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.

Strauss-Kahn does not belong in this discussion, said Juliet Williams in The Washington Post. Yes, he appears to be a serial philanderer, like Schwarzenegger and dozens of other disgraced politicians. But DSK now stands accused of a brutal sexual assault. Rape is not a “scandal,” said Amanda Marcotte in the London Guardian online. Rape is a violent crime, and “there is no excuse for those who fail to distinguish between actual assault and caddish but consensual behavior.”

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The two cases “are different in dozens of ways,” said Gregory Rodriguez in the Los Angeles Times. But there is one unsettling similarity: Both cases involve a rich, powerful white man taking advantage of a domestic servant from a racial minority. No one has alleged that Schwarzenegger’s Latina housekeeper didn’t consent to their sexual relationship, but consent is always a murky concept when a boss presses himself on an employee—particularly when the boss is as rich and powerful as Schwarzenegger. His affair, like Strauss-Kahn’s alleged assault, echoes a time when white men used their darker-skinned slaves and servants as sexual playthings. When it comes to sex, power, and race, “not everything has changed.”

Perhaps not, said Leslie Bennetts in, but women have. Even a few decades ago, a hotel chambermaid who complained of being assaulted by a wealthy white politician would have been told to shut up or lose her job. This time, the maid stuck by her story, and “the cops pulled the rich white man off his flight, put him in handcuffs, and paraded him on a perp walk.” Schwarzenegger’s case is of course less egregious, but his wife will likely divorce him, and he’s the subject of widespread scorn and ridicule. John Edwards’s affair cost him his “life, marriage, and future prospects.” After then Gov. Mark Sanford admitted to an affair, his wife chose to divorce him and write a tell-all book rather than become another “long-suffering” political wife. Finally, look at the price Tiger Woods paid for his philandering: His gorgeous young wife walked out with $110 million, and after Woods lost his good-guy image, his confidence and golf game collapsed. What used to be dismissed as incorrigible male misbehavior, it seems, now carries serious consequences. Boys may still be boys, but women “are not interested in the doormat role anymore.”

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