Tuned In

Elmo, Petraeus, Sex, and What Is Our Damn Business

Whether it involves kids' entertainment or entirely adult matters, it can be hard to distinguish between genuine outrages and stories that just titillate us or creep us out.

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Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Central Intelligence Agency Director, David Petraeus, participates in a House Select Intelligence Committee and Senate Intelligence Committee joint hearing, on Sept. 13, 2011 in Washington, DC.

The case of Elmo puppeteer Kevin Clash is, as sex scandals sometimes are, poised on the cusp of legally actionable and none of our damn business. (See also Petraeus, David, et al.) Clash, 52, acknowledges having had a relationship with a young man, now 24, while he was over the age of consent. His accuser says it began when he was 16.

[Update: Tuesday afternoon, Clash’s accuser recanted his charge, saying that the two had “an adult consensual relationship.” I’m leaving the rest of the post below as is, both for the record and because its points on the history of children’s performers and sexuality still stand.]

Clash has taken a leave of absence from Sesame Street while responding to the allegation. If his lover was under the age of consent, that’s a matter for the law. If he was over—whatever you personally think of middle-aged guys dating young men (or women)—it’s between them. That’s where things stand now, as Sesame Workshop has thus far stood by its performer, who has been voicing Elmo for 28 years. (It did reportedly reprimand Clash for personal use of his work e-mail.) And, until someone is proven guilty, that’s where it should stay.

But will it? Much as I’d like to think people are able to separate a performer’s personal life from the work, there’s a long history of people not wanting to accept the idea of children’s entertainers having sex lives, especially ones that are in any way controversial. As with schoolteachers, some parents need their kids’ entertainers, not just publicly but privately, to exist in a neuter world of entirely theoretical sexuality.

Pee-Wee Herman’s ostracism after being arrested in a porn theater in 1991 was one of the biggest travesties in entertainment, but not surprising. Paul Reubens built the magnificent Pee-Wee’s Playhouse as a surreal world of nonconformity and rule-breaking; to have it linked to an actual real-world transgression never harmed any child who watched the show but—the greater public-relations sin—it made things uncomfortable for some of their parents. In 2006, PBS Sprout fired a children’s host for having appeared in a risque spoof video before she ever worked for the network. Before that, PBS had to backtrack on a Postcards from Buster episode involving a character with “two mommies.” (Public TV is even nervous about adult-show hosts in public sex scandals; earlier this year, Fred Willard was ousted as host of Market Warriors after a porn-theater bust, apparently to protect the delicate sensibilities of people who watch antiques-auction reality shows.)

Again, Clash’s case right now is a disputed legal one, which might prove very serious—or entirely personal and legal. And I’m glad Sesame Workshop hasn’t prematurely moved to dump him. But even supposing Clash is exonerated, or simply not proven guilty, history is not very encouraging. History tells us that in cases like this, someone will raise a stink about “protecting the kids,” though the fuss will really be about protecting adults and their idealized notions of childhood. If Clash has committed a crime, he should go. If he hasn’t, does his voice coming out a polyester puppet threaten any child, or just some parents’ peace of mind?

(There’s also the ever popular, related complaint, “But how do I explain this to my kids?” First, I wonder how many four year olds are going to ask. But second, speaking as a parent, I hold with Louis CK in his routine on gay marriage: “I don’t know. It’s your s—– kid. You f—ing tell them. Why is that anyone else’s problem?”)

But even when it comes to entirely adult matters, it can be hard to distinguish between genuine outrages and stories that just titillate us or creep us out. Just look at the increasingly byzantine and bizarre sex scandal involving Gen. Petraeus, a couple other women, a couple other men, a shirtless photo and a whole lot of e-mails. This, obviously, is a whole other sort of scandal, with possible implications for national security and the use (or abuse) of the surveillance state. It also will likely make a much, much better made-for-TV movie someday.

But in either case at some point you have to ask, what are the legitimate reasons to care about this scandal and what’s just gawking? When is someone being pilloried for “larger reasons” and when is it just about the tawdriness? Sex makes things complicated—whether it’s in Washington or in Elmo’s World.

