Conservative Sex Scandals and the Psychology of Denial
Florida’s state representative Mark Foley was a pioneer of legislation against child pornography and for making laws against sex offenders more stringent. In September 2006, a long-brewing scandal broke publicly concerning Foley’s exchange of sexually explicit instant messages with underage congressional pages.
Foley’s scandal launched investigation into a 1996 camping trip that Arizona State Representative Jim Kolbe took with two teenaged congressional pages. His behavior towards the teenagers was questionable according to several witnesses – “fawning, petting, and touching.” Though he eventually came out as a homosexual, while he was still in the closet he voted in favor of the Defense of Marriage act.
Most recently two legislators were caught soliciting sex in public restrooms. Florida State Representative Bob Allen, who had attempted to pass a bill criminalizing masturbation in front of another person (regardless of consent), was arrested for soliciting prostitution in a Florida public restroom. He offered 20 dollars to an undercover police officer to perform oral sex.
The latest and most public is Larry Craig. The Idaho senator had voted against extending rights to same-sex couples when he supported the Federal Marriage Amendment. He was arrested in August on suspicion of lewd conduct when he solicited gay sex from an undercover police officer in a public restroom.
Each of these politicians have in some way, to varying degrees, legislated against their own sexual behavior: crusading against child pornography while exchanging sexually explicit messages with underage pages; banning lewd public sex acts while seeking prostitution in a public restroom; voting against homosexual rights while engaging in homosexual sex.
One can even look beyond politics to find similar examples of this hypocrisy. In November 2006, a scandal broke surrounding Ted Haggard, the former leader of the National Association of Evangelicals. He allegedly had a methamphetamine-fueled homosexual tryst with a prostitute that spanned three years.
At first glance, the amalgamation of all of these cases may be overwhelming and confusing. Why are so many high-profile conservatives being revealed as hypocrites?
“It’s entirely predictable. There’s nothing really surprising about it,” says Hugh Stephenson, Associate Professor of Psychology at Ithaca College. To the psychological community, the behavior of Larry Craig was no surprise. In fact, anyone familiar with the Tearoom Trade study could have practically narrated the events of Craig’s encounter with an undercover police officer at the Minneapolis – St. Paul Airport.
As a graduate student of psychology at Washington University in the mid-1960s, Laud Humphreys conducted his Ph.D. dissertation on systematic impersonal sex between men in public restrooms – what he dubbed the Tearoom Trade. Though his methods were criticized on grounds of invading privacy, his findings were shocking.
A large percentage of the men partaking in sex in public restrooms fit the following profile: a happily married heterosexual father who is an upstanding and respected person among his community.
Why is this the case? Well, 38 percent of the subjects had marriages in which sex was infrequent or tension was high. As Dr. Joan Sieber of The Kennedy Institute writes, the Tearoom Trade was “a form of orgasm-producing action that was less lonely than masturbation and less involving than a love relationship.” So, it was more exciting than jacking off, but required less emotional and time consuming than a mistress. The risk of public ruin used to be less as well until law enforcement began interfering.
The involvement of police has been an issue of controversy. The American Civil Liberties Union has complained that the methods law enforcement officers use to catch men engaging in this type of public sex could be classified as entrapment. The Tearoom Trade is a system with its own codified language of toe-taps and other gestures. Police officers have been communicating within this language, inviting hopeful participants to engage in gay sex. However, instead of the anticipated blowjob, the men receive a badge flashed in their faces and handcuffs slapped on their wrists.
“The real motive behind secret sting operations like the one that resulted in Senator Craig’s arrest is not to stop people from inappropriate activity. It is to make as many arrests as possible – arrests that sometimes unconstitutionally trap innocent people,” said Anthony Romero, Executive Director of the ACLU in a press release.
The argument is that a person not wanting to participate would not respond to the various signals, and therefore does not stand at risk to unwanted sexual harassment. Police officers are playing the part of a hopeful participant, and thereby provoking men to commit a crime. Police departments counter saying that homosexual sex in restrooms is a public nuisance and this is the most effective way that they can stop it. Daryl Bem, Professor Emeritus of Psychology at Cornell University suggests that a simple prominent positioning of a police officer would be sufficient to deter sexual activity in public restrooms.
But why are some of the most outwardly conservative members of the community turning out to be the most common participants in restroom sex? Even more important, why are they being found, more and more frequently, at the top levels of government?
It’s all the result of what Humphreys calls the “Breastplate of Righteousness.” Professor Stephenson suggests the best framework for understanding this phenomenon is Freudian psychodynamics.
“The difficult part of this is that the framework that makes this most interpretable is the psychodynamic framework - Freudian,” says Stephenson. “But Freudian is like a bad word. Some of Freud is really out there, but there are also some really common sense ideas.”
Reaction Formation, as applied directly to this situation, goes a little something like this. The person in question has fear and anxiety about homosexuality. While they may be, in fact, homosexual, they are not consciously aware of it. Their fear, however, causes them to speak out strongly against homosexuality.
Bem explains further: “The classic Reaction Formation example is the pornography crusader. By becoming a crusader they still get to look at all of these images.” Their work allows them to come into frequent contact with pornography, yet they present an outward image of being vehemently against pornography.
Humphreys suggests the Breastplate of Righteousness theory has the same result – strong, outward criticism of the anxiety-producing fear. There is one key difference, however: consciousness. Humphreys suggests that these men are aware of their homosexual tendencies, and live doubly conservative public lives to compensate. Anxiety from behavior believed to be unacceptable is countered by its polar opposite. These men recognize the vice in their lives – anonymous homosexual trysts in public restrooms – and consider them unacceptable. As a result, they live an exceptionally conservative and anti-homosexual lifestyle. They attempt to outwardly be everything that a stereotyped homosexual is not: heterosexual, married, fatherly, monogamous.
Regardless of whether the homosexual tendencies are conscious or not, is it any wonder that these men have no problem finding their way to the frontlines of politics, particularly the Republican Party? They outwardly represent everything the most conservative right-winger stands for: the blue-blazered, attaché-carrying, hardworking family man. And when all the righteousness is revealed to be the result of a private vice, people are shocked.
“It might be that these people get projected into the most public pulpit because of the ferocity or strength of their statement… They get projected into these positions where the fall is going to be that much harder,” says Stephenson. “People who have these conflicts – the way those conflicts interact with the social environment kind of sets them up for public humiliation.”
It is a strange and unfortunate dilemma, that what appears to carry these people to the top, also, as seen again and again, comes full circle to drive them back down. For Senator Craig even the national exposure his case has received has not been able to shake him out of his denial. More than three months after his arrest Senator Craig attempted to withdraw his initial guilty plea and still maintains that he is not a homosexual. Craig was expected to resign at the end of September, but now will likely remain in the Senate until he is sentenced.
by Jake Forney