Thursday, October 13, 2005

Politics and Sex

E.J. Graff poses some interesting questions: Is the American media reporting properly on the sexual shenanigans of politicians? When should the voters be told about a politician's private sex life? When is talking about it irrelevant for the pursuit of better politics? She answers:

In theory, most of us agree: on the one hand, the media should never cover consensual and private adult behavior, even when it might seem unsavory. On the other, the media should always cover coercive or criminal behavior, especially when it abuses public power or reveals official hypocrisy. But in practice, for the last decade, the American media have been getting it backward.

This leaves out the hypocricy factor. Is it proper to out gay politicians, say, if they consistently pursue anti-gay policies? Or should we be told that a pro-life politician or the girlfriend or wife of one is having an abortion? I'm not sure, and would probably judge each case separately.

As an example of the media's failing to run with a story about sex that does seem relevant to talk about Graff mentions the Nation article by Ayelish McGarvey on Dr. David Hager who was then on Bush's Advisory Committee for Reproductive Health Drugs:

Consider the appalling fact that only The Nation has given real coverage to serious allegations against Dr. David Hager, President Bush's controversial appointee to the Food and Drug Administration's Advisory Committee for Reproductive Health Drugs. According to the reporter Ayelish McGarvey, in October 2004 Hager took the pulpit at Kentucky's Asbury College chapel and told churchgoers that he had been persecuted for standing up on "moral and ethical issues in this country," persecution that was part of "a war being waged against Christians, particularly evangelical Christians."

Here's what he meant: many people had opposed his appointment as the panel's chairman because he had worked with Concerned Women for America to block distribution of RU-486, the "morning after" birth control pill. While Hager did not become chairman, he was appointed to the committee, where, he boasted from the same pulpit, he had been influential in blocking over-the-counter distribution of RU-486. In May 2005, The Nation published McGarvey's article, in which Hager's ex-wife, Linda Carruth Davis, alleged that, during the years that he had been crusading to restrict women's medical choices, he had been raping her repeatedly, anally and painfully, often while she was drugged into sleep by prescriptions for a neurological problem. When McGarvey contacted him, Hager would not deny the allegations.

No other media outlet ran with this story. Yet anyone -- especially any public official -- who cannot respect another human being's bodily integrity can and must be called to account. Such acts matter still more when there's an intellectual link between the public figure's attitudes and behaviors and the public policies he promotes. That's precisely the case for Hager, who -- if the allegations are true -- publicly worked to deny women the right to make choices in their medical lives, while privately denying his wife choices about her physical life.

Were the allegations true? Ex-spouses say terrible things, and she wasn't under oath, both of which any editor must consider. But fact by fact, McGarvey constructs a careful story, not a casual he-said/she-said shocker. According to her lawyer and longtime friends, Davis's charges were consistent with what she'd told them at the time, as was her explanation that the reason she didn't go to court was that she had wanted to spare her sons the humiliation of a public airing. Very few women report marital rape, which, as McGarvey notes, is notoriously difficult to prosecute.

Yet this story, sensational enough, gained no further publicity (except on blogs). Partly this could be because Dr. Hager resigned right after the publication of the story, but such resignations have not kept the media quiet in the past. And clearly the story contained relevant information for judging Dr. Hager's suitability for the role he had in the administration. What made this story unappetizing for the usual media treatment of sexual peccadillos?

Could it be that it was criticizing an administration which has been very quick to take offense and revenge? Or is a story about a wife's private anguish not titillating enough to make money?