Yesterday, we published the anonymous account of a young man from Philadelphia who had a naked sleepover with Delaware GOP senatorial candidate Christine O'Donnell three years ago. Some people did not like that! Here's why we'd do it again.
The reaction to the O'Donnell story was fairly unanimous: The New York Times' David Carr called it "skeevy" and "scuzzy"; TBD's Amanda Hess called it "degrading" and "misogynist"; and the National Organization for Women accused us of "public sexual harassment." Andrew Sullivan found it to be a "cowardly, brutal and misogynist invasion of privacy," while O'Donnell's campaign called it "slander" and labeled us "classless Coons goons," falsely claiming that we were doing the bidding of her Democratic opponent, Chris Coons. (O'Donnell did not dispute any of the story's particulars.) The Coons campaign, meanwhile, called it "despicable."
Three general lines of argument have emerged attacking the post: 1) Politicians' intimate sexual encounters—or at least this intimate sexual encounter—ought to be off-limits; 2) O'Donnell is a woman, and publishing accounts of her sexual behavior amounts to sexist "slut-shaming"; and 3) Nothing in the account we published directly contradicts O'Donnell's public stances.
What's missing from most of the criticism is this essential bit of context: Christine O'Donnell is seeking federal office based in part on her self-generated, and carefully tended, image as a sexually chaste woman. She lies about who she is; she tells that lie in service of an attempt to impose her private sexual values on her fellow citizens; and she's running for Senate. We thought information documenting that lie—that O'Donnell does not live a chaste life as she defines the word, and in fact hops into bed, naked and drunk, with men that she's just met—was of interest to our readers.
Much of the criticism leveled against us is based on the premise that we think hopping into bed, naked and drunk, with men or women whenever one wants is "slutty," and that therefore our publication of Anonymous' story was intended to diminish O'Donnell on those terms. Any reader of this site ought to rather quickly gather that we are in fact avid supporters of hopping into bed, naked and drunk, with men or women that one has just met.
Our problem with O'Donnell—and the reason that the information we published about her is relevant—is that she has repeatedly described herself and her beliefs in terms that suggest that there is something wrong with hopping into bed, naked and drunk, with a man or woman whom one has just met. So that fact that she behaves that way, while publicly condemning similar behavior, in the context of an attempt to win a seat in the United States Senate, is a story we thought people might like to know about. We also thought it would get us lots of clicks and money and attention. But we thought it would get us clicks and money and attention because it was exposing her lies.
Now a lot of people think that the fact that O'Donnell declined to actually engage in sexual intercourse with Anonymous renders the entire story irrelevant and invasive: She calls herself a virgin, and acts like a virgin, so what's the big deal? "Indeed by the guy's own telling, she didn't even violate her views on abstinence - not with him, and not subsequently in the alleged year-long relationship with his roommate," wrote Danielle Crittenden. Sure, she got drunk and naked with a guy she barely knew (again—we think that's great if that's what you're into!), but since she never put the "p-in-the-v," as our sister site Jezebel put it, no charge of hypocrisy can be leveled. She simply took her rules up to the edge and stopped there.
Well, here's what Christine O'Donnell thinks about abstinence and virginity, per a 1998 essay in a right-wing journal:
As Christians, virginity is not even our goal. Purity and holiness are our calling in Christ. In Philippians 3:14 when the apostle Paul urges us to "press toward the goal" he is not calling us to push the limits as long as we don't cross the line. He continues to assure us that it is a prize, a great reward, to live as Christ calls us to live.
I know many physical virgins who are not sexually pure. I know many virgins who are into pornography or who are "doing everything but" with their boyfriends. On the flip side, I know many non-virgins who live beautiful, holy, pure lives through the power of Christ's blood.
