Schwarzenegger and DSK: Men, power, and sexual aggression

Are powerful men deluded into thinking they’re exempt from the rules governing lesser mortals’ sexual conduct?

“What makes powerful men behave so badly?” asked Nancy Gibbs in Time. That’s the question that pundits, social scientists, and lots of women are asking after two world-famous men were brought low last week by reckless sexual aggression. Dominique Strauss-Kahn, then the head of the International Monetary Fund and a likely French presidential candidate, was charged in New York City with the sexual assault of a hotel maid. (His lawyer claims she consented to oral sex.) On the other side of the country, former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger was admitting to having fathered a love child 13 years ago with his housekeeper. “In this ostensibly enlightened age, when men and women live and work as peers,” why do so many famous and powerful men continue to treat women like prey? The conventional wisdom, said Scot Lehigh in The Boston Globe, is that “libido and ego share the same psychological bandwidth.” The same excess of self-regard that leads men to believe they should be running the world also deludes them into thinking they’re exempt from rules governing lesser mortals’ sexual conduct. But this theory doesn’t explain why priapic pols are so indiscreet and so reckless. Look at Bill Clinton, carrying on with an awestruck young intern bound to blab about it, or former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer, wiring himself $10,000 to spend on prostitutes. If these men love their power so much, why do they so foolishly risk throwing it all away?

Because it’s in their nature, said psychologist Frank Farley in the Los Angeles Times. Men who actively seek power and public attention are by definition people who crave “variety, novelty, intensity, and uncertainty.” They’re easily bored by ordinary life, and relish risks the rest of us would find intolerable. Their risk-taking—and need for constant affirmation—often compels such men to step outside the confining conventions of monogamy; indeed, they often seek extramarital sex in the riskiest situations imaginable, as if asking to be found out. John F. Kennedy entertained hookers in the White House. John Edwards impregnated his mistress while running for president. Sen. John Ensign carried on an affair with his chief of staff’s wife.

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