Sex in a Sustainable World Part 6: Sex, Ethical Stereotyping, & Leadership Control

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.

See all posts in this series.

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.

Additional Thoughts

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.

See all posts in this series.

Dave welcomes phone-based life, career, and transition coaching clients from around the world.

5 thoughts on “Sex in a Sustainable World Part 6: Sex, Ethical Stereotyping, & Leadership Control”

  1. Hi Dave–I’ve greatly enjoyed reading this series of articles. Our current understanding of human evolution suggests that, for most of our history, human beings have been “mildly polygynous.” While this will certainly upset some people, it’s a far cry from suggesting that our ancestors had “fluid” or “flexible” sexual arrangements. I look forward to reading “Sex at Dawn” to see what evidence they provide to counter our current understanding, but for now I can only say that there is compelling evidence from evolutionary biology, evolutionary psychology, and anthropology to suggest that polyandrous or “mixed-polygamy” (e.g., a small mixed-sex group) arrangements are feasible or desirable.

    When evaluating this evidence, however, we have to be on guard against both naturalistic and moralistic fallacies. A description of our hunter-gatherer roots does not tell us how we ought to live. A hallmark of the human animal is that we are capable of making decisions about how we ought to live. Studying our evolutionary past can give us valuable data about our biological “parameters,” but it can never prescribe a lifestyle.

    An instructive example would be diet–the paleo diet is all the rage right now, and it is supported by a strong naturalistic fallacy: because we evolved to eat a certain diet, we ought to eat in precisely the same manner. Vegetarians and vegans reject this fallacy, though they sometimes commit the moralistic fallacy of ignoring the overwhelming evidence that our ancestors did, in fact, eat meat.

    Diet provides an interesting parallel here. Our biology specifies certain parameters that cannot be ignored (i.e., anyone attempting to survive on only mushrooms will soon become sick and die) but there is some flexibility within those parameters for human beings to make decisions about how to best meet their needs.

  2. I should clarify a typo from above: the evolutionary evidence is decidedly AGAINST the feasibility of polyandrous or “mixed-polgyamy” marriages.

  3. Ben,

    I was excited to see a comment from you, as I knew it would make me think a bit. 🙂

    I’ll respond to some of your thoughts, and also go in a few other directions toward which your thoughts have inspired me.

    First, I’d love to hear your opinions if and when you read Sex at Dawn, and I would like to hear some of the primary sources that have influenced your current thinking. There are obviously many sources of information out there, and because research on this topic has been so politicized and shaped by social pressures, it is sometimes difficult to tell which sources are most valid. Coincidentally, the authors of that book spend a decent amount of time on this topic.

    I agree that just because something is natural or pleasurable doesn’t automatically equate to it’s being “right.” If we followed our purely animalistic nature 100% of the time, things might be a bit chaotic—things like truth, respect, and forgiveness also play a role in modulating our choices.

    However, I’m nitpicky about the impact of semantics in framing issues. My own opinion is that the term “naturalistic fallacy” would be more accurate if it were called “naturalistic bias,” as the word “fallacy” seems to imply that it’s always wrong to use nature as a foundation for determining what may work better for us.

    Using “naturalistic fallacy” seems akin to using a term like “religious fallacy” to describe a logical error in concluding that something is right just because one’s religious doctrine prescribes it. While religious fervor has caused its share of suffering and death through human history, some of organized religion’s ideas have also had many positive impacts. So if someone states that something is right just because religious doctrine says it is, it may technically be an error in human-defined logic to make this leap, but it doesn’t necessarily result in a bad ethical decision. Often it results in a reasonable decision, just as looking at what’s most natural does. Thus, stating that someone’s morality is influenced by a “religious bias” might be more accurate, just as stating that someone’s morality is influenced by a “naturalistic bias” might be more accurate.

    I clearly have a naturalistic bias, as I do believe that in some ways, we’ve gotten a bit too far from our natural states.

    I found an interesting Psychology Today article from a few years ago on the naturalistic and moralistic fallacy. While I do take it with a grain of salt, given the author’s use of sweeping general terms like “liberal” and “conservative” that suggest dichotomous thinking tendencies, there are some interesting points.

