The XX Factor

Is Anthony Weiner a Sex Offender?

As Anthony Weiner resigns today , we can take a collective sigh of relief and move on. (Can we all agree that his resignation is warranted if for no other reason that he is too immature to serve in Congress?) But before we do, I wanted to look at Katie Granju’s assertion at Babble today that Weiner is not an adulterer, but a sex offender.

In the course of her post offering advice to Weiner’s wife Huma Abedin, she suggests asking not whether he’s an adulterer but whether he’s an exhibitionist and as such, a sex criminal. It’s another example of how the online nature of this scandal sets it apart from other political sex scandals.( Anthony Weiner is nothing if not groundbreaking!) In some ways, it seems as if Weiner is resigning for a minor offense compared to what some other politicians have gotten away with. On the other hand, Granju makes a compelling case.

I admit I don’t know whether I agree that Weiner’s behavior amounts to a criminal offense.  Granju writes, “Weiner has been evidencing the classic behaviors of  an exhibitionist , and exhibitionists are  a well-accepted category of sexual offender. … [E]xhibitionism involves proactive criminal activity against innocent victims, and psychiatry and our legal system see exhibitionism as part of  the same continuum as rape.

Of course exhibitionism is and should be a crime. It can be very frightening and intmidating for woman, or anyone, to be confronted with a flasher while walking down the sidewalk or on a train. But just as we ask whether it’s infidelity if you’re only having cybersex, it’s worth asking if sending unsolicited pictures to women is a crime. If an exhibitionist flashes a woman in person, there’s a legitimate threat to her safety and well-being. She has no way to know if the guy has a fetish or is going to try to rape her. But sending an unsolicited photograph picture to someone thousands of miles away, whose real name and location might be unknown to the sender, doesn’t seem to rise to the level of immediate threat. Creepy and immature? Certainly.  (Now, if someone is a stalker and repeatedly sends unwanted messages to someone who has said not to, that’s a different story.)

Weiner is out of Congress now, but there are bound to be more sex scandals involving cyberspace. Do we need to treat virtual behavior the same as we treat physical behavior? I would love to hear thoughts.