37 comments
MtMaestro
MtMaestro

The point is, that our Constitution says that we "have the right to be safe in our person and papers", and the truth is somewhere in between.

The way it should work is that their immoral or unethical behavior interpersonally IS a none of our business – just like I care mostly about the skill level of my dentist, or the butcher that cuts my meet after a hunt– not his moral self – UNLESS there is evidence that it interferes with his or her job. At that point, if there is reason to believe that it does, one gives up their right to privacy, and should be investigated. (That's why The Patriot Act should be declared unconstitutional, and PLEASE don't give me the crap about 'no right to privacy in the Constitution', as anybody that knows the linguistics of the time, understands that the way it was stated meant the same thing – i.e.:IF they said "privacy" in tthe 17 hundreds, everyone would've thought they were talking about the bathroom!)

Unlike some of the midbrain fight/flight thinkers that characteristically can only think in all/nothing terms, the truth is often a combination of both, with a clearly defined boundary at some point regarding when intervention is necessary. in this case, the in between line of a private investigation to determine if a danger to the common good exists – or whether it is an individual moral problem among those involved.

 

Lucelucy
Lucelucy

Watched Sunday's The Good Wife on DVR last night - a purposed wardrobe malfunction incident - and the cry of "what about the children" was raised.  As the mother of two (both reasonably well-adjusted adults at this point) who never, ever worried about what the little darlings might see or even do, as long as it didn't involve authorities and I didn't have to pay for it (not hurting others went almost without saying), I was considered by some to be irresponsible.  Not because of anything I did or didn't do, but because of what I did and didn't get all het up about.  I do wish I had been more of a martinet about my daughter cleaning her room, but oh, well, too late now.  

I sorta kinda go along with the national security concerns in re the Petraeus affair, but am far more intrigued with the Reichert/Cantor connection.  Why were they told?  And why, just before an election in which they might have been looking for some red meat to throw in the path of the voters, didn't they do so?  Curiouser and curiouser.

Gmr Martin
Gmr Martin

Nenenene! Auch wenn Frau p. So aussieht, da steckt was anderes dahinter! Ne riesensauerei! :-(

GeoffLaTulippe
GeoffLaTulippe

It's genuinely depressing how absolutely stupid some of you are. That so many of you latched onto a "fact" that has now been recanted by the accuser is not surprising, but that doesn't make it any less pathetic. People who bawl about public moral standards often do so because they lack the conviction of their own. It's even worse when it's under the guise of "thinking about the children". Get a life, grow a backbone and work to fix your own blatant shortcomings instead of bellyaching about those you perceive in others.

Rotkang Job
Rotkang Job

....surprised by road side bombs ( IEDs, boobytraps,sucide bombings,ofcourse,excluding human shields).Sex has always been a 'powerful' that has brough down great leaders from grace to grass.Oh,patraeus,how did you succumb to it ?

Rotkang Job
Rotkang Job

Patreaus should have known that as a soldier,the enemy uses what ever weapons that are at his disposal,including sex,not always through the barrel of the gun or IEDS.The enemy can 'boobytrap' through the weapon of sex.Just as he & the marine were..........

Rotkang Job
Rotkang Job

How are the mighty fallen ? Largely, through sex. If history of fallen leaders is any guide, Patraeus should have been well-equipped in whatever terms-and on whatever level on how to avoid anything that could be a hurdle to his career.

Joseph Nuttall
Joseph Nuttall

It shouldnt be anybodies business as to what goes on in someones personal life . Im willing to bet alot of thoughs who quick to judge are also guilty of immorality .

Teddy Workman
Teddy Workman

Elmo, and Petraeus both work for the public...It is very much our business.

