NOTE: Several hours before this story was published, a new report appeared in the Star-Telegram that alleged Rep. Joe Barton engaged in “a series of private messages — some with sexual overtones” while still married to his wife. Barton has confirmed these messages but has not commented on them.
On Thursday afternoon, Barton announced he would not be seeking re-election, saying, “There are enough people who lost faith in me that it’s time to step aside ... so I am not going to run for re-election.”
I obviously do not defend any non-consensual sexual behavior by anyone regardless of their marital status. However, my defense of Barton’s consenual actions from last week as detailed below still stands.
There is a specific, woozy kind of pleasure for me that is immediately conjured when a right-wing politician is caught ― quite literally ― with his pants down.
It is an exhilarating joy similar to the feeling I once had riding Space Mountain with a close friend while high from an almost-too-strong pot brownie: I can’t wipe the goofy grin off of my face and I want to tell everyone about what just happened. But best of all, I don’t have to go to Disneyland to manifest this feeling, as it seems like every day another lawmaker is exposed as a two-faced, sex-crazed creep.
The most recent case in point: Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), who spent most of last week explaining why a photo of his dick was suddenly do-si-doing across the web after it was shared via an anonymous Twitter account.
It appears several years ago, Barton sent a naked image of himself and a text reading “I want u soo bad. Right now” to a woman with whom he was engaged in a “heavily sexual” relationship. This woman was not his wife.
She chose to speak out about their relationship now, she told The Washington Post, because “it’s not normal for a member of Congress who runs on a GOP platform of family values and conservatism to be scouring the Internet looking for a new sexual liaison.” A video of the lawmaker masturbating also turned up online for a short period of time before it was removed.
And just like that, my social media feeds were full of posts about how disgusting ― but unsurprising ― the story was. I too was ready to write Barton off as just another sleazeball who proudly championed “family values” while wagging his willy for everyone but the woman he married.
But once I got past the come-hither headlines and actually read what Barton did, I realized that, at least in this particular instance, he might deserve a more nuanced approach to his supposed sex crimes and ― gulp ― I might even have to come to his defense.
Barton was separated from his wife (whom he later divorced) when the photos and video were taken and sent. What’s more, according to all of the reporting that I’ve seen, he was engaged in a completely consensual relationship with the woman (and other “mature adult women” ― apparently he was having sexual relations with several individuals) who received the graphic messages.
So then, what exactly is Barton guilty of? Sending naked photos of himself to a consenting sexual partner. An embarrassing situation in which to find oneself ― hypocritical even, considering his endorsements from radically anti-queer, holier-than-thou, sex-negative groups like the Family Research Council and the Christian Coalition of America. But hardly a scandal compared to the revelations of sexual harassment, sexual assault and toxic masculinity that have surfaced daily.
Rather than shrug his shoulders and toss a “so what?” in the general direction of anyone who was offended by the sight of his adult, consenting penis before getting back to work, Barton felt the need to apologize for not using “better judgment during those days” and for ”[letting his] constituents down.” He even agreed to launch an investigation into whether or not the person who leaked the pics and video could be punished under a 2015 Texas law that made “revenge porn” a crime. What he did not do is resign from office or vow to refrain from seeking re-election.
Unfortunately for Barton, his fellow Republicans aren’t too pleased with his decision.
“Since Mr. Barton’s highly publicized issues have come to light, I have talked to numerous Republican activists, leaders, voters and elected officials about this situation — not a single one of them thinks he should run again,” said Tim O’Hare, the leader of the Tarrant County Republican Party, told The Star-Telegram, adding, “I personally hope he learns from this and tries to be a better father and man.”
Salon noted that “O’Hare’s feelings were echoed by roughly 20 Republican leaders who met Barton in Arlington to discuss his political future.”
While I agree that I’d like to see Barton try to be “a better man” ― he did, after all, support a policy platform in 2010 that was pushing for the recriminalization of “sodomy” in Texas ― I certainly don’t think he’s a bad man or a lousy father just because he sent a photo of his junk, or a video of himself touching said junk, to women he was having sex with (or hoping to have sex with).
With so much to be furious about right now, I want to make sure we’re not wasting our energy nor our indignation on people who, at the very least, may not be worthy of it. As cringeworthy as it might make us feel, we might even need to come to the defense of those who hold oppositional and unsavory political and social beliefs, if we conclude in this instance they aren’t in the wrong.
If he’s forced out for simply being a horny old goat who shared a private jerk-off video with another adult, none of us win.
There are plenty of reasons to take Barton to task ― I don’t like lawmakers who vote against the things I stand for or who want to stand in the way of me living my life the way I see fit ― but I’m also a big fan of (responsibly shared) dick pics and sex positivity. As despicable as I find someone like Barton, the enemy of my falsely pious, dangerously anti-sex enemies is my friend.
Let Joe Barton be voted out of office because he supports and is supported by awful organizations with gruesome plans for America. If he’s forced out for simply being a horny old goat who shared a private jerk-off video with another adult, none of us win. What’s worse, it sets a(nother) precedent that posits sex ― even consensual, respectful sex ― as dirty, unhealthy and ultimately harmful not only to the individuals involved but also our society at large.
In a year when women are finally being heard and believed about the assault and harassment they’ve experienced at men’s hands, we must commit ourselves to calling out and holding accountable those who harm others and try to repair our broken culture. But we also need to ensure that aren’t feeding the wrong individuals, for the wrong reasons, to the beautifully transformative bonfire we’ve finally lit.
This piece has been updated.