GOP’s backward sexual politics

The party’s “war on women” continues, but now it’s being fought with antiquated weapons

Published April 9, 2013 2:00PM (EDT)

Newt Gingrich, Mark Sanford, David Vitter                (AP/Chuck Burton/Charles Dharapak/J. Scott Applewhite)
Newt Gingrich, Mark Sanford, David Vitter (AP/Chuck Burton/Charles Dharapak/J. Scott Applewhite)

Long before Gov. Eliot Spitzer and Sen. David Vitter, Abraham Lincoln paid prostitutes. And he contracted syphilis. Long before -- and here you can supply whichever name comes to mind first -- James A. Garfield was a great womanizer, who told his wife (repeatedly) that it would never happen again. The two presidents did not have to face the press and answer questions about their private conduct –- and it’s not because they were assassinated first. Nineteenth-century voters did not know national politicians in the intimate way we’re getting to know the private predilections of ours. So while it’s true that the media of that time didn’t stalk candidates in the ravenous manner it’s done today, in most other respects, the moral definitions of the 19th century are still very much with us, and we seem oblivious. It’s not just the 1950s the Republicans wish to return to -- they’re actually stuck in the 19th century.

Sexual politics are changing, but we don’t see it happening. Gay marriage acceptance is one -– right now, very noticeable -– part of it. We are at a turning point, with or without a Hillary Clinton presidency. In her new, attention-grabbing book, "Lean In," Sheryl Sandberg points out how backward our country remains insofar as women are still being evaluated by more rigorous standards, and men are still given to commit acts that would not be tolerated from women occupying the same position.

The “good wife” who stands beside her scandal-prone husband is a 19th-century holdover, and it probably won’t last much beyond homophobia. The quiet irony here is that a press corps that feels no compunction to stay out of the private sphere is shaking things loose. The 19th century is on the way out, because the rakish, risk-taking, money- and status-focused men who betray not just their spouses but the public trust in the process, are grasping at solutions that were invented for the pre-industrial age: First, their wives forgive them. Then they reform by finding God. And with God’s forgiveness, the shameless man of promise soldiers on. That is, runs for office again. Because now he’s learned how to serve the public even better than before. Wow. Are you buying this?

There is no more instructive example than the much heralded reemergence of former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford. Some have praised his honesty in admitting a mistake, never minding the fact that, freshly smitten with his Argentine soul mate, he lied and lied (and misappropriated taxpayer money) until he was finally caught. No less a Democratic supporter than the critical-satirical Bill Maher found his story endearing because Sanford fell in love. This is, of course, the silver lining in Sanford’s saga.

What the Sanford affair really tells us is how the Republicans’ adherence to moribund standards of masculine performance won’t go away. Because they don’t believe in gender equality – which, as you’ll soon see, relates directly to their anxiety over gay marriage.

But first, we need to understand the taxonomy of flawed masculine ambition. The temptations are these: Money. A proneness to violence. Lying. Sex.

If you go down the list, what’s amazing is that it sometimes takes the combination of all four to ruin a heterosexual man who wants a second political life after the initial embarrassment that derails his career. In some cases three strikes means you’re out of the game. But conjoined sins are generally permitted. Money and sex: you’re not yet sunk –- ex-New York Gov. Spitzer may not be ready to run again just yet, but he is omnipresent in the media, and getting closer to full rehabilitation. Lying about sex: OK, you might be impeached, but you can still ascend to political heaven. Violence and sex: very difficult to rebound from, but it’s been done -–Ted Kennedy after Chappaquiddick. Sanford lied about his whereabouts and misused campaign money while cheating -– that’s three no-no’s, and he’s still got a pretty good shot. You just can’t add violence and money to sex and lying, or you’ll be O.J.’s cellmate.

This is the America that God blesses, mind you. A certain amount of sin and prevarication is expected.

