters could establish themselves as experts in an increasingly segmented, hierarchical society." Although my focus is on scandal storytelling rather than on the selection or suppression of scandals, the lesson is useful: what is revealed in sex scandal discourse is not simply societal norms-sexual or other, institution-specific or not-but also the institutional operations and relations of news media.

Taking the institutional context of scandals into account requires, then, documenting and analyzing how sex scandal discourse varies from one institutional location to another, and to what degree and in what ways the stories told concern institutions themselves; it further requires a consideration of how media institutional practices shape sex scandal scripts. In this comparative "instrumental case study," I therefore examine the media coverage of three different U.S. sex scandals that received major national attention during an eight-year time span, each alleging the same behavior (sexual relations between a man and a female prostitute), each involving men who were public figures before the scandal and women who were not, and each set in a different institutional environment: in the realm of religion, televangelist Jimmy Swaggart's encounter with prostitute Debra Murphree in 1988; in the entertainment arena, actor Hugh Grant's encounter with prostitute Divine Brown in 1995; and in the political sphere, presidential advisor Dick Morris's encounter with prostitute Sherry Rowlands in 1996. I rebuild and analyze these media-processed scandal stories based on all full-text coverage available through the online databases Academic Universe and Academic Search, including newspapers, magazines, and television transcripts, all of which are from mainstream regional and national publications, wire services, or programs. After duplicates and items of fewer than one hundred words were eliminated, this yielded a total of 59 documents for the Swaggart case, 69 for the Grant case, and 95 for the Morris case. (These documents were supplemented by coverage of the scandals in "men's magazines" such as Penthouse, in which the women of scandal often eventually appear.) Data analysis proceeded through an inductive coding process much like that of "grounded theory." My search was for the limited number of dominant frames-"schemata of intepretation," in the language of media discourse analysts-contained in the media telling of and commentary on each story, and a chronological account of the movement from one theme to another over the course of the scandal's career. The documentary paper trail I follow and use is most accurately understood as stories told by one set of institutional elites (journalists, editors, etc.) about members of other institutional elites (people at the center of religious, political, and entertainment "industries"), with an eye toward those consuming the media product.

The findings dramatically bear out the significance of both institutional location and mediation. On the one hand, within the same overarching scandal narrative, quite different themes come to the fore: in one case, the relationship with a prostitute gives rise to a story primarily focused on hypocrisy; in another, to a story focused mainly on risk taking; in the last, to a story focused mainly on disloyalty. On the other hand, in each case, discussions of sexual "misbehavior" kick the story into gear and are then mostly sidelined, edged aside by discussions of the possibility that hypocrisy, risk, or disloyalty are actually facilitated by the institutional environment in which the scandalous man operates. Sex scandal stories, far from being lessons about individual sexual transgression, morph into institutional morality tales. This shared feature of sex scandal narratives is best understood, I argue, through an analysis of media behaviors: it results from pronounced needs on the part of mainstream media organizations to both mimic and distinguish themselves from tabloid media and from journalists' interest in transforming "soft" into "hard" news stories. Given the well-known tendency in U.S. culture toward individualist and away from structural frames and the well-known tendency in sociology to interpret tales of "sin" as reminders of the normative order, such a dynamic is especially striking. While drawing on and buttressing "cultural givens" about masculine sexuality, these scandal stories offer a theoretically challenging twist: an unexpected cultural reversal, in which sexual "sins" reveal not individual but institutional pathologies, not a normative order but institutional decay.

Jimmy Swaggart: Normal Hypocrisy Undoubtedly the most famous image from the 1988 scandal over televangelist Jimmy Swaggart's visits to a New Orleans prostitute was his sobbing, televised "I have sinned!" confession at Swaggart's own World Faith Center in Baton Rouge. Although a spokesman for the Assemblies of God, the parent church that was then investigating the charges of sexual misconduct against Swaggart and considering various punishments, suggested that the preacher had shown "true humility and repentance," most secular commentators were less impressed. "The sin for which Swaggart has been forgiven is the sexual transgression for which he has apologized," columnist Richard Cohen wrote in the Washington Post. "The sin of hypocrisy is a different matter. For that we hear no contrition and no apology from Swaggart." The dominant media frame through which the Swaggart story was typically told was much less about the exposure of scandalous sexual behavior per se than about the exposure of hypocrisy-and along with it, a turf war, in which feuding preachers use scandal as a weapon in their fight for a share of the religion market. Indeed, as the story progressed, these two frames, joined later by discussions of religious theatricality, overshadowed considerations of sexual norms, focusing attention instead on the workings of market-centered religious institutions.

