At a press conference after his resignation, the former NSW Transport Minister David Campbell has this to say about revelations he had visited a gay bathhouse:

“I made some personal choices which have put me and my family in this situation … I’ve apologised to them for it. I apologise to the community.”

Campbell’s apology was reminiscent of that made by golfer Tiger Woods in February. When Wood’s extra-marital affairs were exposed in the media, he held a press conference to beg forgiveness not just from his wife, Elin, but from everyone else, too:

“I was unfaithful, I had affairs and I cheated … I hurt my wife, my kids, my mother, my wife’s family, my friends, my foundation and kids all around the world who admired me …”

Of course, Tiger comes from the land of the prostrate mea culpa. When South Carolina governor Mark Sanford held a news conference in June last year to reveal details about his extra-marital affair — the details of which had been known to his family for months — few were left off the list of wounded. Sanford begged forgiveness from his wife, his four boys and the state of South Carolina. “I have been unfaithful to my wife … I hurt you all. I hurt my wife. I hurt my boys.”

It makes me want to hit someone. An extra-marital affair breaches the explicit promise to be s-xually exclusive that most couples make when they wed. Spouses who’ve been cheated on feel, and have every right to feel, betrayed and deceived, not just about the affair itself, but the lying that tends to go on to keep it under wraps.

But what does infidelity in someone else’s marriage have to do with me? Why does a man I don’t even know, a man who never made any commitments to me one way or another about the post-marital whereabouts of his pecker, owe me an explanation, little less a mea culpa, when he sleeps around? In what way could I have understood his decision to play professional sport, or to represent me in parliament, as a solemn vow to me that he’d be faithful to her? Why would I even care?

I do care, of course, but for all the wrong reasons. I care because other people’s dirty linen is compelling. I care because I am human and humans are pack animals, forever compelled to see how our own lives measure up against leading others. I care because I am occasionally smart enough to want to learn from the mistakes of others, rather than my own, and in matters of the heart the best way to do this is to stick my beak in where it doesn’t belong.

But interested or not, it seems far-fetched — preposterous even — to suggest that who a famous person pokes is my concern. That all high-profile adulterers owe me the who, what, when and where of all non-missionary aspects of their s-xual activity, not to mention a lavish apology whenever that behaviour fails to measure up to a set of rigid Christian standards to which I don’t even subscribe. In what way is my life altered by Campbell’s, Woods’ or Sanford’s adultery? On the basis of what promise — implicit or explicit — can I honestly claim that it has caused me embarrassment, disappointment or hurt?

The stocks and pillory brigade say it’s not about the affair per se, but what it reveals about the public person’s character or judgement. But such assertions don’t hold up. Sure, marital infidelity may be indicative of poor character, but may also prove just the opposite. In a world with hues other than black and white, David Campbell’s decision to defer the pursuit of a relationship in which his emotional and s-xual needs might be met in order to maintain his financial and other commitments to his sick wife and kids could be judged laudible, not reprehensible.

And while playing around is an undoubtedly high stakes game in a world where the media knows no bounds or limits, the charge of recklessness may be an artifact of where the bar’s been set. The failure of some public figures to measure up to a standard that says they must demonstrate what conservative Christians would call exemplary behavior all the time may show they’re recklessness — a minor sin in any event — or prove only that such expectations are silly or unachievable for members of an imperfect race.

Second-wave feminists understood that the personal was political. Over the years this key insight has been bastardised in many ways. What was meant was that to achieve liberation, women must recognise how political and social circumstances shape their individual experience.

The personal is political was never meant to suggest that every aspect of a public figure’s life is fair game.

Dr Leslie Cannold is a writer, researcher and ethicist with adjunct positions at Monash and Melbourne universities. 

Peter Fray

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