As for our Appalachian governor, to rationalize his actions (as all in favor of love seem ready to do) is to overlook a problem liberals have not properly understood: Republicans don’t want to play by the liberals’ rules. Liberals like love in the abstract. All kinds of love. But love means something very different to conservatives. It’s paired with solemn duty and scriptural literalism, and it requires the deity’s direct intervention once you mess with it. Conservative “family values” ideology insists that men stay married. Remember Mike Huckabee’s covenant marriage proposal not long ago, which stood to make divorce extra-tough? Adultery is one of the Ten Commandments’ gravest sins, and we all remember the Republican campaign to put the Bible’s Top Ten List in every courthouse, starting with godly – or is it fallen and forgiven? – Alabama.

The Republicans who would forgive and forget Sanford’s South American romp are the same ones who have steadfastly rejected gay marriage. They claim that if society endorses gay marriage, we’ll all be headed down that slippery slope from polygamy to bestiality. As laughable as the argument sounds, it has a historical foundation among mid-19th-century evangelicals and their opposition to divorce. They described marital dissolution as the gateway to hell, leading to “free love” and polygamy.

Before the ideology underlying companionate marriage became common in modern times, “free love” was the idea that people could select their partner when they first fell in love, and when love faded should be free to follow their heart and find a new, more suitable spouse. Old-time evangelicals preached against free love and Mormon polygamy in the same breath. The evangelicals who couldn’t see their way to voting for the Mormon Mitt Romney were replicating what they never really left behind –- the 19th-century anti-Mormon rhetoric and the confiscation of polygamists’ property that sent Romney’s people to Mexico.

Free-love disciple Sanford wants his mea culpa to take place on liberal terms. His undisguised “liberal” choice to leave his wife for his one true love contradicts the Old Testament theology of his conservative base. You can’t have it both ways: to ask forgiveness as an adulterer, and avoid punishment for abandoning the sacredly sanctioned family. Or can you?

It seems that politicians have to be married to run for office. At least, it’s a big plus. Just as atheism is a disgrace, and guarantees electoral defeat. Certainly in red states, where you have to be a family man and constantly reassure everyone that God blesses America. And forgives sinning senators. It is funny – instructive, really – that many pundits tend to think that Sanford’s wrong is less insidious than Anthony Weiner’s. Sanford had real extramarital sex, and Weiner had “safe” virtual sex by tweeting photos of himself. President Jimmy Carter admitted to Playboy magazine that he had “lust in his heart,” but the point was that he didn’t act on his lust. The distinction has been lost.

Sanford is still basking in the coverup. He’s reading a sorry script in asking for forgiveness while exhibiting no willingness to suffer any real consequences for his actions. He wears a new mask, that of the penitent; but unlike a real penitent, he has given up neither his worldly possessions nor his desire for worldly fame and ambition. He pretended he was a good family man before getting caught. Like Newt Gingrich going after President Clinton on moral grounds, he would have been a hard-liner against anyone else who failed to meet the Republican standard of family morality. If conservatives were pro-family, they would care more about the struggling 47 percent, instead of gleefully cutting programs such as Head Start, which keep families afloat in hard times.

Speaking of double standards, shall we ask where that proud father of four, Louisiana Republican Sen. David Vitter, now stands on family values, after the notoriety he received when it came out that he regularly consorted with prostitutes? Ironically, he came into the Senate when fellow Republican Bob Livingston resigned over a sex scandal. Vitter was subsequently reelected by a wide margin, though it was never quite clear whether voters felt the need to forgive him outright. Granted, Louisiana is a polyglot culture with its own way of looking at the world, but, come on, Vitter exploited his wife in his campaign literature, sending out postcards featuring her smiling face. Politicians seem to think that the wife’s forgiveness makes up for the original sin. To revive an old metaphor, the candidate hid under his wife’s petticoat in order to get reelected.

Meanwhile, as we all know, conservatives want to punish pregnant women. They see women having sex before marriage as sinful, which harkens way back to 17th-century fornication laws. They want to cut funding (and stigmatize) Planned Parenthood, regardless of the harm they do by denying women essential healthcare. Yet Republicans are conveniently willing to excuse one of their own, as when Sarah Palin’s unmarried daughter got pregnant just in time for her mom’s bid to be but an embryo’s heartbeat from the presidency. Bristol was quickly engaged to her boyfriend, but the marriage dissolved before it was consecrated (“Hey, the campaign’s over, so, ya know ... ").

