I had originally planned this post for a few weeks later in the series. Given recent media accusations that presidential candidate Newt Gingrich requested an open marriage, alongside his angry response to them, I decided this topic was particularly timely.
Even when I disagree with a candidate on certain issues, I feel sad for them when they have to perform verbal acrobatics on sex-related topics. After trying several “traditional” marriages, someone like Newt might be an even happier, more impactful person if he actually were in an open marriage.
But because much of his political power is derived from public fear underlying such topics, he’s in a difficult situation–regardless of the validity of the accusations. Some might argue that leaders like Newt are simply getting a taste of their own medicine. He’s certainly not alone.
Ethical Stereotyping–How Much Does Sexual Behavior Really Tell Us?
Because we’re so inundated with information each day, and we often wish to make quick judgments about people with whom we have little contact—such as public leaders we see in the media—we look for easy signs that others are similar to us.
We stereotype, and we seek predictive indicators of how they might behave. This might include a political label, the manner in which a person speaks, or the religion with which a person identifies. We might even assume many things about a person based upon the type of car they drive—e.g., a Hummer versus a Prius.
The truth, however, is that choices or behavior in just one dimension of a person’s life don’t necessarily tell us about their character or behavior in other areas. We often extend this faulty thinking to the realm of sexuality, particularly when it comes to judging our public leaders.
Notice that I said public, not private, leaders. The latter are generally less subject to public and media scrutiny when it comes to matters of their personal lives. Numerous national and international public leaders, as well as candidates, have been called out over the last several years for their alleged sexual behavior.
Interestingly, in many of these cases it’s not the sexual behavior itself that gets the most attention, but rather the dishonesty surrounding the behavior. We may then conclude that if they’re dishonest in that area of their life, then they’re likely to be dishonest in other areas—including in their leadership responsibilities. We assume that if they were sexually non-monogamous behind their partners’ backs, they must have difficulty being loyal in other areas of life as well.
Conversely, someone who has been perfectly loyal in a relationship (even if, unbeknownst to the public, they have a low libido) is assumed to have a much higher likelihood to be fair and just in other areas as well.
Is this thinking fair or accurate?
Are We Setting Unrealistically High Standards for Leaders?
I don’t advocate dishonesty, as I believe that honesty in relationships—especially one’s intimate relationships—is highly important. I do wonder about several things, though.
First, from a sexual perspective, it must be very challenging to be in a high-power, high-stress, high-visibility position such as that of a governor, senator, or similar level of responsibility. They’re working long hours, making important adrenaline-inducing decisions, traveling (often away from family), living with a partner who now has an elevated set of stressors as well (and could thus have impaired sexual functioning), and are experiencing a lot of attention from a lot of people attracted to power.
If you have a reasonable sex drive, it’s not too hard to imagine that it might take an exceptionally strong will to remain completely monogamous under these circumstances.
A disclaimer before going further: I recognize that my personal experiences color my viewpoints somewhat, given the challenges that a partner and I faced, as described in Part I.
One past case that intrigues me is that of John and Elizabeth Edwards. If you’re looking for a way to be portrayed as a villain, nothing works better than becoming a highly public figure, and cheating on a spouse who has not only been highly supportive of you in your challenging career, but who also happens to be dying from cancer. You’ve now made your spouse a victim twice over, adding salt to the wound, which makes you the ultimate bad guy.
But given how I love to ask controversial questions, I couldn’t help but wonder about the following:
1) What were things really like for John Edwards, being in this high-stress position—not just career, but probably being pretty darn stressed about the fact that his wife was dying—while also having sex taken away (or at least highly diminished due to cancer treatment’s impact on the libido) as an option?
I recently had the opportunity to speak with a woman who was in a relationship where the gender roles were reversed–i.e., the husband had an extended terminal illness, and she still craved much more physical intimacy than he was able to offer. It was extremely challenging for her.
2) It’s hard to imagine such a difficult situation fully, but if I were no longer willing or able to engage in physically intimate activities with my partner, would I support them in getting their needs met in other ways?
If I knew that I were still promised their continued support and commitment in other ways, it seems it would be hard to justify denying them this, even if I had some jealousy to overcome. That might actually give them more energy to share with me in other ways. And if they were in a position of power, I’d hope it gave them more energy to continue doing their job well.
3) If we didn’t have such an “ownership” view of sexuality, with loyalty to one person being so highly praised, would the entire Edwards family have been much better off?
Perhaps Elizabeth wouldn’t have been under such pressure to avoid being seen as a victim of a philandering husband. John could have continued to apply his leadership skills, conflict between the kids and dad would have been lessened, and maybe John could have been more honest and emotionally supportive of Elizabeth.
I recognize that the Edwards example is more extreme than most highly publicized cases, but the point is that intimate relationships can have a lot of details that will never be understood by others. This is also likely true of other cases like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Herman Cain, Bill Clinton, Eliot Spitzer, and so on. But we often like things to be relatively black-and-white.
Furthermore, in a society where men and women are still pitted against one another in a battle of the sexes, some people look to such public cases for symbolic soothing of their own gender inequality angst. “Yeah, she kicked his sorry a** out! That’s what more men deserve!”
So what is someone in a position of power to do, if exercising complete monogamy is challenging for them?
