One was accused of a crime, and one pleaded guilty to being a cad, but those quick minds in the infotainment business soon got Dominique Strauss-Kahn and Arnold Schwarzenegger into the same story line:
Sex and politicians!
In which we commingle a true sex scandal (cheating pol fathers love child; keeps secret from wife, children, voters; wins office twice) with a seven-count indictment for criminal sexual assault (world finance leader seen as future French president busted in alleged rape attempt on housekeeper who came to clean his swank hotel suite).
CNN showcased Time magazine’s upcoming cover: “What Makes Powerful Men Act Like Pigs.” Columnists blamed “manly urges” and “men behaving badly,” and MSNBC added both men to its already robust rogues’ gallery(which includes John Edwards, Eliot Spitzer, Mark Sanford, John Ensign and Chris Lee).
Uh, no. One of these things is not like the other.
When a term such as “sex scandal” is used to describe behaviors running the gamut from politically irrelevant to legally actionable, I’d say we’ve got a problem. And the weird accident of timing here reveals how badly we still confuse consensual if illicit sex with violence against women.
Until recently, we didn’t have to worry so much about how to talk about the sexual misbehavior of prominent men. That’s because until recently, we didn’t talk much about it at all. But that certainly changed in the late 1990s, when Kenneth Starr broke the sexual sound barrier and catapulted talk of thongs and stubborn dress stains into the evening news.
Who else but the deceptively prudish special prosecutor could have induced grannies and schoolchildren alike to gather around the family dinner table to contemplate such eternal questions as whether it counts as an extramarital affair if your intern “performed oral sex” on you in your office (as the Starr Report put it) but you didn’t technically go “all the way” with her?
Looking back, Starr’s investigation proved pivotal. It paved the way for what has become an unprecedented era of sexual disclosure. If once we found it difficult to talk about scandalous sex acts, now we can’t seem to stop ourselves. And as the list of politicians whose legacies will be forever asterisked grows, it’s hard not to feel that all of this scandal-mongering has sullied not just those who have been caught with their pants down, but all of us who have made these spectacles into ceaseless cable fodder by obsessively watching them unfold.
There’s good in our increased willingness to bare topics once taboo. We now talk more frankly than ever about matters long shrouded in silence, secrecy and shame. Recall that two years after the Clinton scandal drew to a close, news about the widespread sexual abuse of children by clergy in the Catholic Church began to surface in the national and international press. The frankness with which these abuses have been discussed all around the world has been essential in moving the process of redress forward. I can’t help but wonder, would these conversations have been possible in an era before the phrase “oral sex” entered the standard news vernacular?
Now it’s time to grow up some more, past the titillation and the guffaws over “hiking the Appalachian Trail,”and suss out the difference between the right kinds of uncomfortable conversations and the wrong ones. Put otherwise: When is sex a scandal, and when is it something else?
When you think about it, what makes a sex scandal a scandal doesn’t really have much to do with the sex at all. The truth is, the events at the heart of most sex scandals turn out to be pretty banal. Pare it down, and the story usually is a married man having sex with someone other than his wife. Sometimes that other person is a subordinate. Sometimes it’s a stranger he paid for sex. Sometimes it’s another man. In other words, it’s nothing too out of the ordinary.
What makes most of these stories newsworthy is not what happened, but who did it. We may hem and haw about the immorality of the act in question, but often the real affront is the deception — the fact that someone presented himself one way in public but acted a different way in private. There’s humiliation, hurt, perhaps hypocrisy and reputational damage. Any criminal charges usually relate to the lies about the act, not the act.
Hugh Hefner having sex with a woman young enough to be his granddaughter — and her twin! — may be gross, but it’s not a scandal. It’s who Hef is. But an anti-gay-rights legislator paying to have sex with another man — that’s a scandal.
In the case of Strauss-Kahn, however, the problem is not just one of character, it is one of deed. That’s why Strauss-Kahn’s apologists are hoping to convince us that what he stands accused of doing isn’t really how it happened at all. Attempted rape is such an ugly description of what must have taken place, they say — just think about it in a more French way, as a simple case of “grand seduction” (and let’s all pray that Fox doesn’t pick that one up for its next reality-TV gambit).
Given the timing of these two cases, comparisons are inevitable. But looking at the former California governor and the former International Monetary Fund chief side by side should reveal not a continuum of behavior but a clear distinction. Personal transgressions should not be casually conflated with attempted rape, as if one form of powerful male entitlement is equal to the other. That’s why we should beware of commentators like Matt Miller, who, writing in The Washington Post, would have us believe that Schwarzenegger and Strauss-Kahn are united by a similar, and largely unsuccessful, struggle to keep their inner cavemen at bay.
That’s the evolutionary psychology equivalent of the “Twinkie defense,” and it’s lame.
What we need to do is bring more precision to our definition of “sex scandal.”
When a powerful politician has an extramarital affair, it’s a scandal. When a powerful politician sexually assaults another person, it’s a crime.
Juliet A. Williams is a professor of women’s studies at the University of California at Los Angeles and the co-editor of “Public Affairs: Politics in the Age of Sex Scandals.”