Upon learning of the infidelity charges (trumped up) against his wife Anne Boleyn, King Henry VIII, in the version of the story rendered by Hilary Mantel in her recent novel “Bring Up the Bodies,” is aghast. He pretends not to comprehend why “a sober, a godly matron, whose only duty is to get a child” might take pleasure in sex and, further, might be drawn into another’s arms. “If she could carry on such a deceit, what else might she be capable of?” he asks, hypocritically — for the king himself has fathered at least one child outside of marriage. In 16th century England, having mistresses was the privilege of a powerful man. That Henry was also head of the Church of Eng-land didn’t constrain his behavior.
Fast-forward to 2012. This may be the Year of the Woman on the U.S. Olympic Team and in the Senate, but the commentary and analysis of this season’s latest and greatest sex scandal — that between David Petraeus and his biographer, Paula Broadwell — is downright medieval. It seems that even in the Year of the Woman, the most accomplished woman can, in the eyes of the world, instantly become a slut.
The downfall of Petraeus, who resigned last Friday as CIA director after admitting to the affair, is being drawn in the most grandiose terms: Commentators use the word “tragedy” in all earnestness, drawing comparisons between the former four-star Army general and Odysseus, the great military hero enthralled by the Sirens. (Had he not been bound to his ship’s mast, Odysseus would surely have been lost.) But no such narrative dignity accrues to Broadwell, the object of his desire, a woman with degrees from West Point and Harvard who can run a half-marathon in seven-minute splits. Guffaws erupt when pundits mention the title of her book, “All In.”
The most egregious example of this contemporary sexism comes, not surprisingly, from the Rev. Pat Robertson. On “The 700 Club” last week, Robertson, never a spokesman for the broad-minded view, effectually exonerated the general for his part in the affair, citing Broadwell’s extraordinary physical magnetism as well as the fact that she was “throwing herself at him.”
“She is an extremely good-looking woman. She is a marathon runner. She runs Iron Man triathlons. So she’s out running with him and writing a biography. I think the term is ‘propinquity,’ ” he said.
Robertson is a dinosaur; it would be wrong to credit his voice in the cultural conversation with any more resonance than it deserves. Nevertheless, in this case, he seems to represent a certain mainstream view. Powerful men are expected to stray (if they’re not too stupid or Anthony Weiner-ish about it). But the women with whom they consort are unredeemed for all of history. Bill Clinton has been fully resurrected, regarded most recently as the savior of President Obama’s reelection; Monica Lewinsky, meanwhile, will forever be a punch line.
John F. Kennedy is the closest thing Americans have to a political saint, yet Mimi Alford’s confessional memoir about her affair with that president was laughed at as shallow and unreflective. Perhaps it was — but how, in 21st century America, do the consenting participants in an extramarital affair receive such unequal treatment? Especially when, in all the aforementioned cases, the balance of power (and so the power to prey) lies on the side of the men?
The answer may exist somewhere in the midst of the fourth century, when Christianity morphed from a freakish band of outsiders seeking justice for the disenfranchised to the religion of Empire and Emperors.
The Gospels pay special attention to women: They give them a starring role as witnesses of the Resurrection. In Paul’s letters, certain women are mentioned as having leadership roles.
But from the time Constantine legalized Christianity throughout Rome, the faith from which so many of our cultural assumptions still springs favored and protected men and preserved the invisibility and impotence especially of married women.
“Christianity succumbed to the male-superiority thing quite quickly,” says Diarmaid MacCulloch, author of “Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years.” Kings and even popes (until the late Middle Ages) were expected to have lovers as a show of their virility and strength.
And what of the wives — Holly Petraeus, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Silda Spitzer — the women whom these betrayals affect most deeply? In the sex-scandal drama being enacted all around us, they are typecast in another important historical, Christian-based role — the one MacCulloch calls “the professional virgin.” The wives in these cases are not virgins in any technical sense, of course, but compared with their younger, sexier, sister sluts, they are. Older, weathered, post-menopausal, they no longer pose any sexual threat, and so culture praises them — for their facade of fortitude and sexlessness (whatever the truth may be). They, in turn, grow in the public’s esteem. America likes Hillary Clinton a lot more now that it did back then. Intelligent, ambitious women have often chosen the professional virgin’s path as a way to power.
“Men are not in charge of them,” says MacCulloch. “Over history, women have rather liked that idea.”