I really enjoyed these two blog posts at Broadsheet examining what might be the most shocking thing of all about this Mark Sanford scandal, which is that it actually fits the standard adultery narrative, where the cheater falls in love. And what’s fascinating is how much people are embarrassed for him because of it, which doesn’t make much sense to me, since I thought the emails that were published weren’t anything unusual, though definitely private.* But as Amy Benfer notes, that Sanford is in love with a woman has been treated like it’s somehow emasculating.
Keith Olbermann compared his prose style to “The Bridges of Madison County” while his guest, comedian Christian Finnegan, said Sanford’s love letters were so perfectly attuned to the romantic fantasies of middle-aged women that Sanford was likely to see his fans wearing T-shirts that read: “I am a 45-year-old depressed housewife and I vote!”
Ah yes, the idea that men could be breathlessly in love is a fantasy only held by sheltered, naive women. Real men prove it by treating women like sex-and-housework-dispensing appliances, and certainly don’t debase themselves by admiring or, god forbid, even respecting women. Okay, I doubt that Olbermann and Finnegan would actually agree with that sentiment (unlike wingnut douchebags that Glenn Greenwald so sweetly dissects), but still, they’re relying on the trope that real men don’t love to get humor out of the situation.
But perhaps the Real Men Don’t Love theory is what got Sanford stuck in this trap in the first place? Some of the commenters at Broadsheet—the non-nutty ones—left some intriguing comments that suggest that this is a possibility. Commenter Icarus says something that made me stop and think:
Some people may never have had the experience of passionate desire. To them, “love” and relationships are akin to a personal contract, a transaction (I’m looking at you Mrs. Sanford). When it hits them for the first time mid-life they have no experience dealing with it. It’s as if their experience of the world up to this point has been AM Radio and all of a sudden they are exposed to Color TV. I say we should pity them.
Jenny Sanford’s epic press release telling her side of the story is stuffed to the gills with the “love is work” mentality, and in the hands of right wingers, the sexism that underpins this marriage-as-joyless-drudgery mentality rises to the surface. The lightening strike passionate love relies heavily on mutual, intense admiration, and that’s a little bit different than the “men are from Mars/women are from Venus” recommendations for mating that Christian wingnuts endorse, where wives are chosen for being organized and submissive and husbands are chosen for being good providers with strong ambition. And, more importantly, where it’s assumed that men and women have so little in common that the best they can hope for is to create a marriage on hard work and a lot of compromise, because the kind of easy affection that friends have for each other is beyond men and women. Plus, as the writer that Greenwald eviscerates explains, men and women don’t even have sex in common. According to Andrew Klavan, men have sexual desire, and if women want to understand what that feels like, they have to think about how they feel about having babies. I often joke that men who say things like this have never had a moment of true sparking passion with a woman in their lives, but honestly, until this Sanford thing exploded, I never honestly thought that was true (except for the deeply closeted gay men, for obvious reasons).
But if you really do buy into Jenny Sanford’s view of love (and probably Mark Sanford’s, before this happened), where it’s a tense partnership to be monitored and worked on to fit god or society’s plans—and that love is willed more than felt—then it probably is possible to go decades, or your whole life really, without feeling that lightening strike. Because you’re not standing outside in the rain, which is to say that you haven’t opened yourself up to the possibility. A lot of falling in love happens because people want it to happen—they seek out people that they have a lot in common with, people that might present an opportunity for passion. They also work on making themselves people who value passion, developing pleasures and interests and personality traits that make it easier for passion to enter their lives. Which is the sort of thing that Mark Sanford was alluding to when he praised his mistress for being sophisticated. But the whole right wing Christian culture discourages those things that might inflame passion—perhaps they’re effective in that (though not so much in shutting down sex altogether, but they probably do succeed in making it less fun). If you never feel that sort of passion and suddenly it enters your life in middle age, what would you do? You’d probably freak the fuck out, I’d guess. Your entire worldview would change. You’d babble about how much in love you are during a press conference.
There seems to be a relationship between having a colorless life and having dreary social conservative views, too. If you’ve experience the neediness that desire can instill in a person, it’s a lot easier (if you’re straight) to understand how being gay isn’t a choice, but a deeply felt need that has to be expressed, even if you face severe social costs. If you experience love primarily as an exertion that you go through to accomplish a god-and-country-mandated marriage, then gay marriage probably doesn’t make much sense, since it’s prioritizing passion over social mandates. Abortion and birth control obviously bother the religious right because it interferes with what they think the proper trajectory for sexually active young women is, which is to get pregnant pretty much immediately by the first guy you fool around with, and have to marry him, which is called “taking responsibility”. It’s all so very dreary and colorless, but it honestly never occurred to me that it might be a worldview that is effective at making the lives of those who subscribe to it so completely passionless. I just thought they were utterly irrational and in denial. But this Sanford thing is making me consider how likely it is that maybe there just a lot of people out there who have no idea what real passion can feel like. Unless it sneaks up on them at the most inopportune time, almost like some karmic punishment.
*And if Sanford were not a right wing nutbag who thinks that women have no privacy rights when it comes to sex, then I’d object to them being published. But if you don’t believe in privacy, then you should be the first to give it up, in my opinion.