Everyone loves a good sex scandal. Right wing, left wing, centrists and the politically uncommitted — it’s the one thing that can bring them together.
There hasn’t been a good one for a while. There was a few minor twitterpated moments earlier in the summer about Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, and we still have the aging tease of the Trump pee tapes.
Then along came the Jerry Falwell Jr. story, with all the makings of a really good scandal.
First off there’s the sexy pool boy, with the porn star name of Giancarlo Granda. He’s a big boy, he is! Then there’s evangelist Falwell Jr., his holier-than-thou wife and plenty of salacious details.
Reuters broke the story and reporter Aram Roston’s somewhat restrained take laid out the bare bones (heh) of the saga — how Granda met the Falwells when he was working as a pool boy at a Miami Beach hotel and began a long and unusual affair.
“Granda told Reuters that the relationship involved him having sex with Becki Falwell while Jerry Falwell looked on,” Roston wrote.
If this was the plot of vintage porn film, you might be thinking, “This seems a little bit clichéd, but OK.”
The alleged seven-year affair was supported by ample evidence — texts, photos and FaceTime calls. But it was the goofier details that snagged the most attention, like Falwell peeking (peaking?) from the corner while his wife and the pool boy went for a deep dive.
Or maybe it was the fact, that Junior seemed only too happy to throw his spouse under the bus when the story broke. (Falwell acknowledged the affair, but said it was shorter and he wasn’t watching.)
As soon as the Reuters story was published, the media (social and otherwise) hopped on top and the jokes came fast and furious. And who can blame them? This stuff practically writes itself.
But it wasn’t so much the sex as the hypocrisy that made this an epic tale. The Falwells (husband and wife) had built their brand on promoting traditional family values, evangelical Christianity and right-wing politics while running one of the most conservative universities in the U.S. when it came to matters of sex.
Founded in 1971 by Rev. Jerry Falwell (Big Daddy), Liberty University’s policy is boilerplate biblical stuff: “Sexual relations outside of a biblically ordained marriage between a natural-born man and a natural-born woman are not permissible at Liberty University.”
Falwell Jr. was already suspended from his role with the university after an unfortunate Instagram posting earlier in the summer, wherein he appeared with his pants undone and his arm around his wife’s assistant, who was similarly dishabille. (The scandal also had the requisite Canadian connection — initial reports said Falwell was at a party with a Trailer Park Boys theme, and impersonating Julian.)
But the latest reveal was more cream than the cake could handle and prompted Falwell to resign. Whether he takes up a new position, perhaps in a corner of the GOP party, remains to be seen.
The list of evangelists and Christian leaders who have been caught with their pants down is, how shall I put this indelicately, as long as porn star John Holme’s famous wiener. If you’re of a certain age, you may well remember Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart crying on the television after their falls from grace.
But sex scandals, even of the raunchiest variety, are rarely the end for Christian ministers. All you need to do is follow the usual playbook — admit your sins, ask God and your spouse for forgiveness, claim that Jesus himself said everything was cool and presto, you’re back in the good graces, raking in those sweet congregational donations and buying yourself another yacht. There’s a sucker born every moment (take that as you will).
Really, sex scandals are an accommodating narrative, taking on all comers, whether you’re a QAnon conspiracy theorist aiming to convince the gullible that there’s a shadowy cabal of sex perverts and cannibals who are seeking to control the world or a group of women seeking to bring down the real predations of serial abusers like Harvey Weinstein.
The more preposterous the scandal, the more it seems to stick around. The notion that something like Pizzagate, with its bizarre fantasies around pedophilia, politicians and pizza continues to get play, is a case in point. But conspiracy theorists never let logic stand in the way of an insane story.
The political implications of the Falwell tale, however, take it to interesting new places. Falwell Jr. was instrumental in bringing the evangelist flock on board the Trump campaign. Whether his fall from grace will have any impact on their support is uncertain. Trump’s own spectacular peccadilloes have not had any major effect on his political career and, in some gross fashion, his sordid sexual past may have bolstered his reputation with certain folks.
Part of this has to do with what people want and will accept from their leaders, according to author Leslie Dorrough Smith. Smith’s book Compromising Positions: Sex Scandals, Politics and American Christianity was the focus of a recent interview with the Baptist News.
“The way Americans respond to sex scandals is much more about their desire to maintain certain ideals about the nation-state than it is to serve any sort of consistent ethical function,” she said. And leaders who are forgiven their trespasses usually have something to offer the public, be it security, safety or some other big daddy quality, she added.
Rudy Giuliani’s “extremely long (and often very public) history of adultery was virtually erased” when he was New York’s mayor, Smith said, because people saw him as a centrist Republican who “came to the rescue once 9/11 happened.”
Scandalous politicians sometimes have an easier go than religious leaders, according to Smith, especially if they are perceived to be tough men. Men with less conventional masculine qualities aren’t forgiven as easily. If ever a sex tape of our own Justin Trudeau pops up, it will be curious to see what happens.
There are also very different rules for women. When Katie Hill, one of the first openly bisexual women elected to the U.S. Congress, was revealed to be having a lesbian affair with a younger staff member, she was forced to resign in disgrace.
The notion that there is a cavernous divide between what is acceptable for men and women is evident in the treatment allotted to Meghan Markle compared with Prince Andrew.
While Markle has been castigated by her royal in-laws for myriad offences, Andrew will continue to be honoured on his birthday despite allegations that he participated in orgies with underage girls.
He’s certainly not alone in being allowed to continue on his merry way. Bill Clinton, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh and Donald J. Trump all remained in positions of power even after they were accused by multiple women.
The outré habits of the famous and wealthy have attracted attention since humans have been around. But it seems hypocrisy is currently less forgivable than outright sin.
People have had enough of being lectured by folks who say one thing and do exactly the opposite. As commentators and pundits stated, it wasn’t so much about Lindsey Graham’s alleged sexual preferences as it was his support for policies that have done grave harm to the LGBTQ+ community.
So too for evangelical leaders like Jerry and Becki Falwell, who condemn other forms of sexuality while carrying on with the pool boy. It’s not just the “do what I say, not what I do,” notion, which is galling enough, but the idea that there are in fact two sets of rules. One for the ordinary average folk and another for the wealthy and powerful.
The rage that attended less sexy stories, like Boris Johnson advisor Dominic Cumming’s lockdown drive across the U.K. or the various medical leaders who failed to act according to their own edicts is an indicator that crisis can be a great leveller.
Sex scandals have their own unique flavour of schadenfreude — one part titillation to two parts public scorn. But they’re also a strange reminder that, we all like to watch, especially when self-righteous, preachy hypocrites like the Falwells swing so low that they fall right off a cliff. That’s some sweet sexy justice.