What sort of sex are politicians allowed?

“Normal sex” is okay, but weird sex is not.

Anthony Weiner’s loss in the New York Mayoral campaign sends some useful signals about voter tolerance for personal lives.

Weiner left Congress following exposure that he sent unsolicited sex-related texts and selfies to women. Within two years, he was running for the New York major. I used his case to detail how a politician could restart their career in ten steps.

Coincidentally, Weiner was running at the same time as another previously shamed politician, Eliot Spitzer. He resigned a Governor in 2008 for having sex with prostitutes.

The verdict goes a little way to indicating voter’s tolerance for aberrant sexual behaviour.

Weiner lost heavily. He came last, with five percent of the vote. We can at least partly conclude that if politicians have clearly evident sexual urges, of an unusual nature, it cuts down votes. Weiner’s character is undoubtedly a factor, but he had previously won election, when his sexual interests were not known.

In contrast, Spitzer narrowly lost his campaign for NY city comptroller (48% vs 52%). We can partly conclude that his indiscretions were not a major problem for almost half the voters, and possibly more (who voted against him for other reasons).

What is particularly important is the role of the media in these losses. Weiner’s narcissism fascinated the US media. His lurid behaviour made for fantastic stories, and his insistence on fronting up to media and public meant there was plenty of content.

Spitzer was hounded by media, who consistently mentioned the sexual past in stories about his campaign. But Spitzer refused to talk about the issue, and avoided uncontrolled media and public engagement. This limited the ability of media to fill out the impropriety theme.

What is it about the situations, or the sex, that makes the difference?

Although Weiner’s case appears extreme, he doesn’t seem to have had sex outside his marriage. But his activity was salacious and unusual. It also signaled a character that didn’t know boundaries, was pre-occupied and didn’t have a sense of humility.

Spitzer did have sex outside marriage; but paid for it with expensive prostitutes. Neither the type nor method of the sex was different, apart from the snooze-inducing revelation that he wore socks during sessions. The role of FBI surveillance heightened public interest, as did the fact that it was a long standing activity, and he made extensive efforts to hide it. But, when found out, he apologized profusely and seemed contrite.

The lesson to be drawn is that the public are not comfortable with politicians exposed for sex that is unusual or deviant, or that appears to distract their purpose or character. Sexual indiscretions that are morally undesirable or ambiguous, but all too common, are more readily tolerated by voters.

In a moment that makes me sad for what politics does to people, Anthony Weiner holds his son while talking to media after he lost the New York mayoralty race.

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