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Anthony Weiner, and sexual misconduct by men in power

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This piece is part of a roundtable with Post columnist Steven Pearlstein and three of our On Leadership expert contributors — Michael Maccoby, Jeffrey Pfeffer and Alaina Love — about the leadership issues surrounding the recent sex scandals of Anthony Weiner, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Dominique Strauss-Kahn. They respond to a simple prompt: “What’s with these guys?”

Why do men risk their careers in sexual adventures? The question is an obvious one given the recent Twitter scandal involving Rep. Anthony Weiner. The answer is less so.

A group of psychotherapists at the Washington School of Psychiatry recently explored the root causes, though none seemed to hold in every case. One explanation: Narcissistic men with weak superegos lack control over their instincts. But then again, narcissistic leaders like Bill Clinton, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Dominique Strauss-Kahn have shown a great deal of self-control in other parts of their lives. Why would sex be any different?

Well, it may be. It’s possible they have gotten away with their seductions for years and have come to believe that they are invulnerable, that the rules don’t apply to them. Also, these are people who have chosen a very risky career path. The same personality type may also be attracted to affairs where the sexual thrill is enhanced by the danger of getting caught.

Yet, personality is not the only explanatory factor. Another is opportunity. In politics, like in entertainment and professional sports, men meet many willing partners. We are never surprised to hear that public figures like Mick Jagger or Wilt Chamberlain have slept with scores of groupies. But somehow it’s different with Clinton and John Edwards, even though they too were as much the seduced as they were the seducers. It’s not news when an entertainer sleeps around, but political leaders are held to higher standards, especially when they preach family values. (Tiger Woods was a special case. He was an athlete advertised like a politician as virtuous in all things. There was also a newsworthy irony in that he was a champion at a sport that demands the highest level of self-control, and yet had an uncontrollable addiction to sex.)

Psychoanalysis has shown the power of transference; that is, the projection of unconscious childlike love onto a person who appears caring and protective. People in power, including psychotherapists and professors, have sometimes taken advantage of transferential love. And in the past, they may have gotten away with it. Now, such seduction is a punishable breach of professional ethics.

Culture also plays a significant role in the sexual behavior of powerful men. For a number of years, Italian voters smiled at Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s sex-capades. For some Italians, his behavior made him seem more attractive – until a reaction began to grow against his adventures with underage women. And the French ridiculed Americans for making a big deal of Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky, but the case of Strauss-Kahn has since caused many people in France to question the exploitation of women by men in power. To be sure, there is a big difference between seduction, which can be a private matter between two people, and coercion. However, seduction by a man or woman of someone who works for them can easily cross over that line.

The liberation of women from male domination has changed attitudes about the testosterone-fueled activities of powerful men. The press wore blinders when faced with John F. Kennedy’s or Lyndon Johnson’s sexual escapades. That would not be the case now.

It is interesting to ask not only why some men in powerful positions pursue risky sexual adventures, but also why some men do not. Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter, George W. Bush and Barack Obama all chose risky political careers, and yet they appear to have had strong marriages with no hint of adulterous affairs. While Carter got some flack from telling Playboy Magazine that he experienced lust, it seems to have stayed in his heart. Is it that these men have a stronger sense of self-preservation than those who have affairs? Or is it that they have more developed loving relationships with their wives?

Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter have been loving partners. Reagan had a close, loving relationship with his wife Nancy whom he called “mommy”. Laura Bush saved her husband from his alcoholic addition and was a warm, motherly support for him. Michelle Obama is a strong, supportive wife who would not likely stand for any hanky-panky. In contrast, Anne Sinclair, Strauss-Kahn’s wife, seems to have approved of his seductions as proof of his virility.

Narcissistic leaders have weak consciences (superegos, in psychoanalytic terms). That allows them to twist the truth and shift their positions in ways that people with strong consciences couldn’t do without squirming with guilt. In place of the punishing superego, these narcissists construct ego ideals – visions of their ideal self. And then when they don’t live up to the ideal and are exposed as less than they want to be, they feel shamed. As a psychoanalyst, I have treated men with an ego ideal of being a macho conqueror, irresistible to women. I have also known men whose ideal is to be a responsible person, able to develop deep, rewarding, loving relationships.

All men have instinctual sexual impulses. But how they are controlled or structured depends on personality, as well as the situation and cultural patterns. Sex drive is very flexible. It can attach itself to drives for mastery, relatedness, play or adventure. Although there is a clear distinction between consensual sex and coercive sex, transference and hierarchical relationships – which make up many a high-profile political sex scandal – tend to fall somewhere in between. Yet in our transparent and judgmental society, men in power have to present an unwaveringly clean image. We want them to be models of wisdom and probity. If they want to avoid shaming by the media village of today, they best be celibate, date discretely or, better yet, direct their sexuality to a loving, monogamous relationship.

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