The Distracting Smirk


Back in the day when women in public office were still considered a novelty, a local woman lawyer was appointed judge of the newly-formed family court in the Canadian prairie province where I live. This news seemed hip and progressive in several ways. The family court was intended to streamline the processing of divorce, child custody and child maintenance cases, and the woman judge was expected to be sensitive to the nuances of family relationships and the laws that applied to them.

As the cherry on top, the judge’s Ukrainian name marked her as a member of an ethnic community that had faced poverty and prejudice on the Canadian prairies (after suffering those things on their ancestral turf in the Soviet Union while it existed). Any parallel with the recently-appointed Judge Sotomayor of the United States Supreme Court is too obvious to mention.

The following year, the judge of family court was appointed a chancellor at the university I attended, and therefore I got to shake hands with her at my graduation, a few years after she presided over my divorce. When I mentioned her impressive track-record to a male friend over drinks, however, he grinned and told me what he thought I should know about Judge Woodchuk (not her real name).

According to my friend’s very reliable source of information, Judge Woodchuk liked to troll the bars for younger men. Her pattern of trail-blazing activities apparently included being a cougar on the prowl before this became popular.

My friend looked smug. I felt confused. Whether or not the juicy rumor had any basis in reality, I wondered what reaction he expected from me. Was I supposed to regard Judge Woodchuk’s various official roles as fronts for her real identity as a middle-aged bitch in heat? Were her approaches to family law and to higher education simply irrelevant to her real mission in life, to get laid by a lot of hot young men?

When I asked my friend why he told me about Judge Woodchuk’s sex life, he said he thought I would want to know. Who wouldn’t?

I asked him whether he believed Judge Woodchuk to be a fraud who got herself appointed to several prestigious positions by dishonest means. My friend insisted he wasn’t suggesting any such thing. He just thought her “private life” was more worthy of discussion than her public one.

Since then, I have had similar conversations with numerous people I had formerly mistaken for intelligent adults. I sometimes wonder whether the general zeitgeist is dominated by teenagers who have just discovered that their parents actually have sex, despite appearances to the contrary.

Has some brilliant writer just won the Nobel Prize for Literature? Let’s not talk about his/her prize-winning book. Let’s speculate on whether she really had an affair with another famous person, or whether she is a lesbian, or why he is rumored to have a collection of women’s lingerie or why he was seen entering a fetish club in some worldly European city.

The tabloid press gets a lot of blame for a supposedly unhealthy general preoccupation with the sex lives of the rich and famous. Those who avidly read gossip-rags on their daily commute to and from work or while waiting for appointments complain that too much of the media is preoccupied with “dirt” and “filth,” and that a “crackdown” on this style of journalism is overdue.

Aside from the hypocrisy of complaining about subject-matter that attracts hordes of readers and viewers (and which no one is forced to read or watch), I don’t regard sexual feelings or behavior as “filth.” I don’t necessarily think that everyone’s sex life should be kept secret, and I don’t believe that anyone’s sexuality is completely unrelated to their other interests. As a case in point, many erotic writers also write in other genres, usually under other pen names so as not to confuse separate groups of fans. It shouldn’t confuse anyone over the age of sixteen that writers write, period.

The problem with smirking comments about the sexual behavior of people in the news is that the gossip is usually a means of undermining prestige and distracting attention away from the newsmaker’s accomplishments. Sexual behavior could be read as a clue to a person’s value system or philosophy of life, but it is rarely read that way outside of scholarly literature. In too many cases, public revelations about the sex life of a public figure are intended to get that person ridiculed, boycotted, fired, impeached, or voted out of office.

Regarding Judge Sotomayor’s controversial statement that her life-experience as a Latina woman will influence her decisions as a Supreme Court judge, I trust and hope that it will. Her experience is no more subjective than anyone else’s experience. Members of various judicial bodies have been interpreting the law according to their own views of the world for many years now. And except for those who choose celibacy for specific reasons, most adults experience sex in some form at some time.

It stuns me that references to sex are not only used to damage the credibility of individual people and the dignity of whole demographics, but the worthiness of causes and organizations. When Elizabeth Taylor appeared in the media to educate the public and raise funds for AIDS research, a Canadian journalist, Alan Fotheringham (“Dr. Foth”) responded by writing an unfunny piece for his regular column in Maclean’s, a widely-read Canadian general-interest newsmagazine. “Dr. Foth” revealed the “fact” (which presumably came from a reputable medical source) that Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome is usually spread through anal sex. Ha! The glamorous Liz Taylor was defending ass-fuckers! (And their fuckees.)

“Dr. Foth” wasn’t honest enough to say openly that he thought everyone who had ever engaged in that practice deserved to die a slow, painful death, but the implication was clear. His chortling in print over the spectacle of black-tie events to raise sympathy and cash for the treatment and eventual cure of AIDS patients seemed juvenile, to say the least.

My first response was: I do not give a shit.

It seemed self-evident to me that sexually-transmitted diseases are diseases, not punishments. And on that subject, the kind of legal penalties which used to cause physical pain and disfigurement are no longer legally inflicted on anyone in Western nations, including convicted serial child-killers. Health-care systems in every country (and I might add, especially in Canada) have an official mandate to promote health and minimize disease in the population at large, case closed.

The next time someone responds to a person or an issue in the news with a smirking reference to something sexual, consider asking the smirker these questions:

  1. Is this factual?
  2. Where did you get the information?
  3. Is this relevant to the topic of discussion? If so, how?
  4. What is your point? (Are you more interested in helping to prevent the spread of disease or in spreading poo on an icon of feminine glamor? Are you interested in promoting justice or in discrediting a person whose ass would not have been promoted to the bench two generations ago?)

I’m in favor of public discussions about sex. Bring it on, I say. But bring it on honestly and compassionately, never forgetting that s/he who smirks about someone else’s sex life might well be the object of sneering guffaws if and when s/he becomes newsworthy enough to tempt interested bystanders to watch the bedroom window with binoculars.

Jean Roberta
September 2009

“Sex Is All Metaphors” © 2009 Jean Roberta. All rights reserved. Content may not be copied or used in whole or part without written permission from the author.

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