I’m a scandalogist, but I never thought researching political sex scandals would actually matter.
Instead, it was great fodder for dinner parties and a guarantee that I wouldn’t lose interest during the slog through my Ph.D. program. There’d always be fresh “data” to study and people who’d want to talk about it. I was drawn to this research more for titillation than intellectual curiosity. An academic subject that’s illicit and allowed me to interview people about sex, schadenfreude and stigma? Sign me up!
But now, it seems, the sex antics of former New York Congressman Anthony Weiner is Ground Zero in the Comey catastrophe.
Oh, how I wish my research wasn’t at the heart of our democracy on the brink of calamity! Because now there’s pressure to say something that actually holds weight. I was much more comfortable as the person with useless sexploitation trivia ready to deploy during awkward silences at faculty meetings and during conversation lulls over weekend brunch.
In the good old days, my research was entertainment wearing scholarly garb. It centered on illicit assignations that were little more than intimate rendezvous, but I tossed around a few references to social institutions, gender performance, feminist discourse and narrative inquiry, and suddenly I had the basis of academic journal articles investigating the hegemonic implications of donning black socks while going for a romp, the subversive power play of jetting off to Argentina to meet a secret lover and the reification of gender norms when sending saucy photos to staff subordinates.
Research was fun! Was it superficial? I didn’t care!
Sure, rejections from academic journals trickled in but I scoffed at the comments. One anonymous reviewer said that I should study something important — like health care. Why would I want to do something like that? That’s not entertaining. That’s depressing!
But now the study of scandal has gotten serious. That’s because attention-seeking Anthony Weiner had to disrupt the scandal script with his compulsive behavior. Explicit texts sent to an underage girl in North Carolina prompted an FBI investigation. This netted classified emails from his wife, Huma Abedin — Hillary Clinton’s top aide — backed up, and forwarded, onto Weiner’s computer. That revelation in October 2016 publicly reopened the investigation into Clinton's emails less than two weeks before the presidential election, a move that Clinton said contributed to her defeat and that candidate Donald Trump previously said, “took a lot of guts.”
But now President Trump has kicked Comey to the curb (originally citing the FBI director's mishandling of the investigation into Clinton's private server) and as a result, the probe into Russian meddling in the U.S. presidential election has hit a brick wall. But this political scandal keeps unraveling and accelerating. Did Trump pressure Comey to drop the FBI investigation into the former national security adviser Michael Flynn? Did Trump violate his presidential oath when he revealed classified information to Russian officials in a White House meeting? Is our president actively trying to “squelch” FBI investigations into possible campaign collusion with Russian operatives?
Which brings us to the ultimate question: Is this mess all because of Weiner? Can we pin it all on a sex scandal that began as an FBI investigation into Weiner's misbehavior but soon wandered into the Clinton email controversy, possibly giving a boost to Trump?
In classic academic fashion, I’ll spin the question around. What do you think?
Perhaps I should thank Weiner instead of rolling my eyes at him. After all, I no longer have to justify the importance of my research. Previously, I had to perform a circus act, contorting words, theories and arguments about the civic impact of scandals, like this (as ripped straight from my book): "Scandals turn politics into a spectator sport, contribute to the mistrust of government, cause citizens to question politicians’ competence, and diminish politicians’ ability to do good for the people who elected them."
Blah. Blah. Blah.
Hey. It’s a new dawn for scandal research. News developments clearly show that sexually errant texts can snowball into federal investigations, spiraling into a tawdry cauldron of campaign collusion and Russian hacking, potentially hijacking our democracy.
Take that, health care research!
Welcome to the salacious world of scandal study, a rotten onion that reveals its noxious plots as we peel back the layers. This is America. Sex sells. Especially when Russia is buying and Weiner is texting.