Considering the deadlock currently stalling the Democratic nomination process, it’s been something of a diversion to have sex play such a prominent role in politics over the last couple of weeks. Yes, I was shocked and furious to have the governor of my home state admit to being a long-term patron of an expensive prostitution ring. But my feelings of betrayal as a citizen soon gave way to curiosity as I listened to countless pundits turn into temporary authorities on the question of male infidelity.
As a political scandal over an elected official’s indulgence in illegal activities that he formerly and strongly condemned, it was clear that Eliot Spitzer was to blame. But as far as sex was concerned, the women in Spitzer’s life suddenly became as guilty as he was.
When the Spitzer news hit, I told a friend that it would be a matter of minutes before commentators began blaming his wife. She vehemently disagreed. The next day, we watched the much-blogged-about clip from “The Today Show” in which radio host Dr. Laura Schlessinger denounced Silda Spitzer for driving her husband to cheat. “Men do need validation,” Dr. Laura noted, helpfully pointing out that when men “come into the world, they’re born of a woman.” She went on. “When the wife does not focus in on the needs and the feelings sexually, personally, to make him feel like a man, to make him feel like a success, to make him feel like our hero, he’s very susceptible to the charm of some other woman making him feel what he needs.”
What about Spitzer’s three daughters, host Meredith Vieira asked? Dr. Laura said that her heart went out to them and that she hoped this incident would teach them how to treat their future husbands so as to avoid any similarly sticky situations later in life.
The fear of sexual humiliation is a pervasive and powerful force — and for good reason. It’s hard to imagine what could be more embarrassing than having a partner or spouse declare in public that he or she had to turn to someone else for satisfaction. But although this anxiety is presumably the same for both men and women, gender is an unavoidable factor in society’s consideration of infidelity. Sexual humiliation has long been expressed predominantly as a male concern. Think of a literary character like Othello and his conviction that his pure-as-snow wife has been unfaithful. Actually, think of any Shakespearean play at all, and the cuckold jokes — “cuckold” being a gendered term for a man with a cheating wife — that never failed to win laughs from an Elizabethan audience.
Of course, this is no surprise. After all, until the last century, men have had nearly exclusive access to self-expression in the public sphere, and male concerns about sexuality and relationships have dominated the disc.
But we’re living in the age of the humiliated political wife. There are the Hillary Clintons and Silda Spitzers who agree to appear supportive during the confessions of their powerful husbands, and the Dina McGreeveys, who do nothing to disguise their shock and anger from the press. While the humiliation factor has multiplied over the past few decades due to the media’s more invasive scrutiny of public figures, the trend of philandering politicians is certainly nothing new. Do these spectacles of sexual embarrassment happen again and again because the media likes to scrutinize politicians and because most politicians are male? Or, incredibly, is cheating — and especially the kind of high-stakes cheating that caused Spitzer’s downfall — mainly a male phenomenon?
On the same episode of “The Today Show” that featured Dr. Laura, anthropologist Helen Fisher chimed in with her own analysis: “All you have to do is look at Eliot Spitzer. He has a high cheekbone and a very heavy brow ridge. Those are signs of very high testosterone.” This kind of pseudo-scientific analysis of sexual activity, which makes vague biological excuses for dishonest behavior and refuses to consider useful concepts like free will, only succeeds in further obscuring the problem of elected officials’ irresponsibility. Surely something distinguishes humans from bonobos.
A friend of mine who has supported Barack Obama for a number of months recently said that he worries about Obama’s smear potential. According to his theory, the Clintons have become nearly invulnerable to exposure because their dirt has been so over-hyped. It’s true that Bill and Hillary’s indiscretions have now become as integral to the American consciousness as the national anthem, and the Jeremiah Wright controversy would be nothing compared to a sex scandal. But I refuse to subscribe — at least for now — to the belief that even the highest minded politician can’t help himself, or to a Dr. Laura-type insistence that a forceful woman like Michelle Obama can’t nurture her husband well enough.
Here’s hoping that testosterone-based judgments of character will be rendered unnecessary for the duration of this election.
Alexandra Schwartz is a junior in Saybrook College. Her column runs on alternate Tuesdays.