Update: Representative Weiner has announced he’s resigning from congress; the heckling that went on at the press conference only proved further the schizophrenia of this culture I tried to explore a bit below.
As a man, I find the still-unfolding story of Anthony Weiner’s sexting emails and subsequent denial denial denial — followed by his capitulatory okay you got me — too easy a target to treat with moralisms. Sure it’s tempting. How could anyone as smart as Weiner is be as stupid as he was in this case? Is this guy a twelve year old in an adult’s body, or what? How could a guy with such a lovely, intelligent, and newly-married wife find his jollies sending nasty bits to women he doesn’t even know?
On the other hand, why did the media go into a virtual frenzy over pictures and behavior which — by FOX TV standards at least — are fairly tame? I am not defending Weiner, as should already be obvious. But the amount of skin Weiner actually showed has been so far not much different than what one sees during prime time any week night. And at least some of his recipients sent back photos of themselves in states of less than full dress.
The night-time comedians, joking about his last name’s connection to it all… Jay Leno, a man who defends his own use of online pornography, making fun of Representative Weiner? How about the “I live in a big glass house” David Letterman, whose sexual aggression with more than one employee only came to light via an attempted con by another ex-employee? Hypocrisy hangs like dirty smog over this sex-soaked culture and its pundits. The bottom line for too many of them isn’t about morality, or news, but merely audience share / money. “We just give the viewers what they want.” And maybe that’s true?
So maybe Anthony Weiner thought he, too, was giving his viewers what they wanted. Now he knows better. So what can I, also human and at least part-time hypocrite, add to the general white noise whine regarding Anthony Weiner’s self-made personal disaster?
“I suspect that many men, including perhaps Anthony Weiner and certainly myself, find in sex an almost cosmic sense of meaning.”
I am a man. Nearly every man I know deals with sexuality on a daily, often hourly, basis. We are sexually tweaked by advertisements, by our friends’ comments, by our culture’s expectations (very mixed signals there!), by our own physical construction, by our own pasts and imagination. And, almost to a man, we are sexually broken. Some more severely than others, but almost all of us to some degree. Like white folks and race, I think maleness and sexuality are an intrinsically problematic pairing.
I wonder if we men need to stop and deeply, calmly ponder what it is we expect from sex.
I suspect that many men, including perhaps Anthony Weiner and certainly myself, find in sex an almost cosmic sense of meaning. Imagine yourself alone for days, perhaps months, in a state of aloneness. And imagine bubbling up inside of you an increasing anxiety. At last, it cannot remain inarticulate. You cry out in all simplicity the heart of that anxious yearning. What would that cry be?
“Love me! Love me! Love me! Isn’t there anyone to love me?!”
For a person who speaks the language of touch as one of their main modes of communication, this cry is answered most fully not with words. To be held is good. To be possessed by another, and/or possessed in return, is better. And the anxiety of life that comes to all of us is answered by some of us through any and every sexual channel. Some of those channels are affirming… marriage, from the Christian point of view, is the ultimate and only place where sexuality’s affirming properties should be fully expressed. Yet Anthony Weiner was newly married. So many of us are married… yet sexuality within marriage doesn’t seem to be enough. Even a loving wife doesn’t seem to be able to meet our felt need.
What will? Pornography, living together, sexting, adultery, “serial monogamy,” alternative sexualities, and on and on and on… all available at the touch of a few computer keys? (I often shudder to think how much more difficult my adolescence would have been had I grown up in the era of the internet and its easy access to everything from Rep. Weiner’s shorts to free video of triple-X rated sex acts.) But the itch remains unscratched by these avenues. In fact, it becomes worse. We dig and dig a hole that only isolates us from those we love, and there’s no treasure at the bottom to be found — only more dirt.
At this point, one might expect I’d launch into a sermon on “sex as idolatry.” After all, that is what we’re talking about here. Yet isn’t sex more important than we might want to admit? Both Jewish and Christian theology put sex at the very root of human community. Scripture (starting with Genesis 2) says so:
18 Then the Lord God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.” 19 So out of the ground the Lord God formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. 20 The man gave names to all cattle, and to the birds of the air, and to every animal of the field; but for the man there was not found a helper as his partner. 21 So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept; then he took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. 22 And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. 23 Then the man said, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; this one shall be called Woman, for out of Man this one was taken.” 24 Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh. 25 And the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed.
The cry “love me!” is indeed natural, predates the fall. Read Genesis literally or metaphorically, the idea that being alone is not good for us rings true. And God’s provision of a mate, one who in important ways is complementary to us rather than identical to us yet with whom we “fit” — physically and heart-wise — lies at the root of human community. Our cry for love, then, comes from both biology and our spiritual sense of aloneness. As Pascal said of our predicament, “We are reeds, but thinking reeds.” We are well aware of our mortality and imminent demise. We are, on some level, anxious about our fleeting existence and not willing that we should die. This unique capacity to foreknow our own deaths…. does it have a relationship to the fact that we are also the only beings on planet earth who experience sexual desire all the time rather than only during “mating season”? Novelist Walker Percy wryly marveled at our ability to have sex continually… yet never be satisfied.
