Sex & Relationships

Why Aren't There Sleazy Sex Scandals Involving Powerful Women?

That question often elicits the sexist "men are from Mars, women are from Venus" claptrap. But the truth is much more complicated.

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.

Sarah Seltzer is an RH Reality Check staff writer and resident pop culture expert. Sarah is a freelance writer based in New York City. Her work has been published in Bitch, Venus Zine, Womens eNews, and Publishers Weekly among other places. She formerly taught English in a Bronx public school.
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