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And That’s Why You Don’t Send Shirtless Pictures to People You Meet on Craigslist

February 18, 2011

Not very many of us can say that we’ve seen our Representatives in Congress topless. But residents of New York’s 26th Congressional District sure can, since gossip site Gawker recently leaked an e-mail exchange between their representative, Christopher Lee, and a woman he contacted via Craigslist. In the exchange, Lee lied about his age and occupation (claiming to be a lobbyist) and, more importantly, sent the woman a picture of himself flexing in front of a mirror. “More importantly” because in so doing, he unwittingly treated his constituents and the rest of the nation to a glimpse of his (admittedly pretty sick for a 46-year-old) pecs. And also “more importantly” because this glimpse kinda ruined his career.

You see, mere hours after the Gawker leak, Lee resigned. Shortly thereafter, he issued a formulaic apology for his “profound mistakes,” saying “I regret the harm that my actions have caused my family, my staff and my constituents.” There’s a future post in there about the language politicians use when stepping down after sex scandals, but for now, let’s just back up a second. “Profound” mistakes? Trolling for, uh, “companionship” on Craigslist isn’t classy (and neither, for that matter, is taking shirtless pictures of yourself in the mirror with your cameraphone clearly visible in the reflection). And actually trying to make someone believe you’re a lobbyist isn’t exactly the best move for ethos building. But “profound mistake”? Mark Foley made a profound mistake. Larry Craig made a profound mistake. Eliot Spitzer made a profound mistake (although I guess it worked out okay for him in the end).

Flirting with another person while you’re married certainly isn’t a very nice thing to do, but I reckon that if everyone in the legislative branch who flirted with someone other than their partner resigned, we’d have a hard time making quorum. As the scandals above illustrate, the bottom line for resignation after a sex scandal seems to be either harassment or, well, actual sex. This incident had neither.

But here’s the catch: not everyone (representative or otherwise) who flirts gets photographic evidence of their flirtation posted right there on the internet where everyone can see it. As the old adage goes, a picture is worth a thousand words. And when the picture is one of you in front of a bathroom mirror holding your phone and flexing as though you’re The Situation, the words aren’t good ones.

Am I saying that without the picture Lee wouldn’t have resigned? Yes, and I’m going to make an even bolder claim: I think that without the picture this whole situation (no, no, not that Situation) wouldn’t even have even been news. I mean, let’s be honest. For naughty internet chatter behind the wife’s back, this stuff is boooooooooring. She asks him, I kid you not, if his photo is from a JC Penney ad. JC Penney. Because that’s apparently her best idea of where a handsome sexy man might shop, or at least model. And he says, “So when was your last date. And how did it go,” which is even funnier if you read the punctuation not as a typo but as an indication that this is meant to be read as though it were a declarative sentence. Whew, hot stuff, right? But there’s a picture, and that’s not boring at all. It’s the image that makes this rather flat and joyless exchange seem scandalous and naughty. I mean, this isn’t just some small-fry politician making cringe-worthy small talk. This is a small-fry politician making cringe-worthy small talk while flexing shirtless.

So, Christopher Lee is more than just the latest political casualty of a publicized sex scandal. After all, the guy didn’t even have sex. Or ask for sex. Or use the word “sex.” Or use words that have anything to do with sex. Or say anything even remotely damning… well, except for lies about his career, marital status, and age. But those aren’t sex either. It’s the picture that takes this out of the realm of flirtation and puts it into the realm of the sexual. Far from just another sex scandal, this situation (still not that Situation) is a reminder to us of the power that visuals have in altering the import and context of our words.

If you want to know more:

  • My argument here draws on David Fleming’s article “Can Pictures Be Arguments?” His answer to the titular question is pretty much “no, but they can interact with and enhance what we do with words in ways that are worthy of consideration.” Although I remain agnostic on the question myself, the second half of his answer is what shaped my thinking on this issue.
  • Quotes from Lee’s statement after his resignation come from this New York Times article.
  • You can read Lee’s ultra-brief resignation letter here, although it’s got even less in the way of juicy content than his more amorous correspondence.
  • Yes, if you’re wondering, I pictured the title of this article being read in the voice of J. Walter Weatherman from “Arrested Development.” But instead of losing an arm, Lee lost his elected position. ZING!
  • I made a disparaging joke about JC Penney above. Please don’t be mad at me if you shop there, it’s just that I was unaware that their models were somehow remarkable in their attractiveness. A cursory glance at their website tells me that their models do seem remarkable in their having unspeakably boring haircuts and wearing pinstriped shirts with patterned ties oh no I’m doing it again.
  • Although, to be fair, I was looking under “men’s dress shirts and ties,” which I guess isn’t where Lee would be modeling anyway. DOUBLE ZING!
  • If I didn’t make the “situation” joke enough and you want more pictures of The Situation looking like an utter tool, you can look here. Or here. Or here. Or pretty much anywhere else on the entire internet.
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