Well, we certainly know one virgin—or revirginated virgin—who is not "pure." Or maybe she is. Maybe in light of the above, Christine O'Donnell's definition of purity, of chastity, of living "through the power of Christ's blood" comports, in her mind, with her behavior on Halloween three years ago, when she got drunk, sought after the affections of a man she barely knew, asked him to take her home, took off all her clothes, and got into bed with him. If so, it's a strange (and kind of interesting!) definition of chastity, one that is directly at odds with O'Donnell's carefully crafted public image, and one that we thought people ought to know about. (Also: The irony of the "she didn't do it" argument is the implication that if she had done it, then that would be a story. But also you're not supposed to talk about ladies having sex and it's all very private and you monsters!)
"Slut-shaming" is telling women that if they indulge their sexual desires they are impure. It's telling them that if they view pornography, there is something wrong with them. Christine O'Donnell seeks to "shame" "sluts" on an hourly basis. Worse, she believes people who hop into bed with people they barely know who happen to be of the same sex suffer from an "identity disorder" and are "deviants." She has repeatedly chosen, of her own volition, to make it her business to condemn the private sexual behaviors of millions of men and women who believe, or behave, differently than she does. She's of course free to do so. But when it turns out that her own private sexual behavior doesn't measure up to her public rhetoric—that she "push[es] the limits" without crossing the line as opposed to "living through the power of Christ's blood"—it deserves to be noted. And the argument that someone's private life shouldn't be the object of public attention isn't really available to someone who has manufactured a political and pseudo-celebrity career out of publicly casting judgment on the private behavior of others.
But what, as so many have asked, if she were a man? We don't know, ask Brett Favre. Anyone who honestly believes that we wouldn't eagerly publish an analogous account about a night with, say, Rep. Aaron Schock, needs to acquaint themselves with one of the many profiles of Gawker Media's founder, Nick Denton. Or read the site now and again. The fact that O'Donnell is a youngish, attractive woman certainly plays a role in how people reacted to the story. Maybe a similar story about Schock, or any other male politician, wouldn't have played as well. But is that our fault? Trust us, we're not sitting on a hoard of comical photos of drunken male politicians that we're protecting because we think girls are icky.
And would we have published an assessment of the body hair of a male politician? Well, ask Scott Brown. Does anyone really think that if we obtained an anonymous account of, say, a night with Joe Miller, and the account revealed that he was a manscaper with a crotch like a dolphin's belly, we would edit that out of the story out of respect for his privacy?
A good deal of the reaction to the piece was governed by revulsion at the voice of Anonymous, who certainly comes off as a dick. So yes, we will grant you that the 25-year-old guy Christine O'Donnell drunkenly pursued, and bedded, on Halloween night three years ago is not a gentleman. We wish she had better taste in guys. But our publication of his account wasn't intended as a celebration of his character. It was intended to expose the lies and hypocrisy of a U.S. Senate candidate and prominent Tea Party conservative who uses her own purported chastity and righteousness to market herself and gain political power.
So no, we don't think there's anything wrong with what Christine O'Donnell did on Halloween three years ago. We think there's something wrong with what she's done every day since, though. And we're happy to expose the hypocrisy. It's kind of a simple point, really. Remember Larry Craig? Ted Haggard? Are people really so shocked that we'd want to publicize the distance between her private behavior and public rhetoric? "We are all probably supposed to feel OK about mousing over this because Ms. O'Donnell has championed chaste living in her public life," writes Carr, as though the gulf between O'Donnell's professed lifestyle and her actual behavior isn't enough. And by the way, while we find O'Donnell's politics loathsome, our interest in Anonymous' story wasn't about her politics as much as that gulf. As our frequent feuds with Keith Olbermann demonstrate, we're not rigidly ideological in our targeting.
"Yes it's true she might have violated her own self-professed sexual ethics," writes an outraged Crittenden. "[B]ut really! Is this the standard we are now going to hold public figures to? Are we really going to get into a public debate about private dating behavior, and whether or not one sticks to a standard on a consistent basis?"
Yes, really. As crazy as it sounds, it really has come down to holding public figures accountable to their public rhetoric. We didn't start the debate about anyone's "private dating behavior." Christine O'Donnell and all her sexual scold friends did. But if they want to have it, they ought to be prepared to live chastely. Otherwise people might tell.
[Photos of O'Donnell at campaign events via Getty Images]