Florida Lieutenant Governor Jennifer Carroll was recently accused of receiving oral sex from a female staffer and, in a move that’s set the internet on fire, responded: “usually black women that look like me don’t engage in relationships like that.” She also pointed out that she’s been married for 29 years while Carletha Cole, the aide who claims she saw Carroll receiving oral sex from another aide and who now faces criminal charges for distributing confidential information to the press, is single.
This incident, and particularly Carroll’s comment, provides a valuable opportunity to examine the way race, gender, and sexual orientation relate in the current American culture and in American politics. I see three main issues that should be addressed in depth.
1) First is the nature of the scandal: a politician is allegedly caught receiving oral sex from an aide. We’ve heard that story before; it’s one of the quintessential political scandals. What makes this version different, however, is that the politician in question is female. Although a few women have been implicated in sex scandals, men have been traditionally over-represented. Take it as a sign, perhaps, that women are moving up in the world.
While it’s ethically unsound for someone in a position of power to have an affair with someone who works for him or her, and while I would never advocate that women abuse their power over others, it’s an indication that women are transitioning into the positions of power in which scandals like this are possible. I hope that the general trend in our country will be towards fewer politicians being implicated in sex scandals, but I do expect that as gender equity in politics rises, so too will the number of scandals involving women.
2) However, the second point worth examining is the way in which this story conforms to the traditional narrative of a political scandal: the aide, the person in a subordinate position who is caught pleasuring the person in power, remains female. As our cultural consciousness has expanded to allow us to view women in positions of power, the result has not been gender equity on all levels of the totem pole. While our perception of female as inherently subordinate has dissipated somewhat, I feel that our perception of subordinate as inherently female has held on more tightly.
While there are certainly women who hold positions of power over men, I suspect that we would be even more shocked by a female politician who was found receiving oral sex from a male aide. Along the same lines, it was only this year that the legal definition of rape was expanded to allow for male victims. Despite films like Magic Mike, which could be considered to objectify men, the stereotypes attached to male sexuality are still those of aggressive activity and those attached to female sexuality of demure passivity.
3) The final point, of course, is Carroll’s now-infamous comment. While she did point out that she’s been married for 29 years, the implication of her comment was not, “I’m married, so clearly I didn’t have an affair.” Rather, the implication, as furthered by her subsequent comment about her appearance, is meant to be: “I’m married, and attractive, so clearly I’m not a lesbian.” Carroll stood accused of abusing her power as lieutenant governor by participating in a relationship that could be deemed sexual harassment; furthermore, she stood accused of cheating on the man she loves. Both of these accusations are strong personal attacks, and yet the only defense she gave was against the accusation that she could be engaging in lesbian activity. While I’m neither a psychic nor a psychologist, does her choice to focus solely on her sexuality imply that she views being a lesbian as worse than either abuse of power, or marital infidelity?