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The Real Reasons Men Like Anthony Weiner Risk Their Careers For Sexting

Anthony Weiner stepped down from Congress today over his "sexting" scandal. But why do powerful men get caught up in risky behavior in the first place?

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That’s the way sexual arousal and desire work. But what does it have to do with Anthony Weiner?

Some people, predominantly men, enjoy sexual encounters on the Internet, whether via erotic conversations, twittering, or sexting. On the surface, the appeal of these modalities is not that difficult to divine. The man can have multiple erotic encounters, fashioned entirely to his taste, and enjoy relative anonymity. The anonymity provided may be total, complete with fictitious screen names and invented identities, or relative, as it was with Weiner who flirted (and more) with online correspondents whom he didn’t know at all and who knew him only through his public persona.

The deeper appeal lies in three areas unique to the digital world: First, the man enjoys connections with lots of (in this case) women. His barriers to connectedness are thus overcome and his loneliness is temporarily alleviated. Second, the women are objectified, as is the man. And in a relationship between objects, no one is truly dependent, dissatisfied, or unhappy. And third, the women with whom a man corresponds, and the sexual scripts he most highly prefers, can be selected for and are under the man’s relative control. If the other person doesn’t “fit the bill” and doesn’t want to play in the prescribed ways, that connection can be deleted and another, more appropriate, one is available to take its place.

While these three dimensions of online sexual play can be appealing to women, too, they speak to particular anxieties and vulnerabilities in many men today. For reasons having to do with their childrearing and with the social construction of masculinity, men tend to be emotionally disconnected from themselves and others. In the course of growing up, to the extent that boys have to deny their identifications with and dependency on their mothers in order to separate and become “masculine,” they end up cut off from their inner lives and averse to feelings of dependency. This is a recipe for painful isolation. The safety of anonymous Internet relationships temporarily relieves the resulting suffering.

Further, denying dependency doesn’t eliminate it. Men still crave intimacy but fear that gratifying this craving will enmesh them in dependent relationships with women they can’t satisfy or make happy and to whom they’ll invariably surrender their autonomy and give more than they get. Objectifying themselves and women temporarily solves this problem. The man and his willing Internet (or texting) partners happily exchange pics and fantasies in a mutual admiration society free of expectations, complaints, or neediness of any kind.

And, finally, the particular “problem” that inhibits a particular man’s capacity for sexual pleasure and success in everyday life--for example, a belief that he’ll hurt women or a feeling that he’s inadequate, invisible, small, or somehow missing the “secret sauce” behind confident masculinity—can be very precisely disconfirmed through scripts and scenarios played out with women chosen for their willingness to do just that (e.g. be admiring, awe-struck, robust, saucy, etc.).

The Internet with its social networks and communities, anonymous bulletin boards and chat rooms, and rapid interactive modalities like texting promises to men the perfect playground for their desire and fantasy life to flourish. Real women in the real world are more problematic, what with their burdensome expectations of mutuality and reciprocity, their human sensitivity to slights and rejections, their neediness, and their demands for loyalty and caretaking.

I would never presume to diagnose Anthony Weiner with this formulation, but I can say that the behavior patterns he seemed to enact are familiar to me in my work. Ultimately, they stem not from the aphrodisiac of power, but from the pain of being emotionally disconnected, guilty, and insecure about their own emotional and sexual adequacy with real women in a real intimate relationship. Such issues are not more prominent in public figures or men with political or financial power, although when such men get busted, it makes for more notoriety. The manifestations of these problems and conflicts are legion. They are mirrored by equally painful feelings in women who struggle to overcome their own inhibitions and fears using outlets and fantasies of their own. Such struggles are no less “screwed up” than those seen more publicly in men. Both genders in our society wrestle with the demons of sexuality and the barriers to its healthy expression and satisfaction. The digital world so often serves as a band-aid for the pain and suffering that results.