If you’ve been on social media over the last few days, then you’ll know about the Senate staffer who has been accused of having sex in the hearing room. Discourse about the drama has seen those on the right use it as a way to mock the left, while others have launched a manhunt to find the unidentified top. What wasn’t discussed, however, was the lack of consent in the video being widely circulated on social media. Why is that?
Having allegedly been posted in a WhatsApp group for gay men who work in politics, the clip was eventually leaked by right-wing news and opinion website The Daily Caller on 15 December. Now, while there’s definitely an argument to be made that the news being shared was in the public interest, there isn’t one to be made for the actual video being plastered all over social media. We should absolutely know if members of staff are acting inappropriately in official government buildings, but surely the better way to approach this would be to share the story rather than the video itself? The relevant authorities could then investigate and take the necessary actions with those involved (in this case, it’s already been reported that the staffer allegedly featured in the video has lost his job).
Sharing private videos of this kind without consent is dehumanising, no matter how wild or funny the circumstances appear to be. Some have argued that the alleged staffer posting a near-naked video of himself in the hearing room to his Instagram Close Friends makes reposting and ridiculing the subsequent sex tape fair game. But this logic doesn’t ring true. Close Friends is a controlled, relatively private digital environment – and he chose to share intimate photos to the followers he has there. He didn’t, however, choose to have a sex tape circulated ad-infinitum and out of context.
We shouldn’t trivialise the significance of the ways the video has been taken outside of its intended audience. After all, it could end up justifying toxic behaviour surrounding how intimate videos are weaponised by ex-partners, political opponents and various other stakeholders.The ongoing Senate saga should serve as a stark reminder of how far society needs to come in recognising that we all have the right to dignity, regardless of the context.
It’s worth noting that consent is not the only issue at play here. One of the most eyebrow-raising aspects of the social media discourse has been the difference between how the bottom and top in the video have been treated. While the bottom has been chastised and nicknamed the ‘Senate twink’, people desperately tried to identify the top, not because they needed to know who he is, but because they thought he looked hot. In both instances, the public interest in the issue has led to both parties’ privacy being compromised. However, there’s a double standard at play: the bottom has been slated while the top has been praised – despite both playing a very equal role in opting to have sex in the Senate. So let’s call this what it is: bottom-shaming.
The act of bottom-shaming is typically seen as a way for men to achieve a sense of masculinity by framing the act of bottoming as something that’s undesirable, which is usually part of a wider power dynamic taking place in a relationship. It’s not a new thing, but it can sometimes be hard to spot. In this case, we’ve seen it in social media trolls finding and resharing semi-nude images of the bottom in question without permission, reducing him to the aforementioned nickname of ‘Senate twink’ and – perhaps most disappointingly – those within the LGBTQIA+ community mocking the bottom’s body as they shower the top with praise. Despite the outrageous nature of the video, there’s definitely an argument to be made that what we are seeing is actually a microcosm of what many men who have sex with men face when bottoming.
Make no mistake, none of this is to suggest that having sex in the Senate – let alone filming it – is appropriate. Having sex in your workplace is highly irresponsible, especially if your workplace happens to be the upper chamber of US Congress. But, what some people appear to be missing is that this issue is a lot more nuanced than it appears to be on the surface. Instead of resharing private videos without consent, let’s discuss the story without the need for salacious images. Instead of holding different standards for the top and bottom in the video, let’s hold people accountable in a way that’s equal and fair. Consent and someone’s right to basic respect are two things that should never be up for debate, regardless of their actions.