Sex lives of the rich and famous - why do we care so much?

No matter how high-brow we like to think ourselves, we all love a bit of gossip from time to time. I’m no exception. Scrolling through Twitter recently, I noticed that the top ‘trending topic’ (Twitter code for ‘thing that everyone’s talking about’) was #TedCruzSexScandal. I pulled that wide-eyed, pursed-mouth face of intrigue - the sort of face you’d commonly associate with your elderly, curtain twitching neighbour - and jabbed the ‘Read More’ button.

As soon as I’d done it, I wondered why. Personal attacks against politicians always feel tacky to me, and I’d much rather the Republican presidential candidate was lambasted for his worrying social and political stances than for some bedroom kink. What’s more, Ted Cruz in any kind of compromising situation is not an image I want my mind’s eye dwelling on. Still, for a few seconds such concerns were irrelevant. For a few seconds I didn’t want Times-style analysis, but Heat magazine muck-raking.

As it turns out, the allegations from US tabloid The National Enquirer were pretty flimsy. They accuse Cruz of five extra-marital liaisons, but the stories are largely founded on ‘Washington whispers’ and unspecified ‘inside sources’. Cruz would still be justified in fretting, though. After all, this wouldn’t be the first time a political campaign was threatened by sordid rumours: in 1987, Gary Hart withdrew from the presidential race after relentless (if unsuccessful) media attempts to uncover an affair.

Even active presidencies can be upset by allegations - take the backlash against Bill ‘I did not have sexual relations with that woman’ Clinton. It’s a similar story in the UK, where figures like Lord Archer and Paddy Ashdown have had their carryings-on splashed across the papers, and where the downfall of Harold Macmillan’s government in 1964 was partly blamed on the notorious Profumo scandal. More recently, Cabinet Minister John Whittingdale has recently found himself the subject of headlines following a relationship with a dominatrix.

we feel titillated as we lap up all the lurid details, but still get to claim the moral high ground

The phenomenon of the sex scandal is by no means limited to politics, either. Whether it’s a sportsperson, reality star or boyband member, a sure-fire way of smearing reputations and pulling in readers is to unearth dirt about a celebrity’s sex life. Just ask George Michael, Wayne Rooney, or countless others. Writer Nick Davies describes how, at the News of the World, celebrities’ private lives became ‘a vast quarry of raw material to be exploited for entertainment’. Exposés about ‘romps’ and ‘love rats’ are still bread and butter to surviving tabloids, who take salacious joy in dragging public figures from the stars to the gutter.

It’s a crude tactic, but an effective one. Targeting people’s sexuality hits them where they’re vulnerable. Even if they’re not having affairs or visiting prostitutes, sex is something most people will hold some shyness or insecurity about, so making somebody’s sexual proclivities public is an easy way to throw them off their political, athletic or artistic stride. As for the public, sex scandals let us have our cake and eat it - we feel titillated as we lap up all the lurid details, but still get to claim the moral high ground as we judge the philanderers and Lotharios of the world.

Yet there is something corrosive about this preoccupation with celebrity sex. In a supposedly liberal society it’s a strangely puritanical approach, which paints sex as something to be giggled or sneered at rather than a natural activity that most adults - presidents and footballers included - engage in. By honing in so obsessively on this particular aspect of people’s lives, news outlets risk buttressing sexual taboos and reinforcing a general air of negativity around sex. When they whip themselves into a frenzy over a one night stand or leaked photo, the veiled implication is that the public figures in question should feel shame for having a sexuality at all. As Nick Davies puts it, we pretend that the world lives by an ‘antique moral code, which renders anything other than clean living and straight sex between a married couple improper and, therefore, a legitimate subject for exposure’.

Nine times out of ten, the sex lives of the rich and famous simply aren’t our business

A more mature, sex-positive approach would benefit everybody. But are celebrities’ sexual shenanigans always out of the realm of public interest? Well, perhaps not always. There are some cases where exposés go beyond mere mud-slinging. The leaking of sex tapes is usually invasive and needless, for instance, but it was difficult to muster much sympathy for three young Leicester City players after footage emerged of them making racist and misogynistic comments towards Thai sex workers. Likewise, although ‘outing’ public figures was once one of the worst habits of the tabloid press, it was easy to understand the media interest when Randy Boehning - a Republican state representative with a track record of voting against LGBT rights - was spotted on a gay dating app.

This is why infidelity allegations against Ted Cruz hold such sway. Cruz is, let’s not forget, a man who prides himself on ‘traditional family values’. He staunchly opposes gay marriage and seeks to make abortion illegal under all circumstances, promising that, if elected, he will ‘restore a culture of life, marriage and family’. It’s a high-and-mighty platform for any politician to place themselves on, so it’s little wonder people are keenly watching in case Cruz slips. Under regular circumstances, whether he has or hasn’t committed infidelity would be a matter for him and his wife alone. However, when he condemns and even legislates against people who contravene his so-called family values, the possibility of Cruz himself falling short of those values becomes very newsworthy indeed. Former Congressman Barney Frank summarises it thus: “There’s a right to privacy. But the right to privacy should not be a right to hypocrisy”.

Perhaps Cruz is right, and the allegations are just smears from Donald Trump’s camp. Even so, they’re a potent reminder of how the personal is still political, and how a platform of holier-than-thou ‘family values’ can make you a prime target of the media’s unyielding hunt for dirt. Generally speaking, however, it’s worth remembering that adults do have sex, with all sorts of people and in all sorts of ways. Unless the acts in question are illegal or incredibly hypocritical, it’s hard to justify invasions of privacy on flimsy grounds of public interest. Nine times out of ten, the sex lives of the rich and famous simply aren’t our business - something I’ll attempt to keep in mind the next time a scandalous hashtag or lurid exposé piques my interest. I may have to make a special exception if said exposé involves dead farmyard animals, though…

More about the author

About the author

Harry Mason likes to call himself a freelance writer, even if his tax forms say he's technically a waiter. He graduated last year from the University of East Anglia, and writes predominantly about social politics and film. He looks forward to the day when he's able to grow a beard; until then, you'll just have to blame his so-called 'bleeding heart lefty views' on youthful naivety.

Follow Harry on Twitter.

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