The Sex Difference in Sex Scandals

Why do these kinds of scandals so rarely happen with female politicians?


Nearly two years ago, when South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford admitted (finally, in a spectacularly embarrassing press conference) to having an extra-marital affair with an Argentine woman, a lot of questions were raised about why this kind of scandal so rarely happens with women politicians. One answer offered was simply that there aren't that many women politicians in office.

It's true, of course. Women only make up 16.4% of the current Congress, and 12% of the nation's governors. But in a 2009 Newsweek tally of political sex scandals since 1976, only one out of 53 instances involved a woman politician (former Idaho Congresswoman Helen Chenoweth, who admitted to having an eight-year affair with a married rancher in the 1980s). So women aren't even holding up their fair percentage of the scandals.

Married people from all walks in life have extra-marital affairs. According to a 2006 report on American Sexual Behavior as part of the General Social Survey (GSS), an average of 16-18% of all married people have had an extra-marital affair. That's a considerably lower number than is often bandied about in the popular press, of course, which Tom Smith, the report's author, attributes to the lack of scientific rigor in the studies reporting higher numbers. He cites a number of studies that mirror the GSS results. But even in the GSS results, almost twice as many men had had extramarital affairs than women. 

Why is that? Many reasons, to be sure. But the two scandals grabbing the headlines this week (the arrest of IMF managing director Dominique Strauss-Kahn for sexual assault and the admission of former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to fathering a child with a member of his household staff), point to a couple of factors that help explain that gap. 

One has to do with what we typically consider attractive and/or sexy in men versus women. For better or worse ... as a culture, we see competence and power as very attractive features in a man. The more power and competence a man and his position (and money) denote, the more attractive he will seem to a whole host of women. This, by the way, explains the appeal of the military flight suit. I single out the flight suit, as opposed to military dress uniforms, because there is nothing inherently attractive in what military pilots refer to as their "green bags." And yet, a pilot walking into a bar in one increases his chances of getting a date by an order of magnitude over a guy in a t-shirt and jeans. Why? Because the flight suit denotes competence and a certain level of power. 

A woman pilot wearing a flight suit into a bar, on the other hand, will see her chances of a date fall. Why? Because (and again, this is a general trend, there are always exceptions), we don't see competence and power as sexy in a woman. If anything, they're threatening. When I bought my current airplane 12 years ago, (a simple, four-seat, single engine model), a male friend of mine congratulated me on the purchase, but then added, 

"You know, Lane, this is not exactly going to help your love life." 

Is that image changing? Of course it is. More and more men are waking up to the benefits and appeal of a smart, competent, independent and powerful woman. But as a culture, what makes a woman appealing is still her looks, not her power. 

So how does this relate to political sex scandals? Well, one reason floated for the seemingly high number of politicians being caught cheating is that so much more opportunity may exist for them to stray. The theory goes that a politician (or star athlete, for that matter) will find a dizzyingly high number of adoring admirers at their disposal. And that theory may be true ... but I would argue that phenomenon is one known far better by male politicians than female ones. Why? Because the very features that make a male politician so much more attractive to people they meet (power and competence) make their female counterparts less sexually attractive, at least in many people's eyes. 

But there's a second aspect of the power/sex connection that also helps explain the gap in sexual misconduct. And that's simply the sense of entitlement that some men have about sex, in terms of it being a kind of reward for achieving power, and a way of reassuring themselves about their hold on that power. 

The link undoubtedly dates back to the days of conquering, raping and pillaging all being lumped together in the spoils of warrior combat. Win the battle, gain the power, and take the sex you want. That's not acceptable in today's more civilized society, of course, but a piece of it endures and surfaces more often than we'd like to admit. The atrocities in the Congo aside (where rape still IS a prevalent spoil of war), there's the bragging of Magic Johnson about having had sex with a thousand women, the six-game suspension of Steelers' quarterback Ben Roethlisberger for accusations of his assaulting and/or mistreating women, and even, on a much lesser scale, the dream many young men harbor of making it big on Wall Street so they can have a lot of women. I know women who have career aspirations on Wall Street, but none that involve making it big so they can have sex with a whole lot of men. 

So even in consensual matters, there's a two-way dynamic with men in powerful positions that doesn't exist with women. Culturally, men are more likely to link power with a sense of entitlement about rewards that include sex, and there are many women who do, in fact, see a man as more sexually attractive if he's powerful. Hence you have Arnold Schwarzenegger having an affair with a member of his household staff, and President Clinton having an affair with a young White House intern. If President Clinton had been a janitor instead of the President of the United States, Monica Lewinsky would likely not have given him the time of day. 

But that same link between power and sex lies behind sexual assault, as well. And that's where it really gets ugly. Any rape crisis counselor will tell you that rape (and sexual harassment, for that matter) is about power, not sex. Sex is just the tool -- a way for an attacker to reassure himself of his power. An insecure man may use rape as a way to prove power he doesn't feel he has. But there's also the case of powerful men so used to getting their way with women that they can't imagine or handle any other outcome -- which is one of the theories being floated to explain Strauss-Kahn's alleged behavior. 

The link between power and sex for women, on the other hand, has been to withhold it, not to force it. The plot of the Greek play Lysistrata even revolves around an agreement the women of Athens make with the women of Sparta to withhold sex from their husbands until both armies agree to stop fighting each other. So if anything, the power/sex link for women, if there is one, is a deterrent, not a catalyst. But most women in positions of power are also still far more concerned with being taken seriously than being seen as sexually attractive individuals. For men, the two go together. For women, the equation still involves opposite pulls--especially for women old enough to be in positions of political power.  

Most women intuitively understand this dynamic, which is part of the reason why some of these politicians' behaviors make us so uncomfortable. If a man falls in love with someone other than his wife, it's certainly bad, and we thank our lucky stars that we're not the betrayed spouse in question, but it's easier to dismiss it as a private matter. But when we sense a power imbalance in the relationship, it makes it harder to compartmentalize a man's professional talents from his personal behavior. If we believe a man has crossed the line into sexual assault, most women would agree to cut him off at the knees (hence the drop in support for the Pittsburgh Steelers last fall among the team's female fans). But even if the behavior stays this side of legality, like affairs with household help or consenting but powerless young women, I think it gives us pause that extra-marital affairs between equals do not. Why? Because the abuse of that power is something that almost every woman, at one point or another, has had to deal with in the world. And we know just how awful, unjust and destructive a force it can be. 

Image: STR New / Reuters