Fame: Reality TV star Josh Duggar of 19 Kids and Counting was an active, respected member of a highly visible conservative Christian church, and he served as Executive Director of FRC Action, a conservative Christian political group affiliated with and sponsored by the equally conservative Family Research Council.
Reality: Duggar has admitted to molesting at least five underage girls, including two of his younger sisters, to repeatedly cheating on his wife, and to being a porn addict.
Fame: Weight loss icon and Subway sandwich pitchman Jared Fogle presented himself as an advocate for childhood health and wellbeing via speeches and his Jared Foundation – an organization focused on raising awareness about childhood obesity through educational programs and tools provided to parents, schools, and community organizations.
Reality: Fogle recently pled guilty to a variety of child porn charges and to crossing state lines to pay for sex with minors.
These, of course, are just a few of the stories about supposedly exemplary people betraying the public trust. Think about Tiger Woods acting as a role model while cheating on his supermodel wife. Think about famed evangelical pastor Ted Haggard repeatedly condemning homosexuality while secretly having sex with male prostitutes. Think also about General David Petraeus, Congressman Anthony Weiner, Congressman Mark Foley, Senator Larry Craig, Senator John Edwards, Governor Eliot Spitzer, actor Rob Lowe, actor David Duchovny, actor John Travolta, biker Jesse James, President Bill Clinton, and dozens of other well-known men who’ve been caught with their pants down.
What Were They Thinking?
Whenever a story like those outlined above appears in the news, millions of people scratch their heads and wonder, “What the heck was he thinking? Did he not know what he stood to lose? Did he not expect to get caught?”
The truth of the matter is these guys were NOT thinking – at least not in any sort of rational, clear-headed way in which the potential consequences of their actions were considered. Why else would they engage in such stupid and (in some cases) socially or even legally reprehensible behaviors? Instead, these guys “lose themselves” in a neurochemical fog.
Essentially, the neurobiological rush of what they are doing (or, more accurately, what they are thinking about doing) creates an impenetrable, trance-like bubble in which they are temporarily divorced from reality and potential consequences. When they fantasize about certain activities (such as forbidden sex), their brains release a flood of dopamine and adrenaline (plus a few other pleasure-related neurochemicals), and this tsunami of amp-me-up-and-make-me-feel-good juice just plain overrides their more rationale selves – the parts of their brain that say, “Hey, buddy, this is a bad idea.” For these men, the pull of forbidden yet intensely arousing activities overrides their better judgment, causing them to behave in ways that later cause problems.
Of course, when the sex is over and the bubble evaporates they must face the reality of having behaved badly. But instead of using the emotional shame they feel as motivation to change and behave differently, they typically engage in what therapists refer to as denial. In other words, they minimize, justify, and rationalize their behaviors. And sometimes, as we see with Josh Duggar, Jared Fogle, and various others, they overcompensate with a false self, hypocritically presenting themselves as humanitarians and/or paragons of virtue – sometimes even pretending to help the people they are secretly harming.
Where Does the Hypocrisy End?
There are lots of people who like to watch the news and point their fingers and say “Shame!” I know I do. Perhaps this behavior helps me to overlook and/or feel less shame about my own shortcomings. Or maybe schadenfreude – feeling pleasure at another man’s misfortune – is a more natural human emotion than most of us would care to admit. Either way, when I look at the real truth of my life, I’m forced to admit that I can be a bit hypocritical and that I too at least occasionally present a false self.
And who among us is not guilty of this? Frankly, an inherent part of being human is being imperfect while nevertheless tending to present a “looking good” false self. Don’t believe me? Ask yourself if you have ever stretched the truth to make yourself seem more successful or impressive than you really are? And how many times have you looked at another person’s Facebook page, perusing endless pictures of his or her happy marriage and family life, only to find out later that those images are very far from reality?
Interestingly, Americans seem especially likely to engage in this sort of subterfuge with sexual morality. For instance, a 2013 Pew Research Center survey found that only 25% of men and 8% of women admit to looking at pornography. In truth, this might be one of the most inaccurate social statistics ever. Even the normally reliable folks at Pew noted that a more realistic takeaway from their survey was that the results “may reflect a reluctance to report the behavior.” That actually seems certain, given the results of studies looking at actual porn usage (via computer usage histories) as opposed to self-reported porn use. For instance, a Nielson Study found that in a one month period 29% of working Americans had accessed porn on their work computers. Folks, that’s just the people who idiotically use company-owned equipment to get their porn fix. That number doesn’t count all the people who look at porn away from work on their private laptops, pads, and smartphones. The simple truth is this: Porn is a multi-billion dollar industry. As of 2011 there were more than 2.5 million porn sites. So yeah, a lot of people use porn, even if they say they don’t.
Truth be told, we’re hypocritical about more than just pornography. We also tend to act like casual sex, affairs, and promiscuity in general are against our deeply set personal ethics – even though our actions often speak otherwise. So, as William Shakespeare once wrote, “The lady doth protest too much, methinks,” with “the lady” referring to pretty much everyone living in our modern, super-sexualized culture.
So am I saying that we should give Josh and Jared a break, cutting them some slack because they’re only human? No, absolutely not, especially as both have admitted to victimizing vulnerable people. I am simply stating that humans in general tend toward hypocrisy, secretly behaving in ways that betray the trust of those around them. We do this not because we are evil, but because we are human. So my point here is that it’s not just a few random celebrities who are failing to practice what they preach, it’s a huge chunk of modern society. So the next time I find myself wanting to point my finger at a supposed role model who has betrayed the public trust, I might want to remember that it’s not just public figures who do this. It’s all of us.
Robert Weiss LCSW, CSAT-S is Senior Vice President of Clinical Development with Elements Behavioral Health. As a well-known expert on the relationship between digital technology and human sexuality, he has served as a media specialist for CNN, The Oprah Winfrey Network, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and the Today Show, among others. He is author of numerous books, including Closer Together, Further Apart and Always Turned On (both co-written with Dr. Jennifer Schneider). For more information, please visit his website.