Sex’s grip on politics now tighter than our own

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.

Comments

  • Dr. Laura Schlessinger

    I am dismayed that a Yalie would not have done her homework when constructing an essay. On the TODAY show I was never asked about Silda Spitzer. I was only asked "why men cheat." I specified that I never talk about a person…but only in general terms about mutual marital responsibility. I also specified that sociopaths and narcissists cheat no matter what their wives or husbands are like. Finally, I said an obvious truth: BOTH men and women are responsible for the health of their marriages.
    It is interesting that this essay omitted the comment by Helen Fisher that Spitzer cheated because he has a high forehead and protruding brow. What?
    I wrote THE PROPER CARE AND FEEDING OF HUSBANDS to help women understand how much their men emotionally and psychologically depend on them. That a man chooses to behave contrary to his vows is a sad shame - but it is also a sad shame when a women breaches her vows of love/honor/cherish and hold him close.
    I am disappointed that this student did not do her homework - but had her head explode with the notion that women have responsibilities to their men. To see the TODAY show interviews: http://www.drlaura.com. THANK YOU.

  • Kathi D

    Did "Dr." Laura read the article? It clearly does mention Dr. Helen Fisher's comment.

    Pleading that she was not commenting on the Spitzers rings awfully hollow, considering it was the news of the day and the reason the panel was hurriedly assembled. This is the kind of doublespeak that politicians have long been famous for: making a statement and then pretending to be shocked at being "misunderstood." There was no misunderstanding, and I'm sure "Dr." Laura is enjoying her moment in the spotlight.

  • A.C.

    I don't think Dr. Laura (and, Kathi, putting Dr. in quotation marks is really the sillies kind of cheap shot) or anybody is suggesting that a man's infidelity is justified by anything his wife does or doesn't do. I don't think anybody's saying it's an *excuse*.

    But it is a *reason*. It doesn't excuse the behavior but it might help explain it. And if it might help explain it then it might help avoid it. While it's true that some men cheat for the hell of it, others really do so because their intellectual, emotional or (obviously, most commonly) physical needs aren't being met at home. Women shouldn't be offended by that suggestion, they should feel challenged to be better girlfriends and wives.

  • EMG

    "Women shouldn't be offended by that suggestion, they should feel challenged to be better girlfriends and wives."

    Congratulations on hitting a solidly misogynistic point. Yes, there are two people who share responsibility for what happens in a relationship, but making that kind of statement, even in a polite way, places the main responsibility (and blame, if things go bad) for the sexual health of a marriage on the woman…She should see it coming, or be more adventurous in bed, be more sensitive -- How is that not offensive?
    It isn't just that men "cheat for the hell of it" -- that type of pseudo-scientific bullshit the author accurately identifies as fallacious.
    Men cheat for a variety of complex reasons, but it's highly offensive to imply that a man WOULD NOT cheat had his wife or girlfriend met his needs ever.
    Aren't we long past the days of the "helpmeet" and "handmaiden"?

    I think the real problem with men who cheat from positions of power is not their wives and their lack of fulfillment, but their sense of being such an achiever that no one can touch them.
    At least in Spitzer's case, his status as a paragon of morality may have given him a thrill in patronizing prostitutes and/or may have made him feel untouchable.
    This has nothing to do with his wife.