Because of the DSK and Schwarzenegger scandals, there has been probably more than enough public consideration in the last week or two of questions like: Are powerful men pigs and if so, why? But I have yet to see any discussion of a related and relevant question: Why are powerful women so seldom sexually predatory?
In the past, it was reasonable to offer two kinds of answers to that question:
One, there are not now, and throughout history have never been, enough powerful women to make meaningful comparisons;
Or two, women just aren’t all that interested in sex.
The first of these assumptions — while of course true until recently — is true no longer. Indeed, I have been very impressed with how many powerful and influential women have been available to discuss these stories in the media, here and in France. If women wanted to compete with men in piggery today, they certainly could.
It may be worth noting, by the way, that the stories that have circulated over the millennia about the sexual escapades of the few powerful women history provides are all or nearly all very likely falsehoods, made up to diminish a powerful woman’s power (more on this below). No, Catherine the Great just wasn’t that into horses; there is no clear evidence that Elizabeth I was not the Virgin Queen; the scandalous tales of Marie Antoinette’s sexual exploits were constructed deliberately by enemies of the monarchy to bring it down (and worked pretty well!); and even the scurrilous stories about Messalina were undoubtedly invented by men trying to undercut her and her family.
Closer to our time, there are the bizarre concoctions about Eleanor Roosevelt and Hillary Rodham Clinton. Same thing.
As for the second argument, it is false in two ways. First, because as we all know, women areperfectly interested in sex — not as much or as incessantly, perhaps, as men are, but certainly enough to behave badly if they had the power to do so and wanted to use it in that way. But they don’t. So it isn’t — whatever the evolutionary psychologists want to tell us — that women just aren’t as sexy as men, but that something else is discouraging the equivalent kind of bad behavior in women.
Women are not naturally more virtuous or nicer than men. Women in power can be just as mean-spirited and ruthless as men. But they don’t normally express their badness sexually. Hence powerful women are not as piggy as their male counterparts.
One major reason for the difference is that while frequent demonstrations of sexual potency enhance men’s status, women behaving similarly would send a very different and much less desirable message. Very sexual men are “studs,” while very sexual women are “sluts” or worse. So there’s no payoff for women, and so women don’t behave like their counterparts.
Barbara Walters (on The View last week) and many others to the contrary, piggy men are not helpless “sex addicts,” nor do they do what they do for sexual pleasure (which I would bet they don’t get). But men have always used sexual expression as a way of demonstrating and enhancing their political, social, and economic power. By “seducing” as many women as they can, they convey to other men that they are omnipotent and dangerous. This form of expression has nothing to do with the woman involved; she is just a means, a conduit. Shows of sexual potency are man-to-man communication. Even if there is no actual other man in sight to intimidate, the communication has been made, if only to the man gazing back from the mirror. This kind of behavior, then, is not simply physical action, even though it is carried out physically. Rather, it is communication about who can do what to whom.
And as DSK and Arnold both demonstrate, the older such men get, and the physically weaker they become, the more essential it is for them to keep demonstrating their power. As their sexual potency and desire wane with age, it becomes more essential to them to engage in sexual expression to show that they are still in the competition.
(Think of Osama bin Laden’s porn stash and “natural Viagra” — clearly he had similar worries.)
So this behavior should not be read as an expression of strength and control. Rather, it is about fear and loss of control. It is not (as Nancy Gibbs suggests in the May 30 issue of Time) because “power… makes men crazy,” but rather because fear of being or appearing powerless makes men do crazy things.”
If such men deserve sympathy (as Barbara Walters suggested), it is because they are demonstrating their fears of aging, not because they are addicts who can’t control their lusts. They can control them; they choose not to, because they need to send their message. So dry your tears Barbara.
The moral: if you don’t like your public officials behaving this way here’s what to do:
Vote for women.
Cross-posted from Robin Lakoff’s blog at the Huffington Post.