I confess I didn’t really know much about sexting until the news of US Congressman Anthony Weiner’s textploits made him a national scandal and drove him, at least temporarily, from office. The married, 46 year old, unfortunately named politician is now seeking psychological counseling for his online behaviour with other women and it looks as if his party is ready to cut him adrift. If you are curious to know more about Weiner, there’s a whole whack of stories collated on the NYT website here.

The important ethical question to ask, I think, is what exactly is wrong here? What is the ethical issue at the crux of this latest affair of a public figure falling to earth? Perhaps the issue is sexual relations with a minor, since one of the women Weiner was sexting was seventeen, easily young enough to be his daughter. Creepy to be sure, but if there was no intent to go beyond sexual expression by exchange of text messages and digital photos, then I’m not sure it’s a crime unless he received images from minors, in which case it may fall within a broad definition of child pornography.

Perhaps the issue is adultery? A religious studies professor quoted in a New York Times debate on the subject suggests that if all Weiner did was “internet posing” then his actions do not meet a definition of adultery and so urges “Mrs. Weiner to celebrate her husband’s fidelity. He apparently has a quite active libido, and that is wonderful, if somewhat tricky. He has chosen to work it off on the Internet, as opposed to cruising singles bars. That is cause for celebration. It seems to me that he really does honor his marriage vows; excess sexual desire drove him to do something perhaps less than the moral ideal, but something that speaks volumes to the seriousness with which he takes his old-fashioned vows.” However, two other participants in this debate take a different view, rejecting any distinction between the internet and the real world: “The Congressman’s online indiscretions betrayed his real-life wife, causing real pain and hurt feelings in those he cares about most. This is evidence that what happens in the virtual world affects the real world.” At the end of the day, I would suggest that only the Congressman’s wife can decide if he committed adultery, but it looks like a breach of trust and betrayal of trust is what commonly ends marriages.

My own wife put it well the other day when she asked why we as a society continue to elevate our elected leaders to standards of sexual ethics that we as a whole are unwilling to follow. Adultery is widespread in society, and yet when it is exposed in our elected leaders they almost always have to go. However, “sexting” is hardly unheard of, even in the middle-aged demographic, as the NYT notes. “A Pew Research Center poll found that 6 percent of Americans over 18 reported having sent a nude or near-nude image of themselves to someone else and 15 percent said they had received one. In Mr. Weiner’s 30- to 49-year-old demographic, 17 percent reported receiving such a message.” Had he been honest, Weiner should have said “Yeah, I texted some women, so what? What’s your problem?” That would have been more honest than Newt Gingrich having an affair while hounding President Clinton over the Lewinsky Affair, and it would spare countless political wives from the charade of having to stand loyally by their men at campaign events.

The ethicist and theologian Alasdair McIntyre writes that virtue can only be practised in a community where a set of values and ethics are commonly understood and practised. A monastery is McIntyre’s classic example of such a community, but one can imagine other examples of communities where an ethic us intelligble, practised, and expected. The lesson of Weinergate is that we as a society are unwilling to be a community where sexual fidelity is a practised and accepted virture, and yet we expect our politicians to live by standards we as a whole have abandoned. Weinergate may finally teach us that the emperor has no clothes, and we know that because he sent us the pictures to prove it.