It’s an irony of the modern age that the most devastating kind of sex scandal, at least for politicians, doesn’t involve actual sex. As Rep. Anthony Weiner has learned.
Weiner, who resigned Thursday, assured his own demise years ago when he began sending raunchy pictures and sex-talk messages to random women over the Internet. He would have been better off if he had arranged to meet those women for secret trysts — not that there’s any indication that the women had the slightest interest in meeting Weiner for such purposes.
Let me clarify: I do not suggest that committing adultery would leave Weiner, or anyone, “better off” in any moral sense. I’ll get to that important dimension of the Weiner affair, but first I want to consider the practicalities as dispassionately as possible.
For all his dazzling smarts, for all his New York savvy, Weiner was both ignorant and naive about the Internet. There are certain things about the cyberworld, and about human nature, that anyone tempted to make a hobby of “sexting” really ought to know.
First is the fact that the Internet is not, repeat not, a private space. It is essentially a public realm in which it is difficult, if not impossible, to be active yet remain unobserved.
Weiner’s downfall began three weeks ago when, via the networking site Twitter, he sent a photo of his underwear-clad crotch to a college student in Washington state with whom he had been Twitter-messaging, or “tweeting.” Weiner realized immediately that he had made a mistake — rather than send the photo through a private channel, he sent it through a public channel that would have made it accessible to any of Twitter’s 300 million users. I repeat: 300 million.
Weiner quickly took down the offending photo but not before it was spotted and electronically captured by conservative activists who had been tracking his activity in cyberspace for some time. The congressman had briefly exposed his private business — I believe “junk” is the term of art — in a public space. Thus did the unraveling of a promising political career begin.
Weiner also was apparently unaware that the Internet never forgets. Once you’ve sent a message or a photograph into cyberspace, you have to assume it will live forever. The recipient can keep a copy — as apparently happened with other women who shared similar beefcake shots that Weiner sent them, including at least one without the underwear.
The offending missives also had to pass through various relays and switches en route — did any of them make copies? — and, in Weiner’s case, came to reside in vast banks of servers owned by Twitter and Facebook.
Do you really want Mark Zuckerberg to have intimate pictures of your body parts? Really?
And finally — remember, we’re still just talking practicalities — Weiner ignored the fact that a person known only as a “friend” on Facebook, or someone to “follow” on Twitter, is still basically a stranger. Yes, it’s possible to learn much about a person through a relationship conducted entirely in cyberspace — much, but not enough.
Let me propose a general rule: If you exchange explicit Internet messages with a porn star, as Weiner allegedly did, you’re eventually going to be the subject of a news conference called by Gloria Allred.
It’s pointless to critique Weiner’s handling, or mishandling, of the scandal. The outcome was clear from the beginning, and the only question was whether Weiner would resign immediately — as did former Rep. Chris Lee, when Web sites published a shirtless photo he sent to a woman he met on Craigslist — or spend a week or two in denial.
Now the moral question: Other politicians — such as Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) and Bill Clinton, to name just two of many — survived in office after sex scandals in which there was, you know, actual touching. Weiner’s transgressions involved sexual fantasy, not sexual fact. Was what he did really so bad that he had to resign?
Yes, it was. From all evidence, Weiner wasn’t led on or encouraged by these women. He imposed his erotic fantasies and photographs on them, almost as if he were a flasher in a raincoat. It was an intrusion, perhaps even a violation, and it was seriously, irredeemably creepy.
The House will miss Anthony Weiner’s progressive voice. But he absolutely had to go.
Eugene Robinson is a columnist with The Washington Post.