Is Donald Sterling’s Mistress Also Rotten for Violating His Privacy?

Donald Sterling is a piece of shit. There are really no two ways about that. He’s a racist, misogynist old man who believes that his wealth makes him lord and master over the world and that most people are nothing more than playthings for him to do with as he pleases, subhuman nobodies deserving of little in the way of respect or consideration. Many have known this for years. The facts of Donald Sterling have always stared us right in the face; it was simply a matter of those in a position of some authority recognizing his villainy and not allowing him to get away with it. But it wasn’t until one of his former mistresses, a woman named V. Stiviano — a woman he’s alleged to have given millions of dollars in gifts to — secretly recorded him and made his private thoughts public that attention focused squarely on Sterling and America as a nation decided we couldn’t let him get away with being a completely reprehensible bastard anymore.

There’s already been plenty of copy space expended on why it took Donald Sterling coming right out and proving “on tape” that he’s a racist for people to act. That’s not worth revisiting or delving into any further. But while I personally detest what Sterling said on the recording his mistress made, something rubs me the wrong way about the fact that she made it at all and that it was able to get such traction in the media. I’ll tread carefully here because I don’t want to be misconstrued, but it goes like this: When you’re surreptitiously recording someone during a conversation, you have the upper-hand at all times. An argument between two people involved in a romantic relationship can often consist of both sides losing their cool at some point, but Stiviano knew that she couldn’t. She couldn’t say anything that would make her look bad because she knew what Sterling didn’t: that they were being recorded and that those recordings were likely going to end up in the hands of the media. (Stiviano claims she didn’t leak them to the press herself, but, well, come on.)

What wound up happening is that a guy who deserved to be destroyed publicly was destroyed, certainly, but it still seems inherently unfair that what Sterling believed was a private conversation was all-along going to be heard by others eventually, in one way or another. There are so many things Sterling has done throughout his life that prove his retrograde views on race and his imperious view of his entire relationship with the lesser beings of planet Earth that actually hearing him come out and say he’s an asshole wasn’t really even necessary. For years everybody either dismissed the facts or simply looked the other way because it was somehow beneficial. Granted, most of us don’t generally forge intimate relationships with people who can’t be trusted because they’re with us for financial gain and nothing more — and there’s an argument to be made that Sterling is a victim of his own arrogance here — but there’s now a media structure in place that makes it easier than ever to make somebody’s most private statements public. And that’s kind of scary even for us little people.

I’ve written about this sort of thing before, making the case that we all live inside a digital and telecommunications version of Bentham’s Panopticon these days and that there’s really nothing we can do about it. It’s almost impossible to believe that any moment outside, in public or online is completely secure anymore. But when you’re having a private conversation with someone you’re intimately familiar with, it doesn’t seem foolish to assume that that conversation is, in fact, private. The Sterling/Stiviano case is one of those instances in which everybody’s wrong: Sterling’s beliefs and statements are completely horrific, but Stiviano’s violation of what you’d imagine was Sterling’s misplaced trust is also pretty repugnant. Granted, Stiviano is at the center of a lawsuit filed by Rochelle Sterling — Donald Sterling’s wife of more than 50 years — which says she’s spent years engaging in underhanded plots to “target, befriend, seduce and then entice, cajole, borrow from, cheat and/or receive gifts transfers of wealth from wealthy older men.” Stiviano and Sterling were apparently made for each other, regardless of who you think deserves most of the blame for their entirely for-profit relationship.

Obviously, you buy your companionship, you behave like a tyrannical asshole, you get what you deserve. What happened to Donald Sterling is the kind of thing 99% of us couldn’t even imagine happening, simply because we’re not worth anybody screwing with us. But there have been plenty of stories lately about people who figured no one would care about their dumb behavior suddenly finding themselves the target of a social media campaign. Because everything you do is so easy to broadcast. And anyone can do it. Have we transitioned into a world where there’s truly no expectation of privacy, even in intimate, one-on-one settings? It feels like that might be a pretty nerve-wracking place to live.