Sex, Lies, and Accomplices?

by Toshi Tomitani

Michael Kelly, a senior writer for theNational Journal, once commented that the problem with Bill Clinton is not that his moral standards are low, but that he requires that others lower theirs to meet his. A wise observation, and one that readily applies to an assemblage of media apologists for Andrew Sullivan, author of "Love Undetectable," whose private love has recently been detected in the most public way possible.

The Sullivan exposť has been circulating in online gay chat rooms as well as in mainstream e-zines since last month: Sullivan, a HIV-positive journalist and ardent advocate of gay marriage and monogamy, has been advertising for unprotected sex with other HIV-positive men on AOL and two sex web sites, according to the gay journalists who broke the story.

Had Sullivan advocated his traditional social values without injecting politics, this would have been a gay men's gossip story that should have stayed in the closet. Instead, in the magazine The New Republic and elsewhere he blamed gay liberationist politics for pervasive sexual promiscuity in the gay community, castigated Jesse Jackson as a hypocrite for having a child out of wedlock, and accused Democratic President Bill Clinton of sexual pathology, the emptiness of whose soul was, according to Sullivan, "so ravenous for love."

Indeed, using his standing as gay conservative spokesman, Sullivan perpetuated the conservatives' favorite sexual myth against their political opponents: If you have sexually liberated, urban lifestyles, you are sleazy liberal Democrats; otherwise, you are pro-family Republicans.

And once again, the myth has come back to claim the victim on the right: first, Newt Gingrich; then Henry Hyde; and Bob Livingston. And now, Andrew Sullivan.

Since the story broke, however, Sullivan has been showered with moral support from motley of fellow pundits, most of who are, alas, political liberals. Their central line of argument echoes that of the perjured former president, one which is also embraced by Sullivan in his own defense: his private sex life is nobody's business, and the entire story can be dismissed as nothing more than "sexual McCarthyism" by his political opponents. Then on L.A. Times op-ed page, Norah Vincent, a New York-based journalist, broadened the scope of defense by asserting that Sullivan did nothing morally reprehensible, since he disclosed his own HIV status and solicited only consensual sex with others who share it. And unlike former President Clinton who lied about his sexual affairs both publicly and under oath, Sullivan was more forthright when he admitted to soliciting sex online, and had been "blisteringly candid" about his sex life, warts and all.

But the facts are clearly otherwise. Sullivan may not have lied about his sexual behavior as literally as Bill Clinton did, but he was surely misleading, to put it charitably, when he was lecturing to others of their sexual sins and calling his HIV status an "accident," rather than a result of unprotected sexual intercourse with a man--or men. Even on his personal Web site, Sullivan stated his response by first characterizing the whole story as baseless, malicious "rumors" only to confirm toward the end that the disclosure is pretty much accurate.

Or to put it more bluntly: Sullivan has been duplicitous in his public persona, for he not only perpetuated sexual double standards between himself and others by accusing them of improper sexual compulsions of which he himself is guilty; by so doing he purposely misled the public to presuppose his own innocence.

Vincent and others, of course, are correct when they point out that the private foibles of public figures are essentially not ours to address. But I also suspect that those journalists who exposed Sullivan's sexual contradictions would have been a lot more respectful of his privacy were it not for the fact that it is Sullivan, not his political foes, who has made his career out of blurring the line separating the personal from politics, the private from the public.

By not confronting the implications of Sullivan's sexual politics, his liberal defenders become his accomplices, perpetuating hypocrisy and undermining the idea of moral accountability. In their efforts to enforce the separation of public and private, they end up justifying the actions of those who subvert it.

Hence the application of Michael Kelly's critique of Clinton and his defenders to Andrew Sullivan: It's not that Sullivan's standards are low; it is that he requires his defenders to lower theirs.