Gender and High-Profile Sex Scandals


RH Reality Check will resume regular daily publication and real-time coverage on January 4th, 2010.  Happy New Year to all! 

As soon as the initial (extremely long) round of gossip about Tiger Woods’s
infidelity died down, the naive gender-based speculation began. Most
egregiously, Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen wrote a column pondering
"Why is there no female Tiger
Woods
?" After a
bunch of ill-researched speculation punctuated by the bemused refrain
"Nobody knows," Cohen concluded that the drive to cheat and the drive
to be powerful were linked, and then slammed us with the following wild
generalization:

The reason the
Glass Ceiling has not broken is that women have other priorities — maintaining
relationships and being a mother. This is the way it is, and this is the way it
has always been.


The
ridiculousness of asserting that all women are solely interested in holding on
to men and mothering children is impossible to overstate. But to engage Cohen’s
assertion on the merits, there are in fact a multitude of good reasons to
explain why there are few female sex scandals along the lines of Eliot Spitzer,
Tiger Woods or Wilt Chamberlain, reasons that do not boil down to some claptrap
about Mars and Venus.

The first reason is that there aren’t billions of male sex scandals on this scale either either. Besides the three
above, and maybe Bill Clinton, I can’t think of more than a handful of famous
men who cheated so often with so many women. Sure there have been plenty of men
in power caught with their pants down, but usually it’s the more common kind of
cheating that requires a female counterpart with equal culpability: a
co-worker, an old flame, maybe a boss or subordinate.  And if major
scandals are that rare among famous Alpha males, who vastly outnumber their alpha-female counterparts–can you name
a single female athlete of our era who receives sustained attention at the
level of Tiger Woods or a leading NFL or NBA player?– no wonder it hasn’t
cropped up much among the think ranks of A-list women.

The second reason concerns the path to power in terms of public approval. I
read a study years ago that said that there were far fewer female governors
than male governors but that on the whole, female governors had higher approval
ratings. The study’s conclusion was that in America, women seeking power are an
anomaly or cause for suspicion. When they run, the public vetting process tends
to occur before they get elected or
ascend to their high perch, while many men are able to coast in on charisma or
reputation. Thus, once women have been approved by the public, they tend to
already be squeaky-clean.  On an eyeball, nonscientific level, it bears
out: we often elect women like Kathleen Sebellius or Claire McCaskill who
radiate competence and respectability. While we elect many men like that as
well, we are more likely to elect men like Clinton, Rudy Giuliani, John Edwards
and Spitzer who also have an aggressive charm or tough-guy presence that may go
hand in hand with Casanova-ish tendencies. This is true even in sports; our
female sports heroes are teen-queen gymnasts and skaters or tough female
athletes whom we de-sexualize–but our male sports heroes tend to be dominant
in testosterone-laden activities and we revere them as godlike men on earth.

The third reason is simply a matter of perception. We tend to see gender and
power relationships through the lens of cultural norms and stereotypes: men who
can’t control themselves, women getting emotionally entangled. Amanda points out this quote which Emily Gould gave The Daily Beast’s Rebecca
Dana
:

"Men are
typically seen as having agency and women are typically seen as being acted
upon in romantic relationships… even when those stereotypical power dynamics
aren’t really the ones at play, the culture-making machinery will simplify
whatever the real story is until it is a more familiar wronged-woman,
Lothario-man narrative.”

Thus, in his column, Richard Cohen explains away Madonna’s lively dating history as Madonna
trying to "prove a point." He chooses to see it this way rather than
her Madgesty being a powerful woman who, not entirely unlike Clinton or Woods,
has a proclivity for exercising her sexual power in the form of repeated
short-lived affairs with men who resemble each other and tend to look up to
her. We tend to ignore stories of women with that kind of power in favor of narratives
of the sexy starlet brought low, á la Britney Spears.

Speaking of power, the ultimate rebuttal to Cohen is the issue of sex scandals
as evidence of not who wants power, but who
already has it
. At the moment in our culture men (particularly white men)
have more sexual and social power than women. And power leads to risk-taking. A
commenter "JoeODonnell" (6 comments down) fuming at Cohen on the
Washington Post’s website summed it up so accurately I had to quote him almost
in full:

 


I would suggest that men in positions of power and fame have had longer
to develop a culture of entitlement that blinds them to how stupidly they are
behaving. It’s not just sex, but money and other forms of power. Why does Dick
Cheney think he can still mouth off? Why did Madoff think no one would notice?
Why did the bankers continue to give themselves massive bonuses? … I don’t
think women have been in positions of power long enough to become so
self-deceiving. They will.

Anyone familiar with basic psychology will tell you that there are a host of
reasons people want to cheat; but a sense of entitlement may help turn the urge
into a reality.

As many others have said in the wake of Tiger-gate, our cultural prudery and
obsession with sex scandals is a major distraction. It’s highly irritating, to
boot, thanks to inevitability of such scandals leading major figures like
Richard Cohen to issue blanket statements about saintly women and lustful men
being irreparably divided by their chromosomes.



Like this story? Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Follow Sarah Seltzer on twitter: @sarahmseltzer

  • crowepps

    I think when it’s a case of a powerful/rich/authoritative man having illicit sex there’s a presumption that any woman involved is his ‘inferior’, and therefore coercion and/or her ‘being taken advantage of’ follows logically.

     

    When the reverse happens, as with Madonna (or Mae West’s hunky ‘secretaries’) the presumption is that the relationship is more equal, that despite the inequality in power/money/authority the man always walks away unharmed because there’s no public stigma attached to his participation and he isn’t considered ‘ruined’.