A conservative Texas congressman's nude photo, sent by himself, is out in the world — and so is how he apparently tried to leverage his power to keep his sex life private.
In some ways, Rep. Joe Barton's (R-Tex.) secret sex life, which The Washington Post's Mike DeBonis and Elise Viebeck reported on, fits a pattern of prominent men using their power for sex. But in other ways, this story is different from the sexual misconduct scandals hitting Washington. It's even possible that the congressman is the victim here.
In this moment of reckoning with how sex and power collide, it's worth pausing to discuss how this story fits into the narrative.
Let's start with how Barton's story matches up with the nearly daily allegations against lawmakers who are accused of pressuring women into sexual situations. No, Barton is not accused of sexual harassment or even inappropriate sexual misconduct. His relationship with the woman, who shared a recording of one of their phone calls with The Post, seems to be consensual.
But that he was a congressman — one of the most senior House Republicans, for that matter — also seems to loom large in this relationship.
The woman said the two struck up an online friendship when she posted a comment about politics on his Facebook page, which suggests that she was aware he was a member of Congress.
When their digital friendship turned sexual, the woman said she felt uncomfortable at first. “He says to me, ‘Do you want me to send you a picture of myself?’ I said, ‘Oh no, no. Please do not do that.’ It kind of started there,” she told DeBonis and Viebeck.
She added: “I was kind of unwittingly drawn into it with him because of just the amazement of having a connection to a congressman.”
The fact their relationship existed isn't what's necessarily newsworthy. It's that Barton, in a recorded phone call, confronts the woman for talking to other women he was having relationships with and threatens to contact Capitol Police if she shares the material he sent with anyone.
“I don’t want to, but I should take all this crap to the Capitol Hill Police and have them launch an investigation. And if I do that, that hurts me potentially big time,” Barton said in a recording obtained by DeBonis and Viebeck.
“Why would you even say that to me?” the woman responded. “The Capitol Hill police? And what would you tell them, sir?”
Barton threatens the woman with a vague, and frankly intimidating, “investigation.” Most people likely would have no idea what that entails, and it's not hard to imagine a woman in this situation could believe the balance of power would be tilted in Barton's favor in such an investigation.
That's another major example of his power as a member of Congress looming large over this woman, who described Barton as “manipulative and dishonest and misleading.”
Politically and ethically speaking, it's also not a good look that Barton was married when his relationship with the woman began. In a statement before The Post's story became public, Barton said he had “consensual relationships with mature women” that took place while he was separated, but before his divorce.
Already one of his Republican colleagues in the House is nudging Barton to resign rather than run for a 17th term.
Now, for how this story is different. Barton may be the victim here. Facts are still being pieced together, but it's possible that whoever shared the photo online violated a “revenge porn” law in Texas, if that's where the photo originated. (The woman DeBonis and Viebeck talked to said she didn't share it.)
Barton also seems to think that that the woman recorded his phone conversation could be a crime.
“When I ended that relationship, she threatened to publicly share my private photographs and intimate correspondence in retaliation. As the transcript reflects, I offered to take the matter to the Capitol Hill Police to open an investigation,” he told the Dallas Morning News in a statement.
There's no question that Barton's consensual, private sex life is public because of this moment of reckoning we're in of power, sex and authority. Women feel compelled to speak up about powerful men distorting or abusing their power, and in some cases, abusing them.
In one week, ethic probes in Congress have been launched against two sitting members of Congress — Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) and Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) — over sexual misconduct and harassment allegations. Many with knowledge of Congress say this is only the beginning.
But, what comes next? Is the unconventional sex life of members of Congress fair game for scrutiny, because they are members of Congress, and it's impossible to separate their power from the sex they have?
On Wednesday, Conyers, who faces an ethics probe into multiple allegations of sexual harassment and abuse spanning decades, was defiant for precisely that reason: Where does the public scrutiny for a politician’s private life end? His attorney Arnold Reed told CNN: “If everybody that was facing 'allegations' — including the president, members of the House and Senate — resigned, we'd have a lot of unemployed people walking around.”
Set aside the sinkhole in that logic for a moment. In the context of Barton's sex life going public, Reed raises the question: What we as a society have to determine is: Where is the line?