There was a brief moment in 2009 and 2010 when whispers first spread about a Nikki Haley affair, and assorted media think pieces took on the hot-take question: Why aren’t there more female sex scandals?
Almost a decade later, people are again shamelessly theorizing about rumors surrounding Haley’s sex life, and how to judge it, and yet we still don’t have an overarching template for the female sex scandal. Is it different? Is it worse? Is it… feminist?
While Sarah Palin was one of Haley’s prominent defenders when she was running for governor in South Carolina nine years ago and affair rumors emerged, now Haley is the ambassador to the United Nations and playing in a different pedigree of league entirely. Mainstream media figures such as MSNBC host Mika Brzezinski are rushing to Haley’s defense as public sentiment seems to be souring on author Michael Wolff, who used what might be called blind-item code to suggest she had an affair with President Donald Trump.
While that conversation about Haley, then and now, revolved around rumors, there’s a substantiated debate to be had about the unique dynamics of the female sex scandal centering on the recent revelation of infidelity with an underling by Nashville’s first female mayor, Megan Barry.
To the shock of not just Nashville but Americans nationwide, Barry suddenly confessed to a long-running affair with a subordinate. She traveled with him. She doubled his overtime pay. It’s complicated.
“We had an affair, and it was wrong, and we shouldn’t have done it,” Barry told The Tennessean this week about the consensual extramarital affair with the man in charge of her security detail: Metro police Sgt. Robert Forrest Jr., who offered up his retirement on Jan. 17. “He was part of my security detail, and as part of that responsibility, I should have gone to the chief, and I should have said what was going on, and that was a mistake.”
So how is this different than #MeToo? Because it just is, that’s how. Turn to Twitter if you have any doubt. Her defenders have all sorts of rationale as to why.
“Men in positions of power have affairs every day. And no one bats an eye,” Megan Weiss tweeted. “So @MayorMeganBarry had an affair. I don’t see that as a reason to resign. She has been through a lot, plus men do it all the time,” another defender wrote.
Yes, if ever there was a perfectly sympathetic character to embody the face of the noble female sex scandal survivor, it would surely be Nashville’s perfectly lovely (and undoubtedly resilient in the face of tragedy after losing her only son last year) Mayor Megan Barry.
She’s strong. She’s stunning. She’s a survivor. And the devastatingly charismatic 54-year-old can shut a reporter down with the best of them.
Indeed, for all the sex scandal feminists who are yet to come in Barry’s wake, they best take careful note. I mean, really, study the tape.
“Yes it’s over,” Barry revealed to the gaggle of reporters as she sparingly described her affair.
“Can you say when?” one called out.
“Yes, it’s over,” she repeats, steely this time.
“When did it end?”
“How did it end?”
“It ended with saying, ‘It’s over.’”
In the last few days, forced to admit to an affair with a subordinate, Barry has seemingly authored a new Female Sex Scandal Playbook on the fly:
- Sunlight is the best disinfectant.
- Say you are embarrassed.
- Don’t get into the details.
- Emphasize the consensuality.
- Differentiate it from male sex scandals that have brought others down for similar perceived abuses of power.
- Shut down further investigation into allegations of other paramours with a legal nastygram emphasizing a standard of malice.
“I know that God will forgive me,” Barry tells interviewers of her personal failings in having her affair. “But Nashville doesn’t have to.”
It is a powerful talking point that is sober and filled with humility. Grounded in faith. Self-deprecating even.
Sure, it probably came as a result of thousands of dollars spent on crisis PR, but it didn’t read that way, and that’s what matters.
The apology provides as empty and satisfying an experience as the political theater between Wolff and Brzezinski on Morning Joe in delivering an easy-to-swallow narrative. Oh look, there is one woman valiantly defending another, scolding Wolff that he “might be having a fun time playing a little game dancing around this, but you’re slurring a woman. It’s disgraceful.”
So she says, as she repeats again the slurs to her gigantic viewing audience. (That’s the great thing about reporting on sex scandals, isn’t it? You can condemn and cluck all you want from the mountaintop of criticism—all while you get those clicks.)