    The author argues that we can avoid these logical errors simply by defining what is rather than what ought to be. Applying this advice to our present topic, we would simply note that a huge proportion of “traditional” marriages fail or lead to mutual unhappiness. Yes, marital and relationship counseling/coaching models can save some of them (and hopefully more as the state of the field continues to improve), but clearly not all.

    Likewise, with diet, we can look at “what is” via public health data for links between consumption patterns and various diseases which are on the rise, like heart disease, obesity, diabetes, etc. I often cite The China Study as a decent resource in this area—just as Sex at Dawn touches upon the politicization of sexuality research, it has a good discussion on the politicization of nutrition research.

    With both intimate relationships and diet, it’s hard to deny that there is some serious room for improvement. As you correctly point out, our past cannot necessarily prescribe exactly what we should do; but if certain things worked for humans in the past, they can certainly give us ideas and inspiration regarding additional options. This is analogous to using solution-focused therapy or appreciative inquiry to probe for positive exceptions and past successes, but on a societal level!

    As you point out, what sets humans apart is our ability to make choices—but of course, we don’t really have free choice when we’re not fully and truthfully informed of all the options, or when we’re instilled with fear and pressured by under-informed societal norms that prevent us from seriously considering other options.

    Right now, we’re all encouraged to jump into a box that does work well for some of us, but not for others. And if that box doesn’t work, even after valiant efforts to tweak ourselves and our behavior within that same box, we often believe that there must be something wrong with us. And so many people try the same box over and over again with other people, hoping that eventually they’ll get it right.

    One popular divorce support group suggests that for each five years a person was married, a full year of recovery time is required before getting into another serious relationship. And much of the time is spent rebuilding the individual’s sense of self and spiritual foundation, getting them ready for success in another “traditional” relationship. If our current relationship model can erode our personal foundation that much, AND so many traditional relationships fail, then perhaps we need to be looking anywhere possible for additional ideas—including our past.

    Now, here’s where things get really interesting when we look at the intersection of our nature and morality.

    A few years ago a local coaching colleague introduced me to the fascinating ideas of the Arbinger Institute, including The Anatomy of Peace. Their model isn’t that complex, but it describes some of the thinking and interaction dynamics behind a significant proportion of human conflict.

    It goes something like this (adapted from Naked Idealism):

    When we choose to do something that contradicts our internal right/wrong compass, it creates incompatible thoughts or “cognitive dissonance” that makes us uncomfortable. An example would be, “I’m a kind person and I just behaved in a very hostile, dishonest, or unhelpful manner toward someone else.” There are a few ways we may try to escape this discomfort:

    • We can attempt to deny and mask the true cause of the dissonance (i.e., our own behavior) by creating a conflict with an external source. We then blame that external source, usually a person or group of people, for our thoughts and actions.
    • We can encounter the real source of the dissonance head on, and change our thinking and/or behavior.

    Even though the first option requires much more of our time and effort in the long run, it often feels like the easiest route to take. In other words, it initially takes less effort to objectify an external person or group and label them as the “bad one” than it takes to admit we are wrong or deal with our internal conflict. The recipient of negative energy is often a person who reminded us that we did something “wrong.” We shoot the messenger!

    So how does sex tie into this? When we choose to take a very strong, natural human drive and box it in with limitations and right/wrong judgments that tie into the most fundamental and powerful aspects of our nature—i.e., our spirituality and moral values—we greatly increase our likelihood of engaging in “immoral” thinking and behavior that creates very frequent cognitive dissonance.

    In some cases, we might inwardly turn hatred toward ourselves; an extreme fictional example of this is Dimmesdale in The Scarlet Letter. More often, to buffer ourselves against this dissonance, we might lash out at other people with whom we’ve been romantically involved, we might act defensively toward individuals to whom we’re sexually attracted (but whom we feel we shouldn’t be), we might develop general anger or anxiety toward the gender to whom we’re attracted, or we may develop hatred toward individuals (including public figures) whose behavior reminds us of those parts of ourselves we seek to repress.

    This is not too far removed from Freudian reaction formation. Also, I’ve heard different coaches frame such reactions as a shift from an open to a closed mode of relating, from a learning to a defensive mode of relating, or from a love-driven to a fear-driven mode of relating.