“You can’t cheat death… no matter how many 19-year-olds you talk into your bed.” — Susan Sarandon in Solitary Man
The movie “Solitary Man” presents us with a male (Michael Douglas) in his early sixties who, upon discovering he has heart problems, starts off on a six year course of self-destruction relationally. He begins picking up young women for sex — doing so in a way which is utterly impersonal and (to the viewer) disturbing. He even sleeps with the daughter of his older girlfriend, with an entirely predictable outcome. His life unravels. Yet he cannot stop. He is driven by a sense of his own life’s futility. He denies his age, even forbidding his grandchildren to call him “Grand dad” in public. He is, like the real life Anthony Weiner, an easy target. His ex-wife (Susan Sarandon) tells him near movie’s end, “You can’t cheat death… no matter how many 19 year olds you talk into your bed.” Our anxieties are about death in the end; sex, even “La Petite Mal,” cannot defeat death.
As with the “Solitary Man,” sex cannot rescue me from death, or even from anxiety. Snapped off from relational wholeness, sexuality will function less and less as a stimulant and more and more as a downer. Heroin is said to only initially offer a high to a user (the rest of the highs actually being more about avoiding the lows than finding more ecstasy). Sex misused deadens the heart and flattens out the experience, making it more one of disunity and alienation. Douglas’ character tells a young woman to get out of his bedroom and life moments after he’s had coitus with her.
The Unreachable Hunger
And so we come back to Anthony Weiner. And here I can say what, for me, is the sadness. What he has done certainly is not the worst compared to the alleged crimes of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, head of the International Monetary Fund and (until his arrest for raping a hotel maid in New York) presidential hopeful in France. Rape is the marquee crime of maleness; Weiner’s adolescent behavior pales in comparison.
But only pales. We are all in this mess together. What one man does to any woman or women has an impact on how all men are perceived. This may or may not be fair; but it is what it is.
Sexuality is intrinsically relational. What happens between a man and a woman is meant to occur within a wholistic world of meaning which itself is fed by the Love of a Perfect and Joyously Hedonistic God. To sin against God is not about morality (in itself just another dead idol). To sin against God is to lose touch with the proper relationship between all things, and so, to lose touch with not only one’s beloved but also one’s own self. Sex cannot restore us to relationship with God. Nor can some moral code do so. Only God Himself can restore us.
G. K. Chesterton, that cheery old Catholic, once said: “Every man who knocks on the door of a brothel is looking for God.” If we men could but learn that our search for meaning via sexuality is actually a search for God, we would at least have a starting place for journeying toward sexual and personal wholeness. Sexuality’s beauty and wonder can only be fully understood within a context of Eternal Meaning.
“But [the sexual] world is not the ultimate world.”
Sex in Christian theology is about communicating love between a husband and wife, with the possible (but not necessary) corollary being the creation of new life. As the Song of Songs reveals, it is a private world to be enjoyed by that tiny community of two in every way that both desire. But that world is not the ultimate world. Anthony Weiner’s primary sin was not against his constituents nor against “good morals.” Anthony Weiner — the person, now — sinned most grievously against his wife and against himself and against God.
There is a cry in the human heart. “Love me! Love me! Please, won’t you love me?!” Sex cannot, by itself, answer that cry.
God has answered. God is answering. God will always answer, and in the most appallingly tender and considerate ways. God is not a rapist. Nor is he someone who sees us men as rapists. He hears our cries as he hears our sisters’ cries. That well-used verse, “God so loved the world that he gave his only Begotten Son…” that is a verse rooted in history and relationality. All relationships, all things that are about relationships, are rooted properly in that central Truth Who is a Person.
Jesus Christ never knew a woman sexually, yet he loved women. Jesus was tempted in all things as are we, and as a man that means he certainly knew sexual temptation. He knowingly sublimated such desires to higher desires — the desire to do the Will of the Love that sent Him.
To Anthony Weiner and all the rest of us who may be more like him than we would ever admit, I suggest we look to the source of our malfunctions, addictions, stubborn rebellious non-relational behaviors and desires. “Love me! Love me!” and our insistence that we know best how to answer our own need…
A very gentle, winsome voice has for thousands of years answered us. “I do love you. But will you love me? My way is a way of suffering. You must deny yourself, pick up your cross, and follow me. You must deny natural hungers — not in a neurotic, destructive way but in a forthright ‘I cannot have both this and that’ way. Will you follow me? I will give you the desires of your heart… but you must allow me to help you discover what those desires truly are.”
One thing is certain. Anthony Weiner’s true desires are not that young women think of him as well-endowed. Rather, I will venture this: I think his real hope is that someone loves him for himself — apart from his political office, apart from his well-muscled physique, apart from from his appearance or what he can do. He wants someone to see him. Really, really see him.
Jesus answered him, “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.” [John 14:23] I would, if allowed, offer Mr. Weiner what the Lord Christ has offered me. His love. It does not stop me from sinning — not always, to my shame — but it does stop me from continuing in sin. He helps me confess my faults before they become a raging cancer. He helps me rediscover sexuality’s beauty and innocence within my marriage. He helps me accept that not all hopes and desires are fulfillable upon this earth, but that in Him I can find contentment even in my occasional sense of lack.
No man’s sexual desires can long serve as the avenue for meaning in his life. Remember Pascal’s words: “There is a God-shaped vacuum in every human heart.” I continue work on discovering answers to that provocative thought, and I pray for Representative Weiner and his wife that they also will also begin to find healing.