On the NYT‘s op-ed page yesterday, a hilariously wry piece by Thomas Vinciguerra about apologies by public officials for sexual misbehavior of various sorts: 24 quotes, from Eliot Spitzer, Anthony Weiner, Newt Gingrich, John Ensign, Bill Clinton, Gary Hart, Mark Sanford, Larry Craig, Jesse Jackson, John Edwards, Christopher Lee, James McGreevey, and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The stories have different plot lines. Many, like Weiner’s, follow the cycle of Revelation, Denial, Contrite Admission, and Apology. Some involve law-breaking, of several different sorts, others do not. (In the sexual sphere, these are complex matters. What counts as law-breaking depends, of course, on what the law is in a particular jurisdiction at a particular time. For many years, virtually all of my sexual experiences with other men violated the law within the jurisdictions where they took place. This was a source of some anxiety for my man Jacques and me as we drove back and forth between Ohio and California — especially in central Oklahoma and the Texas Panhandle.)

The episodes of Denial involve flat-out lying, or at least calculated obfuscation; that’s bad for the denier.

Some of the stories involve the imposition of a powerful person on a less powerful person (usually, man on woman). Some have no actual physical connection in them, but only sexually tinged (or saturated) communications.

The stories are significantly different. Some are appalling, some sad, and some unremarkable.

Still, they all get their punch from a general belief that public figures should be sexually exemplary, according to very strict standards (even to the point of refraining from masturbation, in private). This is a very silly idea, but a powerful one in our culture — a fact that should make any sexually complex person disinclined to have anything to do with public service. (Even if I were interested in running for the Palo Alto city council, say, my life history, easily available, would be the kiss of death; the reasoning is that someone would do X, how could they be trusted to serve the public? These days my having had a husband-equivalent wouldn’t necessarily be a bar, in local politics, in this place, but all the rest of it would.)

Read the apologies — many of them classic non-apologies — and reflect both on human folly and on our expectations of public servants, and try not to see every story as just like every other.

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