And then there are the vaginal probes that only social conservatives believe do not represent a gross violation of women’s rights, because the women being subject to them are, for the most part, unmarried. Antiabortion activists have long viewed women seeking abortions as selfish people, enjoying sex without suffering the consequences. Republicans want to control women’s bodies, but not men’s. Keep feeding them their Viagra. A glaring double standard.

So, no consequences for Mark Sanford? Is his recent past behavior to be condoned because his campaign advisers have effectively calculated just how far he has to go, just how much he has to say, to rebrand him as a credible public servant? And don’t you love that term? Maybe Sanford should perform a symbolic act, like Pope Francis, and wash the feet of a humiliated group: politicians’ rejected first wives. Does he get a pass because he’s now engaged to his former girlfriend and is making an “honest woman” of her? Will a second marriage erase his selfishness in how he treated his wife and the example he set for his children? What about the Republicans’ supposedly unbending belief in personal responsibility and duty to family and community? Only the powerless are forced to adhere to their antiquated thinking about sex. The Bristol Palins and Mark Sanfords get a pass.

According to reports, Sanford thought he could hire his former wife to run his campaign, and this time promised to pay her. What a prince of a man! Ah, if only he had the spurned “good wife” for certain camera angles, he’d be a shoo-in, wouldn’t he? Like so many other politically savvy wives, she would be doing all the work, and he’d be getting all the glory. And getting the glamorous girlfriend besides. Conservatives are not troubled by this, because their pro-family ideology is merely a male-centered ideology. Men don’t need to be curbed; if anything, they need to have greater control over women’s sexual behavior. And just out of curiosity, do you wear your flag pin when you meet up with your paid escort?

Republicans need to relearn the golden rule and judge people not by words but by deeds. They have to stop wrapping themselves in their marriage vows, because clearly they do not respect them a whit more than do their Democratic counterparts. States with the most Republicans have some of the highest divorce rates in the nation. These are the same places where a modicum of Republicans still believe that a woman can magically stop a pregnancy without contraception. They hold fast (when the base demands) to creationism, and love their 19th-century gynecology. That’s where the idea came from that women alone are responsible if they get pregnant. In the 19th century, which is presumably where Republicans expect to be when they “take our country back,” it was assumed that prostitutes never got pregnant. Yup, men are definitely not accountable for what happens over there in the mysterious regions of the female body.

The “good wife” syndrome comes from the same place in our nation’s past, when the vast majority believed that middle-class women had to be more moral than men – a pattern of thinking ironically premised on women’s political powerlessness. By staying out of politics, by avoiding the public sphere and embracing a polite domesticity, they remained pure. Of course, they had to forgive their husbands for marital indiscretions, as the husband was the meal ticket. Who really wants to live like this, think like this, in the 21st century? In many perversely gerrymandered districts, there is, apparently, a leftover conservative element that won’t recognize blatant double standards. Women continue to carry a heavier moral burden than men.

Which leads us to the final connection: gay marriage. When men marry men, and women marry women, and marriage equality prevails, conservatives’ worst fear will be realized: They will be out of excuses. Heterosexual marriage has failed to reduce spousal abuse (emotional as well as physical), and patriarchal husbands will begin to feel “competition” from marriages where male dominance is no longer assumed.

The Republican Party’s headline-grabbing “war on women” continues, but it is a war being fought with antiquated weapons. Sanford the politician has his work cut out for him, needing now to show his “heartfelt” sensitivity to women, so as to avoid alienating the female vote. His Democrat opponent, Elizabeth Colbert Busch, has already gone on record saying, “Mark Sanford simply has the wrong values for our community,” and everyone knows what she is really saying.

By Nancy Isenberg

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By Andrew Burstein

Andrew Burstein and Nancy Isenberg are historians at Louisiana State University and co-authors of the forthcoming book "The Problem of Democracy: The Presidents Adams Confront the Cult of Personality." Follow them on Twitter @andyandnancy.

MORE FROM Andrew Burstein