Why do so many sex scandals involve men of influence and power? Whether they're politicians, heads of state or business leaders, powerful men are frequently linked to incidents involving cheating, infidelity, prostitution, sexual harassment, sexual assault, rape, and other inappropriate behavior toward women. Why do we rarely see powerful women in the same situation?
Experts on human behavior suggest it may come down to biology and opportunity.
Prolific Equals Survival
TIME senior editor Jeffrey Kluger reminds us of some basic science:
Human males have never been thought of as models of sexual restraint - and with good reason… The goal of any organism, after all, is to ensure the survival and propagation of its genes, and males - far more so than females - are eminently equipped to do that. Even the world's most reproductively prolific mothers rarely produce more than eight or nine children in a lifetime. Males can conceive everyday, even multiple times a day, and come emotionally hardwired to do just that.
What are females hardwired to do? Select and mate with males who will provide good genes and stick around long enough to help ensure their offspring will reach maturity.
Preferring Powerful Males
David Carrier, a University of Utah biology professor, explains why in the animal kingdom, females prefer powerful males: "From the perspective of sexual selection theory, women are attracted to powerful males, not because powerful males can beat them up, but because powerful males can protect them and their children from other males."
What physical power and brute strength is to the animal kingdom, political power is to the human race. And the greater the amount of power and control, the greater the access to desirable females and the more opportunity to mate.
More Power, More Sex
Darwinian historian Laura Betzig who has studied sex and politics for decades, ties power to sex as far back as the royal fertility rites in Sumer nearly 6,000 years ago. Attractive females became a commodity when Egyptian kings demanded beautiful servant girls from their provincial governors. Betzig provides examples -- across cultures and centuries -- to illustrate her point: the more powerful a man/monarch/ruler is, the more women he has sex with. She cites R.H. van Gulik's survey Sexual Life in China to illustrate the power/sex differential:
Gulik says that by the 8th century BC, kings kept one queen (hou), three consorts (fu-jen), nine wives of second rank (pin), 27 wives of third rank (shih-fu), and 81 concubines (yu-chi). That was the tip of the iceberg: imperial harems numbered in the thousands. Lesser men kept fewer women. Great princes kept hundreds; minor princes, 30; upper middle-class men might have six to 12; middle class men might have three or four.
"The Point of Politics is Sex"
Betzig draws comparisons to Darwin and his theory of natural (and sexual) selection which posits that the whole point of competition is reproduction, and sums it up simply: "To put it plainly, the point of politics is sex."
Much has changed since ancient China. Most of the world does not regard the unfettered conquest of females as either politically prudent or culturally acceptable. Yet some political leaders (especially married ones) still behave as if the more women they bed, the better.
The Washington Post referred to this as "a leader's sexual hubris” and -- like Betzig, Kluger and Carrier -- acknowledged that leadership has long been associated with sexual dominance throughout history and within the animal kingdom.
Though current social norms create pressure to squelch that sort of behavior, it erupts with such regularity that the Post asked a panel of experts: "Why do so many leaders fall prey to confusing power with sexual charisma?"
Because It Can
Business owner and consultant Lisa Larson likens sexual hubris to a dog licking its nether regions -- it happens because it can:
As Baron Acton said, "Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely." Inappropriate sexual conduct is a form of corruption…
She opines that men may be spurred by two reasons:
The first is what I call "Revenge of the Nerds"… when someone who could achieve great things academically but suffered through romantic rejection during their youth suddenly find themselves in a position to be able to get what they want…
The second is what I call the Sally Field syndrome -- "they like me, they really like me"… Power is sexy and people in positions of power often find themselves recognized in public, being praised and flattered as never before. It's hard for that not to go to your head.
Power as Aphrodisiac
Marie Wilson, founder and president of The White House Project and the co-creator of Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work Day, focuses more on the seductive power of power. She acknowledges that the sexual jolt power conveys is rarely discussed:
Power is the most potent aphrodisiac. Forget oysters, power is at the top of the menu when it comes to sexual arousal…
We caution powerful people about how their power needs to be carefully used when it comes to making decisions that affect their office or enterprise, but I wonder how many are warned about the new magnetism they suddenly have (and won't have once their power is gone)… Because our sexual power is tied into our ego, as the political ego develops, so may political id… The sexual undercurrent running through politics is strong, and it's used all the time openly or behind the scenes. But it's a power source that has to be reckoned with in leadership, and one that is all to rarely discussed outside of the lascivious details when a scandal erupts.
Equal Opportunity Corruption
Wilson doesn't believe that power's sexual potency is gender specific. She shares her own experience of winning a local election and finding that men contacting her were interested in more than constituent services.
Like Wilson, Kluger also acknowledges that power and sex can corrupt women just like men and describes the work of Larry Josephs, a professor of psychology at Adelphi University, who uses a new measure of behavior that's called 'the dark side':
Men, certainly, aren't the only people who abuse their power sexually. Women exhibit the dark side… too, and can become accustomed to power and its perks as easily as a man can. What's more, testosterone, a primal driver of dominance behavior, is not the exclusive province of men either. "Women produce testosterone just like men do, even if at different levels," says Josephs. "That means women have testosterone-driven tendencies as well, and that pays dividends. Dominant animals tend to be more reproductively successful whether they're male or female."
It's true that very few headlines highlight the sexual indiscretions of powerful women -- and no politically prominent female thus far has been accused of rape or sexual assault. But that may change as increasing numbers of women rise to positions of political power. Women have been seeking the same opportunities as men for centuries. Once those opportunities are realized and we achieve some semblance of equality, will we successfully avoid the dark side or victimize others as we've been historically victimized?
Betzig, Laura. "Sex in History." Michigan Today, michigantoday.umich.edu. March 1994.
Kluger, Jeffrey. "The Caligula Effect: Why Powerful Men Compulsively Cheat." TIME.com. 17 May 2011.
Larson, Lisa. "The female advantage." views.washingtonpost.com. 11 March 2011.
Pearlstein, Steve and Raju Narisetti. "A leader's sexual hubris?" views.washingtonpost.com. 11 March 2010.
"Standing up to fight." Terradaily.com. 23 May 2011.
Wilson, Marie. "Beware new leaders." views.washingtonpost.com. 12 March 2010.