Do they exercise an honest and open relationship with their spouse, and run the risk of judgment from many of their constituents? Do they run the risk of their spouse being perceived as weak, the victim of a philanderer who is somehow taking advantage of them? Or, do they go ahead and cheat, meeting some of their sexual needs in secret, doing whatever is necessary to keep things hush hush?
Before going any further, consider how open and honest you are with your sexuality, compared to other areas of your life. For example, would you talk to even a close friend about how many times a week you like to have sex, or how often you masturbate? Now, would you talk about such things publicly? Most people keep sexual things pretty hush-hush.
Sex, Leadership Control, and Your Children’s Reputations
I don’t really believe in large-scale organized intentional conspiracy, but I do believe that there are some ill-intentioned powerful people out there. Pretend you’re someone who would like to have a bit of control over a public leader. One of the best ways is to have a bit of dirt on them, and carefully use that to keep them in your pocket.
And what’s one of the most taboo types of dirt you can have on someone? You’ve got it—any “bad behavior” related to sex. There’s no way to know just how much of this goes on, but it’s safe to assume the cases we’ve heard about are just the tip of the iceberg.
Sexual misconduct is so feared that a mere accusation, even if unfounded, may be enough for a board or governing body to dismiss someone—even multiple people—just to minimize fallout from reactive stakeholders.
Similar dynamics apply to political parties and voters. In some cases the reaction may be appropriately severe, but in some cases public leadership careers may be completely ruined over something relatively minor or unsubstantiated.
If our society had more forgiving sexual attitudes, we might allow our public leaders a bit more freedom. In return, we could know there’s less chance they’re sometimes voting a specific way just to keep secrets under wraps. Voters could focus more upon candidates’ meaningful policy stances, rather than things like the details of their sex lives. All of this, in turn, can contribute to a more meaningful and informed democracy.
If a candidate had an extramarital partner for several years, and their spouse was okay with it, then the candidate’s behavior may or may not be reflective of their integrity and leadership abilities. Just make sure the other partner also undergoes extensive security clearances if the candidate remains a serious contender!
This area becomes even more important when we consider the degree to which our behavior—including much of our intimate lives—can now be tracked via technology. When we send a sexually suggestive message, photo, or other communication to a significant other via email, text, or online social network site, there’s a record of it. When we post some of our personal preferences on a dating site, there’s a record of it.
By the time today’s youth are in their 30’s and 40’s, they will have generated large volumes of computerized data on their behavior and preferences. And many of these databases are becoming increasingly integrated and centralized, making it possible to pull together huge volumes of information on any one person.
In a sexually open society, these large volumes of data wouldn’t be as much of a threat to democracy, because they wouldn’t carry the same “fear power.” In a society that’s highly sexually judgmental, however, imagine how easy it is to pull up damaging dirt on any would-be public leader. (For more thoughts on this, see the great post on “Why Openness is Awesome” and concepts like “little brother” at the same Connection Revolution site.)
Let’s imagine that your own middle-aged daughter is running for the Senate, and is very outspoken against human rights violations in widget factories. She’s a very sharp and caring person, with an amazing track record of helping others. However, she also has a high libido that she expressed openly during a brief segment of college. A key person in the widget industry, who fears losing millions if your daughter is elected, happens to have close friends in the internet social network business.
A week before elections, suggestive conversations and photos involving your daughter and members of her college football team suddenly appear in the media. They’re from nearly 20 years ago, but the constituents of your daughter’s sexually conservative state are not impressed.
Your daughter is branded an unethical slut, loses the election, and is unable to make another successful bid for office. Contrast this with a more sexually open society, where the focus would have been placed upon her stances on human rights, economic policy, and the like.
I believe that sexual ethical stereotyping is also a likely contributor to the sex scandals that have impacted the Catholic Church—and untold numbers of children—in recent years. Alongside this, I wonder whether greater societal openness and discussion regarding sex may have prevented much of it.
It’s a pretty small percentage of overall priests who have been linked to scandals, but the media makes an exceptionally large deal of it because many people believe priests to symbolize the ultimate in ethical behavior. This is particularly the case if we equate formal religious practice and doctrine with an ethical lifestyle. Priests may help many people and do wonderful things for their communities, but how does that necessarily predict anything about their sexual thinking and behavior?
Different explanations for this phenomenon have been offered. One is that individuals with pedophilic tendencies enter such professions because it places them in a powerful and highly trusted position where they can also have contact with children. Another theory is that the offenders, otherwise sexually normal, become desperate for outlets following their chastity vows.
While I have no way of ruling out these hypotheses, I think another dynamic may be at play. I think that some small percentage of individuals may enter the clergy because they’re highly uncomfortable with some aspect of their sexuality. Due to social taboos, they are uncomfortable talking with anyone about it, even a therapist.
So instead of acknowledging and attempting to resolve their issues, some individuals quietly enter the priesthood hoping that their religious discipline and devotion can keep their shameful thoughts at bay. When this approach fails, a victimized child ends up needing just as much therapy as the priest should have had in the first place.
Unfortunately, the reactions surrounding such occurrences don’t often focus on how we might become more open and comfortable about sexuality. They instead focus upon how we can have greater control over everyone’s sexuality. This is particularly true when the cases involve public leaders, be they governors, presidential candidates, or clergy.
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