What’s So Wrong About Sexting, Anyway?

Like most people, I am both amused and shocked by the latest Anthony Weiner sexting revelations and scandal. It is like a car crash where it is hard to look away even though you know you should.

I am fascinated by the “medicalization” of Weiner’s behavior by some sectors. This CNN clip with therapists is to me a good example.

The words “sexual addiction,” “exhibitionism,” comparisons to alcoholism, “not in control of his actions” are bandied about. This to me has fascinating echoes of the medicalization of homosexuality in the 70s and also the medicalization of the choices made by the transgendered. There like here the strategy is fraught. The patient has to perform the “sick role” as a way of excusing himself from responsibility and/or earn governmental support.

The comparison, though, prompts the following question (and yes I am purposefully trying to be provocative so take it with the appropriate grain of salt): As with homosexuality, what is the underlying problem here that calls out for condemnation? Is this merely legal moralism rearing its head again? What’s so wrong about sexting?

Well, let’s try to answer the question. Let’s take the Weiner situation as our case study. Weiner did many things wrong in the first and more recent revelations. He lied and misled the public about what he had done. He flirted virtually with a woman other than his wife and potentially embarrassed his wife (though this strikes me as less wrong then an extramarital affair which is de rigeur in politics). He showed a technological stupidity in sending it out on his twitter feed. Perhaps he showed “bad judgment” in doing something where he would likely get caught (as an aside, does that mean we want our politicians to be better at doing wrong things so we don’t catch them?)

All of these are contestable, but I will grant they form a basis of condemnation.

But factor these out for a moment. The act of Sexting itself. Why is that wrong? If one person (and to factor out infidelity, lets say both are single) shows off their naked body to another in the form of a photo, what would make that wrong?

Well, one thing would be if you sent your naked body to uninterested or unwilling partners. That would be like walking around nude in your street. Some people just don’t want to see your genitals no matter how gorgeous you think they are! His original twitter fiasco may have had this problem, but not the most recent allegations.

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Is it because he enjoyed the thrill of showing it off? Maybe we think there is some virtue of modesty that is being trampled on? If that was enough to make it wrong I imagine the modeling industry may have some problems going forward.

Is it paternalism? In the case of minors sexting I can understand the concern that the photos will get heavily circulated and one will lose control. But I suppose that’s what apps like snapchat are trying to avoid, and when it comes to a full-grown person like Weiner I think it is fair to let him assume the risk. In any event, if this is the objection let’s simplify by saying that he used snapchat or another mechanism to make sure no one but his intended recipient saw his junk (which apparently he didn’t, more technological stupidity).

If no one is harmed, no one has this imposed upon them without consent, and both the sender and parties enjoy the practice, again I ask what makes it wrong?

I suspect it has to be some legal moralist (or at least moralist where the law does not intervene) idea that attaches special importance to our naked bodies (but only those below the waist since men and women show off what’s on top regularly on HBO to millions) and condemns those who want to display it outside marriage (or at least advanced courtship).

That is the same kind of legal moralism that Justice Scalia marshals in his dissent in Lawrence v. Texas to justify the constitutionality of criminalizing same-sex sex, and which I have been on record as a skeptic about (papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2014069). If this is what’s wrong with Sexting, so be it, but let’s be honest then. What we think Weiner needs is not a therapist, but a scarlet letter.

Glenn Cohen is a professor of law at Harvard Law School and co-Director of the Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology & Bioethics. He is a co-editor at Bill of Health, where this post originally appeared.

9 replies »

  1. Boyoboyoboy! What a news story! Almost as sensational as the fact that a child (It’s a boy!!!!) has been born here in the UK.

    Of course in an utterly sane and politically correct world, everyone would be able to go around naked. The truth is that in THIS world (perhaps inspired by the fig leaves of Adam and Eve) if you drop your trousers in public, not only are you going to be ‘judged’ you are going to medicalised and probably medicated – against your will. Is this sane? Sane or not – it’s the law all over the world.

    Now as for texting. As an MD and provocative therapist, I can confirm that texting is now a popular way to seduce a prospective partner and dump an unwanted partner. If you are a star of the pornography industry, it is perfectly natural to see yourself naked and in action all over the net. So what’s the difference between a politician and a porn star? I guess politicians score a lot lower on the integrity scale because as everyone knows ‘The camera does not lie’ So as for Mr Weiner, who knows? Sending those texts may rank among the most truthful things he ever did. But as we all know, the truth (especially when it come with TMI, too much information) can really hurt.

  2. I think there are a few dimensions to this.
    First, I think the sense that he has a mental illness comes not from the fact that he sexted, but from the fact that he was apparently stupid enough to sext even though he had so much to loose in the public sphere. I don’t think anyone would assume your standard non-famous sexter has a mental condition.

    Second, I think the “mental illness theory” stems in part from a desire to absolve Weiner. That is, if he doesn’t have a mental problem, then that means he willfully deceived the public and apparently his wide, and never had any intention to stop sexting. It’s rather like the parent who insists their child must have ADHD, solely because he doesn’t do his homework.

    Third, there is a strong social taboo at work here. It is interesting that you bring up homosexuality, which exists outside of the heteronormative taboos, because in the gay community sexting is mostly just considered standard practice. The most common text on Grindr asks “got any other pics?” he’s not talking about your eyes. But in the heteronormative world, “normal” is defined narrowly in terms of the quintessential married couple trying to conceive, and everything else is considered, to varying degrees, “taboo.” Though most people violate these taboos in practice, there is a societal expectation that you keep these violations secret, or else risk being ostrasized. The essence of Weiner’s “wrongdoing” isn’t so much that he violated the norms that society tacitly enforces, but that failed to keep it a secret.

    That’s not to say that what Weiner did was morally acceptable. We don’t have the right to define the nature of their marriage for them–some married couples don’t mind if their partners sext with others–but it does seem in this case that Huma did have an expectation of fidelity, and thus Anthony did do something very wrong that hurt her. Also, as you mention, sexting is only acceptable between consenting participants, and at least early on that did not seem to be the case. And finally, even if we disagree with the taboo, that does not totally absolve him from breaking that taboo–taking such a huge personal risk for such a silly reason doesn’t reflect well on his sense of judgement (though, perhaps exactly this logic is what makes taboos so insidious in the first place).

  3. A public figure must engender a certain degree of trust. Anthony Weiner’s activities demonstrate that he is incapable of that trust.

  4. I see at least two things which I would consider very wrong and not acceptable for anyone seeking for a public office:
    1. Lying. No matter what is the subject, but one who lies does not deserve the public trust.
    2. Incapability/irresponsibility to put public interest ahead of personal. I am sure that Mr. Weiner realized that what he was doing was inappropriate from a public point of view. At that point he had to decide what did he want most: to continue with sexting or to stop it in case he wanted to become a public figure?
    A great history example is the story of Edward VIII. Unlike with sexting there was absolutely nothing wrong in the fact that he fell in love with Wallis Simpson. But (without going into details) since it became incompatible with being a king, he had to make a choice and he made a very honorable choice. What Mr. Weiner does is very dishonorable (no matter whether sexting is a disease or just bad behavior).

  5. “If no one is harmed, no one has this imposed upon them without consent, and both the sender and parties enjoy the practice, again I ask what makes it wrong?”

    Are you claiming his wife hasn’t been “harmed” by this lurid circus? Are you claiming the constituents within his jurisdiction are not “harmed” by all the waste of time and energy (and the revelation that they may have been supporting a fraud for Mayor of their city)?

    Or, is this just some generic academic Philosophy 101 exercise?

    “both the sender and parties enjoy the practice”

    Y’see, that’s ALL that matters, right?