The Duck of Minerva

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Which Sexual Scandals Matter?: sorting gossip from substance with the Sexual Scandal Scale

June 3, 2011

It seems the seasons, and our attentions, have shifted from the Arab spring to the summer of sex scandals. May 2011 has been a notable month for high profile affairs and sexual indiscretions (let’s use this term loosely for now). Dominique Strauss Kahn’s (DSK) attempted rape charges, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s love child, Anthony Weiner’s alleged tweeted self portrait, and the developments in Silvio Berlusconi’s trial for sex with an underage female have all occurred within a few weeks of one another, but does that warrant the tendency lump these scandals together? It may be that all four are emanating various degrees of sleaze but the truth is that there are only two factors uniting these men: sex scandal and power. With so many scandals to think about, how’s a guy/gal to sort through all the details and determine what matters and what’s just good gossip? What differentiates these and other sex scandals and which ones should the public care about?

My answer: the Sexual Scandal Scale (I toyed with using sleaze-o-meter but it sounded a touch normative).

The scale includes four categories:

1. Upgrading/down-aging wives
From Newt Gingrich to Donald Trump (he pretended to run for president for five minutes so we can include him) to Nicola Sarkozy, this activity has come to define many men in positions of power- political or otherwise.
Gossip or Substantial? This is just classic good gossip material, and- unless you are running on a family values platform- shouldn’t impact one’s political career.

2. Concerning allegations/Consensual affairs
Concerning allegations is the ‘catch all’ category and should include Weiner’s pic as well as Chris Lee’s topless photo on craigslist. I consider consensual affairs like Prince Charles of Wales and Camilla Parker Bowles on par with these sorts of allegations even though they certainly differ.
Gossip or Substantial?: Creeping to grey areas, although still mostly just good gossip. In such cases integrity and judgement might be called into question but typically the decisions are largely personal (albeit potentially unfortunate) and don’t impact one’s job (what does Charles do again?) performance.

3. Abuse of Power
This category is primarily reserved for affairs with an employee or subordinate. The question here isn’t whether the sex was consensual or not (that’s a legal question- non-consensual=rape) but whether someone either leveraged or took advantage of their position of power for sex. Schwarzenegger affair with his employee fits here. Perhaps clearer cut examples include Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky and President Dwight D. Eisenhower and his secretary.
Gossip or Substantial? Substantial. See below.

4. Illegal sexual activities
Here we include a laundry list of crimes, including sex with minors, rape, statutory rape, and the use of paid call girls/prostitutes (unless, like me, you live in New Zealand where this activity is legal).
Gossip or Substantial?: Red alert substantial. Technically Berlusconi is off the charts here.

The mere fact that one would compare Schwarzenegger’s affair with DSK’s attempted rape is hugely problematic. Blurring the lines between bad choices, abuse of power, and illegal activity dilutes the gravity of sexual crimes and places them on par with affairs and topless photos. This conflation also implies that men in positions of power are so driven, drunk with testosterone, burdened with weight of decisions, that they are more likely to have an accelerated sex drive and less able to control it. Last week the New York Times’ Benedict Carey wrote an article entitled “The Sexist Pig Myth” wherein he pondered how he might behave with “all that power”, and asked if “power turn[ed] regular guys into sexual predators?” hinting that most men simply lack the means to commit multiple sexual indiscretions. The presumption is that, if given the chance- men will catch Tiger Woods syndrome and ‘swing at whatever they can.’ The questions “do all powerful men cheat?”, “Does machismo cause rape?” and “Why do powerful men risk everything for sex?” have been raised again and again over the years- seemingly with one answer: they can’t help themselves, and why should they? These are simply the wrong questions. The right questions focus on the substance of the sexual activity rather than concluding ‘boys will be boys.’

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Megan MacKenzie is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Government and International Relations at the University of Sydney in Australia. Her main research interests include feminist international relations, gender and the military, the combat exclusion for women, the aftermaths of war and post-conflict resolution, and transitional justice. Her book Beyond the Band of Brothers: the US Military and the Myth that Women Can't Fight comes out with Cambridge University Press in July 2015.