    I’ve also been considering the names applied to professionals who do relationship counseling—the common term “marital and family therapy” in and of itself frames both practice and research with a strong bias. This is obviously not as broad as “relationship counseling,” which opens things up to more possibilities. If a couple wants to preserve their traditional marriage, then a professional should respect and support that goal for as long as it seems realistic. But what if the either/or, traditional marriage or no marriage at all scenario doesn’t work for everyone? In some cases, the goal is to preserve marriage and its many benefits; but on a higher level, I think the goal of such professions is to empower humans to relate in a way that enables them to show up most happily, energetically, powerfully, and impactfully in the world.

    Finally, the parallels you’ve continued with vegetarianism/veganism remind me of another interesting conundrum. When we do look to the past for possibilities on better ways to live, we often disagree upon which points in human history were the most “natural.” This, of course, is because humans developed the ability to alter their surroundings and behaviors intentionally a long time ago, which in turn has begun to alter our biology. With sex, Ryan and Jetha touch upon this in an interesting discussion on testicle size (great breakfast conversation over a bowl of crunchy Kix!). With diet, some argue that we were once primarily plant-based, but then came to rely upon meat as we moved into colder climates that weren’t natural for us—but even though our brains enabled us to make this leap, our digestive and cardiovascular systems haven’t yet adapted. Some argue that a consistent vegan diet is realistic today only because of organized agriculture, and that we need a partial return to earlier modes including wild hunted animals because even plant agriculture is unnatural and destructive. I don’t know if we’ll ever entirely resolve these debates.

    Again, thanks for inspiring some additional thoughts!

  4. Thanks for the generous response, Dave. As always, your arguments are well-reasoned, balanced, and thought-provoking. I’m tempted to set aside my schoolwork (an evolutionary critique of employee selection, if you can believe it) but I’m going to try and exercise a little restraint and choose just a few points to respond to before I get back in harness.

    I disagree that “we don’t really have free choice when we’re not fully and truthfully informed of all the options…” Free will is *always* constrained by imperfect knowledge to a greater or lesser degree, but I don’t think that there is a specific point at which our free choice becomes “real.” I believe this is an important point, and that the past 100 years or so bears me out on that, but I’m digressing.

    When we choose to do something that goes against our conscious, we always have the option of saying, “I really failed to live up to this ideal. That sucks, but I’ll try harder next time.” Some ideals are worth retaining, even when we *know* that they’re unrealistic.

    World peace? Never going to happen. No way we’ll ever be able to live up to that ideal. Should we try to be more realistic about it–face “what is” instead of what “ought to be”? I think not. I think that ideal is worth retaining, even in the face of impossibility.

    We may be able to make the same argument for our completely unrealistic ideas of lifelong committed marriage. As you correctly point out, it won’t work out that way for everyone, and maybe it will even make those people feel worse about things.

    But maybe we decide that cost is worth it. The cognitive dissonance, the pain of disillusion, the occasional social stigma…the whole mess. Maybe it’s worth it.

    Should we look at our “natural” ancestral past as a source of possibilities? Certainly. But we shouldn’t dismiss the experiences of the past several centuries as somehow unnatural, either.

  5. Hey, Ben.

    Sorry to keep you away from the school work. 🙂 Good points, and thanks for the kind words. With the point regarding free will as a function of knowledge availability, you called me out on some of my own dichotomous thinking! And I guess my own efforts to improve access to information on taboo topics are one of my own idealistic quests. 🙂

    My hunch is you’re probably already familiar with his work, but if you haven’t checked it out, you would probably enjoy David Schnarch. He talks a lot about the value of long-term monogamous relationship struggles, in terms of certain areas of self-growth. (He talks a lot about differentiation, similar to Bowen.) I’d agree that for many people, even if not for all, it’s definitely worth it. My present bias trends toward more widespread and open acceptance of a broader range of arrangements, while still fully honoring and respecting traditional arrangements for those who prefer them.

    Also, I know some people at a certain leadership/HR firm with whom you could chat for hours re: your paper topic. And next time I have a job interview I’ll make sure I get in touch to pick your brain first. 🙂


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