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6 Kinds of Sex Scandals: What Should Be Exposed? What Should be Left Private?

What kind of sexual misconduct qualifies as an important news item, and what kind is just scurrilous gossip?

As Herman Cain reassesses his campaign in light of what he claims is a conspiracy to take him down, the same old questions that arise with every sex scandal have arisen yet again: When is it our business? What kinds of sexual misconduct qualify as important news items that make a difference for society at large, and what kinds are just scurrilous gossip about all-too-human, understandable behavior that has no impact on the public, the government or trusted institutions? How do you tell the difference between truly evil behavior or someone just acting like a cad?  

No one seems to know the answers to these questions. The default response lately has been that every time a genital is touched outside of the holy bounds of matrimony, it’s the nation’s business. While on its surface, this may not seem like a bad standard, since it certainly sells newspapers, in reality, it has a toxic effect on our culture. It’s making us more voyeuristic and prudish, for one thing. It also blurs the line between what’s actionable, what’s criminal and what’s stupid-but-not-illegal. You see this effect with Herman Cain, where accusations of sexual harassment--a very serious assault on a woman’s rights--are being rolled up into allegations of a consensual affair, as if they were one and the same thing.  

Because there is so much confusion about the various kinds of sex scandals, I thought I’d catalog six kinds, with tips on how to assess whether or not they are any of your business. Feel free to print this out and send it to your local media outlet, if it's struggling with these questions. 

1) Criminal behavior. With one major exception, anything you do that could get you put in handcuffs is criminal. Perhaps it used to be more complicated in the past, but now that sodomy and adultery are legal, illegal sexual behavior is basically relegated to sexual assault, exposing yourself in public and trading in child pornography. You know, stuff the phrase “consenting adults” was invented to exclude. 

There’s one exception to this rule: Prostitution. Consensual sex between adults where one is getting paid to be there shouldn’t be illegal, but sadly, it still is. Sex with prostitutes, therefore, shouldn’t be treated the same as criminal behavior. 

Examples: Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Jerry Sandusky, Roman Polanski, a seriously distressing number of professional athletes, Herman Cain with regards to the allegation that he physically grabbed a colleague and tried to push her head into his lap.  

Is it any of our business?  Absolutely. The whole point of passing a law against something is to mark it as behavior so beyond the pale that it’s everyone’s business. Not treating it seriously when a major public figure or politician is accused of criminal sexual behavior sends a signal that wealth and privilege should protect you from following the law, and in a democratic society, that’s intolerable. However, if the crime is prostitution, the fact that it shouldn’t be illegal should cause a journalist to categorize the story differently than crimes that have victims.  

2) Predatory behavior that falls short of illegal. Predatory behavior is any kind of sexual behavior in which the predator seeks situations where he can sexually act out on someone whose ability to say no is compromised, but where his behavior may fall short of criminal. Sexual harassment is the big one here, because in most cases, it’s not criminal but it is actionable. It’s also arguable, depending on the circumstances, that preying on teenagers, sleeping with underlings, or otherwise behaving in ways universally understood as creepy could all be considered predatory, though it’s important to take context into account before making that call.  

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