How Joe Barton’s sex scandal fits into the current conversation on sex and power

Rep. Joe Barton (R-Tex.) at a hearing in October. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

A nude photo a conservative Texas congressman sent of himself is out in the world — and so is how the congressman apparently tried to leverage his power keep his sex life private.

In some ways, what we know of Rep. Joe Barton’s (R-Texas) secret sex life, which The Washington Post’s Mike Debonis and Elise Viebeck reported on Wednesday night, fits into an overarching pattern of prominent men using that power for sex. But in other ways, this story is totally different from the wave of sexual misconduct scandals hitting Washington right now. It’s even possible that the congressman is the victim here.

In this moment of reckoning with how sex and power collide, it’s worth pausing to discuss how this story fits into the narrative.

Let’s start with how Barton’s story matches up with the nearly daily allegations against Washington men who are accused of pressuring women into sexual situations. No, Barton is not accused of sexual harassment or even inappropriate sexual misconduct. His relationship with the woman, who shared a recording of one of their phone calls with The Post, seems to be consensual.

But the very fact he was a congressman — one of the most senior House Republicans, for that matter — also seems to loom large in this relationship.

The woman says the two struck up an online friendship when she posted a comment about politics on his Facebook page, which suggests she was aware he was a member of Congress.

When their digital friendship turned sexual, the woman says she felt uncomfortable at first. “He says to me, ‘Do you want me to send you a picture of myself?’ I said, ‘Oh no, no. Please do not do that.’ It kind of started there,” she told DeBonis and Viebeck.

She added: “I was kind of unwittingly drawn into it with him because of just the amazement of having a connection to a congressman.”

The fact their relationship existed isn’t what’s necessarily newsworthy, though. It’s that Barton, in a recorded phone call, confronts her for talking to the other women he was having relationships with and threatens to contact Capitol Police if she shares the material he sent with anyone.

“I don’t want to, but I should take all this crap to the Capitol Hill Police and have them launch an investigation. And if I do that, that hurts me potentially big time,” Barton says in a recording obtained by DeBonis and Viebeck.

“Why would you even say that to me?” the woman responded. “The Capitol Hill police? And what would you tell them, sir?”

Barton threatens the woman with a vague, and frankly intimidating, “investigation.” The average person likely has no idea what that entails, and it’s not hard to imagine the woman in this situation could believe the balance of power would be tilted in Barton’s favor in such an investigation.

That’s another major example of his power as a member of Congress looming large over this woman, who described Barton as “manipulative and dishonest and misleading.”

Politically and ethically speaking for Barton, it’s also not a good look that he was still married when their relationship began. In a statement before this story became public, Barton said he had “consensual relationships with mature women” that took place while he was separated, but before his divorce.

Already one of his Republican colleagues in the House is nudging Barton to resign rather than run for a 17th-term.

Now, for how this story is much different. Barton may be the victim here. Facts are still being pieced together, but it’s possible that whoever shared the photo online violated a “revenge porn” law in Texas, if that’s indeed where the photo originated. (The woman DeBonis and Viebeck talked to said she didn’t share it.)

Barton also seems to think the fact that this woman recorded his phone conversation could be a crime.

“When I ended that relationship, she threatened to publicly share my private photographs and intimate correspondence in retaliation. As the transcript reflects, I offered to take the matter to the Capitol Hill Police to open an investigation,” he told the Dallas Morning News in a statement.

There’s no question that Barton’s consensual, private sex life is public because of this moment of reckoning we’re in right now of power and sex and authority. Women feel compelled to speak up about powerful men distorting or abusing their power, and in some cases, abusing them.

In one week, ethic probes in Congress have been launched against two sitting members of Congress — Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) and Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) — over sexual misconduct and harassment allegations. Many with knowledge of Congress say this is only the beginning.

The next question is: What comes next? Are all members of Congress’s unconventional sex life’s fair game, because they are members of Congress, and thus it’s impossible to separate their power from the sex they have?

On Wednesday, Conyers, who faces an ethics probe into multiple allegations of sexual harassment and abuse spanning decades, was defiant for that precisely that reason: they are allegations. His lawyer, attorney Arnold Reed, told CNN: “If everybody that was facing ‘allegations’ — including the President, members of the House and Senate — resigned, we’d have a lot of unemployed people walking around.”

Set aside the sinkhole in that logic for a moment. In the context of Barton’s sex life going public, Reed raises the question of: What we as a society have to determine is: Where is the line?

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