The Power of Discourse in a Political Sex Scandal

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The Power of Discourse in a Political Sex Scandal

Maureen Convery

On August 12th, 2004 New Jersey Governor James McGreevey became this nation's first openly gay state governor. Several moments after he stated, "I am a gay American", he succumbed to intense political and public pressure by announcing his resignation from New Jersey's most powerful position. This announcement and resignation came after a week of intense allegations that McGreevey sexually harassed a male colleague whom he had appointed. While American politics are not foreign to sexual scandal, the political destruction and individual defeat which McGreevey currently faces is poignantly unique. Throughout his career, McGreevey has been formally investigated for unethical political practices on at least 4 occasions. One of the current investigations includes allegations of fraudulent campaign finance practices and nepotism within upper end political appointments. Despite the severity of these allegations, it was the charge of sexual assault from a male employee that forced his resignation and retirement from politics. In order to understand the severity of the sexual harassment allegations against McGreevey, it is necessary to look at the situation through the eyes of Rubin and Foucault. Not only did McGreevey's actions reflect the social sexual hierarchy described by Rubin, but through his secrecy and discretion McGreevey disrupted the powerful discourse of his position with political and public realms.

In her essay "Thinking Sex", Gayle Rubin strictly outlines the rules of sexual conduct which currently exist in Western society. These rules have created a sexual hierarchy which places heterosexual, monogamous, married, reproductive sex at the top. Anything deterring from this position, is placed below in varying degrees. The allegations of sexual assault made against McGreevey not only announce publicly his sexual preference, but according to Rubin, place him at the very bottom of the sexual hierarchy. First and foremost, McGreevey is a married man. Any act of sexual advance towards anyone besides his wife can be seen as adulterous. Second, these sexual advances were made toward a male colleague while McGreevey remained in a heterosexual marriage. Thus, in the eyes of a bystander, he is eliciting homosexual behavior without claiming full affiliation with the gay community.

Most importantly, the allegations of sexual harassment bring into question the consensual nature of his advances. As Rubin explains "A democratic morality should judge sexual acts by the way partners treat one another, the level of mutual consideration, the presence or absence of coercion, and the quantity and quality of the pleasures which they provide."(Rubin 18) This emphasis on consensual nature was reflected in the media's stress of the victim's "straight" sexuality. In strictly defining this identity, any question of the victim's desire or coercion was dismissed. Even those who do not feel that either homosexuality or adultery is grounds for personal denouncement can identify the lack of consent and coercive nature of McGreevey's behavior as deterring from the sexual hierarchy.

The most damning influence of the sexual hierarchy is its use as a standard measurement of character. As Rubin States, "Individuals whose behavior stand high in this hierarchy are rewarded with certified mental health, respectability, legality, social and physical mobility, institutional support, and material benefits."(Rubin 15) McGreevey's placement at the lowest end of the sexual hierarchy not only challenges his moral character and mental health, but his mere ability to move within a political structure. In his resignation speech McGreevey identified the correlation between his sexual behavior and his personal identity. He stated "Given the circumstances surrounding the affair and its likely impact upon my family and my ability to govern, I have decided the right course of action is to resign". In this statement, McGreevey identifies questions of personal ability which led him to relinquish his professional responsibilities to someone without such a challenge.

This diminution of moral and mental character is no doubt motivation to question McGreevey's ability to govern. However, would this alone lead to such a public and political challenge of his position? For this answer, it is necessary to turn to the issue of sexual discourse. In his essay "The History of Sexuality", Foucault identifies that discourse is the power behind sex. He states, " The central issue is not to determine whether one says yes or no to sex, whether one formulates prohibitions or permissions, whether one asserts its importance or denies its effects, or whether one refines the words one uses to designate it; but to account for the fact that it is spoken about, to discover who does the speaking, the positions and viewpoints from which they speak, the institutions what prompt people to speak about it and which stores and distribute the things are said." (Foucault 11) In essence, in refraining from discourse, the individual challenges the power balance between them and the community around them. In McGreevey's case, through his secrecy and discretion, he removed the public and other political officials from formal discourse. This exclusion detached the power and influence which the public held in his formation and portrayal of identity. As he stated in his resignation speech, "I realize the fact of this affair and my own sexuality if kept secret leaves me and most importantly the governor's office, vulnerable to rumors, false allegations and threats of disclosure." In the political sphere a sense of control and affinity with those in power is essential in ensuring that individual beliefs are defended. McGreevey undermined affinity through his removal of other parties from discourse.

More specifically, without discourse, there can be no policing of sex. Without policing of sex, the sexual hierarchy which appears to be at the heart of social interaction and interpersonal understanding can not be upheld. As Foucault states, "A policing of sex; that is, not the rigor of a taboo, but the necessity of regulating sex through useful and public discourses."(Foucault 25) Sex is political. It is a ground on which moral judgments and a basic measure of character can be made. In a world were people are chosen on the basis of moral and mental capabilities, this sense of policing instills a large amount of power into the hands of those choosing the "best candidate".

Once the concern for discourse is identified, is there any way to restore confidence in a man who disrupted discourse through secrecy? According to Foucault, this can be achieved through the traditional penance of confession. As he states, "Not only will you confess to acts contravening the law but you will seek to transform your desire, every desire, into discourse"(Foucault 21) By announcing his homosexuality and basis for relations on which he was being charged publicly through his professional position, McGreevey achieved such a penance. In identifying fault, he is supporting the very sexual laws which have bound him and thus he restores the power to the hands of bystanders.

Once these confessions were made, McGreevey still faced public ridicule and denouncement. According to Foucault, once discourse is reestablished and sexual policing is able to once again take effect, a general acceptance can be reached. However, the power balance in the case if McGreevey was not restored. This discrepancy calls into question the quality and sufficiency of discourse which occurred in McGreevey's confession. In his essay "Aversion/Perversion/Diversion", Samuel D. Delany explains how social boundaries still control the degree of discourse which can occur. He states, "We must not assume that "everything" is articulated; we are still dealing with topics that were always circumscribed by a greater or lesser social policing" (Delay 140). In his resignation speech and subsequent interviews, McGreevey showed extreme discretion in the description of his affair and homosexual identity. Social and professional boundaries restrained him from reaching full discourse with those whom his future depends.

Most importantly, Delay examines the possibility that full discourse regardless of social policing can never be achieved. He describes sexual identity as being outside of language. There are experiences and emotions which are excluded from articulation. Thus, it is impossible according to Delay, to reach full discourse surrounding sexual understanding. Thus, once the ideal sexual standing of an individual is dissipated it is impossible for them to regain a sense of true acceptance and power.

There is no question that the events surrounding McGreevey's resignation present many implications of social understanding and discourse of sexuality. The strict criticism and public denouncement while initially seeming based on sexual prejudice and repression, is actually illustrating exercise and balance of power. This power is achieved through discourse with all affiliated parties. One of the fatal flaws in McGreevey's case is the fact that full discourse can never be fully achieved due to the presence of social boundaries and lack of proper articulation. Thus, once he has fallen from grace, it may be impossible for him to ever regain the position that he once held. It is in understanding the terms which we judge public officials that we can begin to understand our reactions. Is it a fair judgment to hold McGreevey so strictly to a code of sexual conduct while not holding him equally accountable in his business transactions and mere political decisions? It appears in McGreevey's case that it was sex, something which is suppose to remain outside the realm of politics, which eventually destroyed his professional reputation. Do we as voters allow our own sexuality and sexual judgments to cloud decisions in realms where we are suppose to rely on our mental judgments? And are we in doing so just as guilty as those who we judge?

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