Sexy Photos, the Internet :: Not A Public Figure’s Best Friends

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Friday February 11, 2011

There was a time when sexy text messages were enough to end political careers: recall the scandal that surrounded Republican Congressman Mark Foley's reportedly explicit texts to a male former page.

Then phones got smarter and suddenly it was possible for people to take photos of themselves--often fun or silly, even if unintentionally so, and sometimes even erotic. Texting became "sexting," with images enhancing or supplanting suggestive written messages.

But there are snags beneath that shiny surface of high-tech hijinks. Public figures who send steamy texts still make headlines, but celebrities and politicians who spice up their messages and posts with photos--so quick and easy to create and put out there that the process itself seems to outpace sense--court a new kind of disgrace: pixel-based scandal that moves at the speed of light.

Chris Lee

The latest example is former New York Rep. Chris Lee. Just a few days ago, Lee was a run of the mill rising star in the Republican ranks; most had never heard of him, but his career was on an upward trajectory.

That changed when Gawker broke the story of Feb. 9 of Lee's Craigslist posting of a shirtless photo of himself. Lee reportedly put the photo up as part of an online courtship with a woman other than his wife.

The image was worth so much more than a mere thousand words, given Lee's party affiliation and anti-gay voting record. Suddenly, a public persona of wholesome "family values" was overwritten by a candid snap of a middle-aged man flexing his muscles in a mirror, smart phone camera at the ready.

CBS noted in a Feb. 10 article that the politico--who stepped down from office in a matter of hours following the Gawker posting--had once written an op-ed piece in which he ruminated on the risks of thoughtlessly tossing potentially compromising material into the digital realm. "Private information and images can so easily be transmitted to friends and strangers alike," Lee noted.

Eddie Long

What do evangelical megachurch pastors and anti-gay Republican politicians have in common? Everything--including, in "Bishop" Eddie Long's case, sex scandals built around shocking allegations and given an inadvertent dose of credibility by online beefcake photos.

Long was accused last year of pressuring a number of young men into having sex with him, allegedly using his position as a spiritual leader as leverage and quoting Scripture for nefarious purposes.

A number of images of Long's robust physique--taken by Long himself in mirrors--are readily available online. By themselves, the photos prove nothing at all--but to some eyes they might take on a different cast, given the context of the allegations.

At least Long had the presence of mind to keep his shirt on.

Brett Favre

Like showman clergy, sports heroes sometimes play the role of de facto (albeit unelected) politician. More often, however, they are the high priests of the athletic world. Their bodies are as much shrines to virility as are the arenas in which they play.

When headlines broke that Brett Favre had sexted potential sexual partners, wags wondered whether the scandal would force the in-and-out-of-retirement football star off the field permanently. One online publication even posted photos that purported to be quick and dirty portraits made by Favre of his own male equipment.

But how much "scandal" was there in Favre's case? Unlike the guardians of our laws and our morals, athletes are paragons of the physical--not the abstractly legal or the theological. Don't we, to some extent, expect our sports pros to be more flesh than spirit?

Chris Bryant

Stumbling into the prurient pitfalls of the online realm isn't the exclusive province of America's public figures. When openly gay British politician Chris Bryant posted a beyond-shirtless photo of himself on social networking site Gaydar in 2003, he sparked a media frenzy.

The scars ran deep. Six years later, looking back on the scandal, Bryant told Attitude Magazine, "I didn't sleep much for about three months" during the firestorm. "Friends of mine were phoned and abused and had their sexuality revealed to their families.

"My family had journalists turning up on their doorsteps," added Bryant. "It was very, very, very horrible at the time."

But where Lee exited instantly from public office, Bryant saw his political career continue successfully--and his romantic life along with it. Last year, Bryant and his husband, Jared Cranney, were the first gay couple to celebrate their nuptials in Westminster, the building where the British Parliament convenes.

Most of us, of course, are not rich, famous, or influential--that is to say, we're not public figures. Even so, from teens who can stumble into the nightmare of violating sex offense laws to young professionals who might come to regret the fraction of a second of indiscretion that later became immortalized online and forwarded to friends and family, the lesson is worth taking back to our own humble homes. Gossip, rumor, and scandal, which have always worn wings, are now supercharged. When it comes to what we put online, it's best to pause a moment and reflect on the words of caution that Chris Lee himself once offered--because in this era in which privacy and discretion are quickly-fading notions, someone else is always watching.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.