Of course, sex was an excellent trigger for and carrier of the hypocrisy tale. It is no secret that news organizations perceive sexual stories as attention grabbers, and for the two weeks after the story broke, in late February 1988, reporters regularly took the opportunity to describe the prostitution world to which Swaggart regularly traveled, Arline Highway, "a seedy strip of no-tell motels, their neon lights flashing adult movies, water beds and rooms by the hour," where Debra Murphree said she "performed obscene acts" for the "sex-crazed" preacher. But whereas early reports noted that the investigation by the Assemblies of God focused on "sexual morals charges" and "adultery," the morality of prostitution, and of married men visiting prostitutes, or even of extramarital sex, was almost never the frame of mainstream media stories and commentary.

Instead, what animated the stories was the dramatic contrast between Swaggart's own routine holier-than-thou lashings of other preachers' sexual immorality and the photographs of him in a sweat suit in the Arline Highway parking lot. It was Swaggart who had urged the investigation of Jim Bakker on charges of adulterous and bisexual behavior, news stories reminded readers, and who had preached against false prophets, "pompadoured pretty-boys with their hair done and their nails done who call themselves preachers"; it was he who warned readers of his book Straight Answers to Tough Questions, the Los Angeles Times pointed out, against sexually corrupting activities such as dancing, mixed swimming, movies, masturbation, and pornography. "Many of Swaggart's holier-then-thou pieties could come back to haunt him now that the worm has turned," Newsweek reported early on. Prostitute visits were scandalous not so much because of sexual immorality as because of the hypocrisy they revealed.

If sexual revelations were the means through which a story of hypocrisy was initially carried-the story of a heavy-handed moralist foiled by the very sexual activities he chastised in others-the sexual aspects were rarely the primary subject of nationally publicized discussion, and, except for a gloating, self-justifying Penthouse spread, they mostly disappeared. (Swaggart himself never specified his "sins," though Murphree emerged early on with her claim that he had paid her to pose in various positions culled from pornographic magazines while he masturbated.) As the story progressed, news coverage quickly focused not on Swaggart as a renegade hypocrite, but on what the scandal revealed about the profession and institution of televangelism.

As soon as it erupted, in fact, the scandal began to be placed in a context that made hypocrisy seem a rather unsurprising part of Swaggart's world, in which public moralizing was routine, performance was part of the job, financial stakes were high, and rivalries were numerous. The hypocrisy-revealed frame was quickly joined by a second major frame, that of a larger "holy war," as Newsweek called it, in which the Swaggart investigation was one battle. In this frame, Swaggart and his fall were taken as representative of televangelism's workings, its product rather than its exception. "The turmoil in [Swaggart's] ministry in this year of wild upheaval in the television evangelism," a New York Times report suggested, "may be the most telling indicator to date of the tensions that threaten to transform the billion-dollar world of the electronic church."

Many accounts told the story of a religious "industry," "wealthy spiritual empires" that "nurture gold-plated lifestyles," composed of money- and-power-hungry backstabbers. Swaggart sat at the head of a "$156 million-a-year global television empire," the Washington Post reported in its first article on the scandal, living, the New York Times reported, in "a $2.4 million house with security fence, electronic sensors, and columned whirlpool bath fed by a faucet in the form of a golden swan." In the "holywar" frame, the fight for control of such riches is exactly what triggered the scandal in the first place: "a rival evangelist," Marvin Gorman, who had filed a 1987 lawsuit against Swaggart for spreading rumors about Gorman's own sexual misconduct, effectively ending Gorman's ministry, went in search of the "sweet taste of vengeance," the Washington Post suggested, and found it on Arline Highway. Others in this competitive marketplace, most notably Rev. Jerry Falwell, quickly staked claims in the "turf war" by calling for further investigations.


Excerpted from Public Affairs by Juliet A. Williams Copyright © 2004 by Juliet A. Williams. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments vii

Introduction: Sex Scandals and Discourses of Power / Paul Apostolidis and Juliet A. Williams 1

1. Sex Scandals in U.S. Politics: Theoretical, Social, and Historical Contexts

Normal Sins: Sex Scandal Narratives as Institutional Morality Tales / Joshua Gamson 39

Power and Corruption: Political Competition and the Scandal Market / Theodore J. Lowi 69

Hardly Sallygate: Thomas Jefferson, Sally Hemings, and the Sex Scandal That Wasn't / Joshua D. Rothman 101

2. Class, Race, and Gender in the Clinton Scandal

On "The Dalliances of the Commander in Chief": Christian Right Scandal Narratives in Post-Fordist America / Paul Apostolidis 137

Narrating Clinton's Impeachment: Race, the Right, and Allegories of the Sixties / George Shulman 167

Sexual Risk Management in the Clinton White House / Anna Marie Smith 185

3. Privacy and Publicity, and the Conditions of Democratic Citizenship

Privacy in the (Too Much) Information Age / Juliet A. Williams 213

It Was the Spectacle, Stupid: The Clinton-Lewinsky-Starr Affair and the Politics of the Gaze / Jeremy Varon 232

Making (It) Public / Jodi Dean 259

Notes on Contributors 273

Index 275

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