Susanna Gibson, a Democratic nominee for a competitive seat in the Virginia House of Delegates, toppled a previously untouched political taboo this week when the Washington Post fairly reported that she and her husband had performed sex acts on the online forum known as “Chaturbate,” where the couple had 5,700 followers. And they solicited “tips” for performing requested moves.

Politicians have long transgressed polite society’s sexual boundaries. Members of Congress always seem to be getting busted for hiring prostitutes. A number of members have been convicted for having sex with underage pages. In the 1980s, one lawmaker, Rep. Barney Frank, lived with a male escort who said he ran his prostitution service out of Frank’s apartment. In the 1990s, Congress could have passed for a swingers club as a passel of high-ranking members, including Bob Barr, Dan Burton, Robert Livingston, Newt Gingrich, Henry Hyde and Pete Domenici engaged in sexual affairs. And, of course, in 1998, President Bill Clinton collapsed the day’s existing moral standards when he did the same with an intern inside the White House.

Taboo-busting among politicians extended into the 2000s. For a couple of examples, a married Donald Trump allegedly had sex with a porn star and a Playboy Playmate of the Year, and money was exchanged to hush the stories. One-time Rep. Anthony Weiner was jailed and placed on the sex offender list for sending sexually explicit texts and images to a minor. Weiner had previously earned national notoriety for sending pictures of his junk to women but still ran for mayor of New York even after he resigned from Congress.

And so on. But never before Gibson’s case has a politician’s hot video action spread on the internet. While the Post story might seem to spell the nurse practitioner’s political ruin, we shouldn’t be so hasty to write her off.

Today, people’s lives are more and more online. New generations of politicians have grown up in a world where it’s commonplace to record their every move and misadventure, so we can expect to see more of this in the coming years. Some politicians don’t try to tough it out. Former Rep. Katie Hill resigned from Congress a few years ago after nude pictures of her were released amid a messy divorce and allegations of inappropriate relationships with aides.

But rather than sulking away in shame and dropping out of the race, Gibson has gone on the offensive, protesting the “leak” of the sex performance and prospecting previously undiscovered legal territory by calling the distribution of the videos “an illegal invasion” of her privacy and a “sex crime” against her.

What Gibson and her lawyer lack in legal acumen, they make up for in moxie. When you livestream sex acts on a site where you have 5,700 followers and it doesn’t require a password, can you convince a judge and jury that your expectations of privacy have been violated? Likewise, her lawyer’s idea that it violates Virginia’s revenge porn law is a stretch. The livestreams of her having sex with her husband were made with her consent for an established audience. The fact that somebody recorded her performances that she already shared with her Chaturbate audience, and that somebody then shared them with a Republican who then shared them with the Post, hardly qualifies as harassment. Maybe copyright laws were violated here, but revenge porn? Nah. What may be more likely is she and her team are trying to fill the air with legal chaff that will help keep her campaign alive.

The less prurient question here is whether Gibson’s online performance should somehow disqualify her from office. The answer will come, of course, from the suburban Richmond district she hopes to represent, but as all politics have gone national, it becomes a question for us to answer, too.

On one level — and spare me the reflexive scolding — what’s so appalling about what Gibson streamed? For one thing, as the Post notes, there’s nothing illegal about Gibson’s online adventure. It’s not even extramarital! Granted, her performances proved that she and her husband are exhibitionists of the highest order, but we accommodate exhibitionists all the time without clucking our tongues. According to the Daily Mail, not an always reliable source, one clip has Gibson offering her paying audience the chance to see her have a non-missionary sex position with her husband or witness a “golden shower.” Billions of such consensual videos like this reside on the internet, and plenty of couples engage in such acts daily.

The transgression here isn’t connected to sex as much as it is to privacy — it’s like somebody giving you a chance to watch them vacate their bowels, something that remains taboo for complicated and long-term reasons that might not stand for long if some candidate decided to test it. (If you’re a candidate, this is not a dare. I have a weak heart and might not be able to withstand it.)

We’ve learned since the Clinton era that voters are willing to forgive an ever-expanding range of previously taboo behaviors from their officeholders, provided children are not involved. Barney Frank, remember, won reelection with 66 percent of the vote after the male escort expose and a House reprimand.

Before Ronald Reagan, it was inconceivable for a divorcee to run for president. Today, nobody cares. At one time, to have been discovered smoking dope or taking cocaine would end a candidate’s campaign. Not so now. As the old taboos have fallen, so will the new ones. Today, it might be tough for an adulterous candidate to win office and near-impossible for a married candidate who has had sex online with their spouse to succeed in politics. Past returns are no guarantee of future results in either finance or politics, but the day a video exhibitionist who solicits tips wins office may be before us soon.


Don’t send smut to Shafer.Politico@gmail.com. No new email alert subscriptions are being honored at this time. I still call it Twitter. I ignore my MastodonPostBlueskyNotes, and Threads accounts. My RSS feed appears to be broken. It says its privacy has been violated.

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