Andrew 'Andy' Thomas
Andrew 'Andy' Thomas

was sleeping with a reporter who was then leaking sensitive information which is the issue the media is focusing on however the real issue that's coming out from this is how the FBI launched an investigation because of a request that at the time had no evidence to support such investigation or resources allocated to it. In which they went through emails and phone logs without a warrant, oh wait that's because they don't need one anymore because of the Patriot Act and NDAA and if they're doing it to the head of the CIA they're most certainly doing it to the average person who doesn't have the power to do anything about it on their own! Yet people will still stay naive and believe they're government would never do such a thing as invade their privacy without cause or warrant but just because 'they can'. I agree with the TYT assessment http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GmPYtbZicJo&feature=plcp .

Baris Ertan
Baris Ertan

Having extramarital sex apparently is a much bigger moral issue than ordering deaths of thousands

Mitchell Parsons
Mitchell Parsons

Big Bird, Elmo... I'm sensing a Muppet Conspiracy. Have they gone mad?

kittysez
kittysez

If YOUR husband or YOUR wife were out cheating on you, is it still 'just sex'?  Why have any standards at all?

WingcomWatchdog
WingcomWatchdog

Gen. David has a lot in common with King David - they both eyed and copulated with beautiful married women which resulted in their downfalls. TickleMeElmo also knew better but set out to playwith immorality instead of focusing on teaching morality. God will judge all three.

djhousevibe
djhousevibe

Sir,There are few concepts in life that permeate across global bounds. And that is, the innocence, purity, and trust of children. Kevin Clash has personified Elmo. As such, to children Elmo is real. The puppeteer is under a moral obligation to live a life free of sexual indiscretions plain and simple. Kevin Clash in turn has violated the trust of children all across the world and is very unfortunate. I have a son who is 3 ½ years old and we love Elmo. Now, I cannot look at Kevin Clash the same way and as a result of his indiscretions, will influence my decision as a father to watch other shows or characters that do not include Elmo or any of Kevin Clash’s voice talents.

DavidCarr
DavidCarr

It is the public's business in both cases.  One is a public servant with extremely important information that could have been compromised.  This needs investigation.  This can easily be parsed from the Clinton scandal, in that no classified information was given or leaked.  

In Clash's case, our society has long believed, and continues to confirm the belief that punishment of criminal behavior is within the public interest.  Hence the need for a public trial.  Clash's case, if it proceeds to that point, will ultimately be played out in the public eye because of the sensitive nature of the alleged crime.  Clash may be innocent, but our society demands that crimes are to be played out in public.  A responsible adult may well have realized what risks they played when courting a younger person (whether legally an adult or not).  

brianrw00
brianrw00

Puppeteer and DCI are rather different jobs.  When the DCI takes actions that could compromise him (like an illicit affair), it is most assuredly our business.  This should be pretty easy to comprehend.

Ol'Bob
Ol'Bob

Re: Petraeus - judgement or lack of it aside, for someone in an intelligence position this is a situation which could be used as blackmail.  "Hey, American CIA director - if you don't give us what we want we'll send these pictures to your wife", etc.  This would likely prevent someone from being granted a security clearance, let alone being named the head of the CIA.  What part of "dumb-ass" didn't he understand?

There's an old adage which says, "Keep your pants zipped and your hands out of the till and you'll be alright".  Still applies...

JamesHolland
JamesHolland

You missed the point. 

The problem here is child safety. Teachers and Children's Entertainers need to see children when they look at children not a hot sixteen year old I'd like to bang in a few years when he's 18. 

when Clash met this kid the relationship should have been nothing more than here is a young gay man I can help mentor and that's how the relationship should have remained. You just don't start sleeping with your step-child because they turn 18. 

It's the same reason teachers who later marry students shortly after graduation don't go far, it's because that makes parents nervous. "What does this person see when they look at my child?" 

And that's important.

