Political sex scandals: a new frontier in gender equality

by Katie Prisco-Buxbaum / Beacon Staff • November 29, 2012

Beltway hanky panky a measure of feminist progress.
Beltway hanky panky a measure of feminist progress.

Another political giant has been caught with his pants down. Literally.

From former presidents to former CIA director General David Petraeus, men in power can’t seem to keep their hands to themselves and off of their interns, biographers, and/or local prostitutes. In the latest string of scandal, David Petraeus resigned as head of the Central Intelligence Agency after a confusing web of inappropriateness that involves his biographer Paula Broadwell, volunteer military social liaison Jill Kelley; General John R. Allen who leads command in Afghanistan; and at this point, quite possibly; Miss Scarlet in the library with the candlestick. 

The list of philandering politicos is too long to list — with contemporary examples including Arnold Schwarzenegger, Eliot Spitzer, John Edwards, and Bill Clinton — yet when it comes to powerful female leaders, you rarely see any wearing a scarlet A. Why don’t more ladies risk it all to “have it all”: the career, the husband, the kids, and the extramarital affair? As much as I would like to deduce that women are the fairer sex, I believe that the reason women are less likely to be caught getting frisky is simple: patriarchy.

In April, a study published  in Psychological Science suggested that power, not gender, is the most significant determining factor in whether a professional will cheat; but since fewer women hold these positions in the first place, there are fewer of them involved in sex scandals. Despite recent gains with a historic 20 women in the Senate, women still represent far less than 50 percent of Congress, hold only 77 seats in the House, and there are only three ladies with cabinet positions. The public sees fewer powerful women cheat because there are fewer. 

The study suggests women do not engage in extramarital affairs because they don’t feel as invincible as men in equal positions. They are paid less in almost all career fields with the pay gap beginning at college graduation. They have to fight harder for promotions and leadership positions, and they often face rampant sexism on their way to the top. 

For justifiable proof, look no further than the Missouri Senate race this year in which Claire McCaskill was scolded by her opponent for being “unladylike” in a debate or when reporters asked Nancy Pelosi if she was too old to serve as minority party leader. Women face enough backlash just by being a strong female in a powerful role. Women still face the “he’s a stud, she’s a slut” double standard that can be seen in Reuter’s Nov. 12 coverage of the Petraeus brouhaha entitled “Three women intertwine in downfall of David Petraeus.” This stigma can be a powerful deterrent for women who see just how far they can fall, not having the ability to bounce back as well as most male adulterers after the immediate consequences. Many of them don’t possess the brash confidence that leads men running the country, the world to risk it all for some hanky panky. 

For example, former President Bill Clinton’s political celebrity was hardly bruised by his wrongdoings, and this election was courted by candidates across party lines. Wondering where America’s favorite intern Monica Lewinsky is? She recently reported that she will be releasing a book about the affair and several love letters, claiming that no one would hire her after her discretions in the oval office. 

The aforementioned study, conducted by the Tilburg Institute for Behavioral Economics Research, concluded that, “As more and more women are in greater positions of power and are considered equal to men, then familiar assumptions about their behavior may also change. This may lead to increased negative behaviors among women that in the past have been more common among men.” This suggests as females truly become more equal in the professional world, there will actually be more female sex scandals gracing headlines and fueling witty office banter. 

Maybe in the next century, we will be impeaching our third female president for getting caught under her desk with an entry level employee or scolding female CIA agents for having wild sex orgies on the job. Until the culture and representation changes, however, it seems unlikely that women will have the confidence associated with this type of scandal to believe that no one will find the thousands of inappropriate emails documenting every stage of the affair. Even adultery has a glass ceiling.