Shortly after being booted off the show, Wolff unsurprisingly jumped to Twitter to say, “my bad, the President is right about Mika,” referring to Trump’s repeated denigrations of the morning-show host including the jab that she is “dumb as a rock.”
Hiss. Burn. Boo. Sex. Bad. Tsk. Tsk.
Is it any surprise that the mud-rolling Wolff once wore the ephemeral Manhattanite crown of sex scandal infamy himself, when a widely publicized affair with a subordinate cost him his marriage a decade ago? (And who amongst the Gawker-reading masses could forget Wolff’s now-wife Victoria Floethe’s sassy 2009 Spectator piece, “How I became the ‘femme fatale’ of New York gossip”?)
We are all infected now. We are all dumb as a rock. How does feminism fit into any of this again?
In an interview with HuffPost, Bitch co-founder Andi Zeisler once described “marketplace feminism” as the art of “picking and choosing and taking on the parts of the ideology or practice that appeal to you and then ignoring those that don’t.”
Back when those first Haley affair rumors surfaced in 2009, the media bandwagon drummed an entertainingly beleaguered can-women-really-have-it-all-even-sex-scandals drumbeat. ThinkProgress cheekily opined, “Female Senators Say Women Politicians Have Fewer Affairs Because They’re Too Busy Doing Their Jobs.” AlterNet asked, “Why Aren’t There Sleazy Sex Scandals Involving Powerful Women?” And The Daily Beast phrased it exactly so: “Nikki Haley Revelations Beg the Question: Why Do Women Rarely Have Sex Scandals?”
But perhaps the best take (and one of the early invocations of the “emotional labor” argument of feminism) was a Q&A between NPR’s Cokie Roberts and several female senators talking about the absurdity of female sex scandals ever really taking off as a thing. Roberts summed it all up with this quote: “Sen. [Kirsten] Gillibrand says, ‘You’re in the middle of diapers and bottles and bills and votes and markups, how could you possibly think about doing anything else?’”
Because most certainly, women never have sex on the brain. No, no, no.
Which reveals the most critical and unspoken rule for women involved in sex scandals: Never acknowledge that sex—especially illicit sex—provides pleasure, a forbidden thrill or any kind of positive reward. Never talk about how bad actions and bad decisions are sometimes really just the best, most exciting thing ever when they’re happening. Because no one wants to hear that. No one forgives that. Talk about God. Stick to God. God will forgive you.
Or even better, repeat the “shame” and “embarrassment” lines. (Predictably, Twitter users, besides making endlessly crude jokes about the mayor have also taken to using pictures of the famous “shaming” scene from Game of Thrones when Cersei Lannister is forced to walk through the streets as penance.)
Perhaps somewhere in the bizarro-land Nth wave of feminism we exist in today, where ageism is embraced by the intrepid reporters at Babe.net as a means to keep a female wrong-thinker and 9/11 reporting veteran in line for daring to question anything that goes against the official agreed-upon script, the smart money is on Megan Barry for emerging victorious.
She’s likely going to Hugh Grant on Leno post-prostitute-arrest this entire sordid affair. Indeed, she is primed to swing neatly from her sex scandal branch onto the nearest low-hanging-fruit of cherry-picked empowerment. #MeToo. Sex with her subordinate? Stop slut-shaming her. How dare you. Times up.
It reminds me of one of the more brilliant lines from the transcendent Showtime series SMILF, as expressed by a hilariously earnest character who loves vision boards, losing weight, and displaying rock-hard nips through her T-shirt—and yet somehow isn’t a reductive caricature at all.
The line, delivered totally straight, is this: “Strong powerful women are super on trend right now.”
They really are, and Megan Barry is, too.
She’s not quitting. She’s the mayor of “#Smashville” as some on Twitter are branding her. We are so far gone from the withering puritanical morality of branding the adulteress with scarlet A’s.
On the contrary, Megan Barry deserves a scarlet A-plus.