JacenBoyd
JacenBoyd

Nice try. But guess what, bad behavior DOES matter, and society should have some standards, no matter what "progressives" say. In the case of Kevin Clash, he's violated the public trust with illicit behavior at best and criminal behavior at worst.And yes, all that IS the public's "damn business", because our tax dollars help to pay that man's salary. AND he is a children's-show performer and prodcuer with a very high profile. There is a cost and responsibility that comes with fame and fortune. He ignored that, as other celebrities have, for his own selfish pleasure. It's interesting to me that the media seems to have some bias in regard to celebrity behavior. It's well-known - NOW - that Jim Henson, creator of the Muppets, cheated on his wife quite often, and his employees helped him do it, tipping him off if his wife showed up at his studio while he was banging a prostitute in his office. If Walt Disney had behaved that way (and there is absolutely no evidence he ever did), then the press would have been all over him for it. But Jim Henson got a free pass from the press, although there is ample evidence many were well aware of his behavior. I suspect his liberal politics had something to do with that. And I suspect liberal politics has something to do with your assertion that Clash's appalling behavior is none of the public's business. Do you similarly dismiss the scandal over in Great Britain regarding children's show host/child molester Jimmy Seville? Should the Brits regard his behavior as "none of their damn business"? Dream on.

Anonymousey
Anonymousey

I do see some of the writers points - If "Elmo" had consensual sex with an 'of age' person it's not my business. I may have an opinion, but i have no right to shadow his life with my opinion. However, Elmo is not the head of our CIA. I could try to explain this position, but it would be easier not to just repeat and point to Gizzy's comment above...yes, what Gizzy said.

TedMooney
TedMooney

I could care less what sports figures or entertainers do in their spare time. But a general, CIA director, senator, or president who is trying to keep a secret is a huge security risk for the nation. Any time you try to keep a secret, the people who know that secret wield enormous power over you, and if you have significant power then the nation is at risk.

Gizzy
Gizzy

It is our business when we give individuals authority over tens of thousands of people and have them swear allegiance to a standard of conduct that does not bring shame or retribution to themselves or our country.  They are sworn into their positions.  These people are constantly referred to as "the best and brightest" and are given the opportunities, pay, position, power, and authority that regular people do not have.  There is a certain responsibilty that comes with that.  If someone does not have the self control to conduct themselves "above and beyond" then they should not have the job.  It chips away at the trust of the American people that our system of government and those in charge are willing and able to set aside for the duration of their tenure their own ambitions and desires that might compromise the welfare of our country.  We make excuses everyday for lapses in judgement, criminal activity, and conduct unbecoming.  Everytime we point a finger or make an excuse we weaken our position as a people and as a nation.

musiclover76
musiclover76

you can't have it both ways james. it's our business due the fact it is our tax dollars (liberals and conservatives) supporting this agenda driven organization.

murljean36
murljean36

and you qualify to issue these opinions based on your sainthood, judiciary experience or what.

dubya4517
dubya4517

@MtMaestro  we're not talking about your dentist, we're talking about a person with access to secrets and information that we wouldn't want to get into certain other countries' hands. If a man has a secret such as this affair, he can be blackmailed; he can be "turned" in order to keep his secret safe.  I agree with you that your dentist' affair would not matter so long as it didn't interfere with his ability to deal with your dental problems but this is much different.

Bemused
Bemused

@djhousevibe "The puppeteer is under a moral obligation to live a life free of sexual indiscretions plain and simple." LOL! No wonder there are so few puppeteers!

dubya4517
dubya4517

@Ol'Bob Funny that never came up when Clinton was found to have an affair with an intern.

JacenBoyd
JacenBoyd

@murljean36 What nonsense. People are "qualified" to issue their opinions because they have a right to free speech. No matter how hard progressives try to suppress that, it's guaranteed in our Constitution.

And don't try to use relative moralism to justify a wrong. Sensible people see right through that.

justinleavens
justinleavens

@murljean36 

murljean36

the trouble with our society is we are beginning to legislate morality out of life

if Gizzy or you or I didn't follow stop signs, we would die at intersections

The Bible is the most time tested proof that God loves us. His rules are given to protect us. We will go against Him until the day we die at which most of us will finally give up and beg Him to save us. He is patient with us, desiring that none of us would die in our sin. Praying for this nation to repent and believe, from California where we, like Sodom, do what is right in our own minds to our own destruction.