Why Are We So Fascinated by Celebrity Sex Scandals?

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As much as I like to think I'm above such nonsense, I have to admit that a good celebrity scandal can really suck me in if I'm not careful. Much as I'd rather spend my days reading the novel of a master writer like Philip Roth, sometimes I can't help searching the Internet for the latest news of some high-profile couple who is going through a rough patch — like, most recently, Demi and Ashton. (Some tabloid magazine is reporting that he cheated on her with some young bimbo type.) I think I'm particularly interested in those two because the age difference fascinates me; being something of a cougar myself, I root for Demi, and hope their relationship will last, if only because it gives me hope that I will be able to find a hottie 15 years my junior even when I too am 47, like she is!

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But does that really explain my prurient interest? Why are we all so compelled by news about celebrity scandals? Why, as a writer for The Washington Post recently put it, has "scandal-watching has become our most vibrant national pastime"? Why have "whole industries ... grown up in the past decade to help us create, document and dissect the transgressions of the possibly rich and quasi-famous"?

In a new book called How to Become a Scandal: Adventures in Bad Behavior, cultural critic and professor Laura Kipnis hints that part of the reason we're so compelled by news about other people's personal failures is in part because we think, "That could've been me." Wanting to find out more about what makes us such rubberneckers — so interested in the car wrecks, literal and metaphorical, that befall people on the big screens, the small screens, and the Internet screens — I contacted Kipnis to ask her a few questions.

Why do we all enjoying reading about and discussing scandals so much?

It's a chance to moralize. Public scandals are like purity rituals: We cast out the transgressor, then feel better about ourselves. There's an element of sadomasochism as well; the people involved in any scandal invite punishment — and we provide it.

I see. So it's kind of like banishing the lepers. What elements make any given scandal especially juicy? What kinds of thing are we most likely to become obsessed about?

Scandals about people unable to properly manage their sex and emotional lives are the ones that really grab us. Situations that involve adultery, revenge, or losing it publicly get a lot of attention. And, of course, the higher the players are on the social ladder, the bigger the story.

Is the news media to blame for the frenzy? Or are they simply responding to a human desire for drama that we would find some way to feed, one way or the other, even if TMZ and Gawker and The Enquirer and all the rest didn't exist?

It's the classic co-dependency: You can't say the media invented scandal, as it goes back to the beginnings of the social order. But at the same time, we're the ones who are responsible; if we didn't pay attention, there'd be no scandal industry.

What's the biggest scandal of your lifetime?

The Clinton-and-Monica-Lewinsky scandal. It changed the course of national history and can be blamed (perhaps indirectly) for the outcome of the next election and the war in Iraq.

Folks, what do you think about all this? What's your opinion on why there is such an insatiable hunger for stories about famous people misbehaving? Do you care as much as everyone else seems to?

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