Family and Relationships

Mary Ann Chastain/AP
South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford

Sanford’s Affair Revives Old Question: Are Male Politicians More Prone to Infidelity?

June 27, 2009 11:00 AM
by Shannon Firth
After Gov. Mark Sanford confessed to having an extramarital affair, he joined the company of countless other men in power. Journalists, psychologists and pundits explore why so few female politicians are faced with the same dilemma.

A Moral Battle of the Sexes

In marked contrast to the era of presidents John F. Kennedy and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Americans are less willing to overlook the private indiscretions of their political leaders. Associated Press writer Liz Sidoti notes, “It's a different world - a public that feeds on the exploits of Paris, Lindsay and Britney … has developed an insatiable appetite for scandal.”

Some experts speculate that the very qualities that make an effective leader place them at risk for a moral spill. Stanley Renshon, a political psychologist at the City University of New York told the AP, “You have to have an outsized ambition and an outsized ego to run for office.”

Temple University psychologist Frank Farley echoed Renshon saying, “[Politicians] are risk takers, they’re pushing the envelope, living for the intense life and it’s challenges.” He went on to say that qualities like creativity and innovation, which are appealing in a leader, are equally attractive to potential romantic partners.

So why don’t we see more female politicians standing in front of podiums, frowning into the camera, apologizing to husbands, children and the public for letting them down, while simultaneously making grand allusions to biblical figures, as Politics Daily reported Sanford did in his statement?

For James Taranto, writing for The Wall Street Journal, the reason male politicians cheat is simple: “for sex.”

So where does that leave women politicians? That gets trickier, he says.
According to Taranto it’s a case of opportunity, or lack thereof. He explains, “[S]uccessful politicians, who usually are middle-aged or older, tend to have the qualities that make men superficially attractive to women (status and power).” However, among successful female politicians, who are likely the same age as their counterparts, power is no replacement for youth and beauty, at least in the eyes of would-be suitors.

Melanie Mason, a writer for Politico, polled relationship experts, analysts and politicians for her own answer to the question of infidelity among female politicians.

She discovered only one concrete example. In 1998, Helen Chenoweth, a two-term Republican in Idaho, confessed to having had a six-year-relationship with an ex-business partner. According to Salon, Chenoweth said she was single at the time of the affair, having divorced her husband in 1975. She was also not holding public office.

And while Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, cited a handful of other alleged infidelity scandals by women, she observed that male politicians still easily outnumber women in this arena.

For Juliet Williams, an associate professor of women’s studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, the answer is simple math: there are fewer female politicians. But Walsh floats a different theory: “Women are more conscious and aware that they are being held to an even higher standard.” She notes the attention given to the issue of Hillary Clinton’s V-neck blouse—when is it appropriate to show cleavage?
Paul Abramson, author of the forthcoming book “Sex Appeal: Six Ethical Principles for the 21st Century,” argued that the difference is societal. Women are raised to be “more cautious about sexuality” because of the risk of pregnancy.

That said, research from the University of Washington has shown that the number of women, particularly younger women, confessing to being unfaithful has actually grown in recent years.

Dr. Helen Fisher, a research professor of anthropology at Rutgers University, explained that there isn’t any proof of differences in infidelity rates between the genders in hunter-gatherer societies.

Therefore, the perceived disparity today may be culturally induced. Fisher explained, “Men want to think women don’t cheat, and women want men to think they don’t cheat, and therefore the sexes have been playing a little psychological game with each other.”

Key Player: Jenny Sanford

The Wall Street Journal published Jenny Sanford’s statement on Wednesday. In the letter she explained why she had asked her husband to leave her home. She noted, “[T]he greatest legacy I will leave in this world is the character of the children I, or we, leave behind. It is for that reason that I deeply regret the recent actions of my husband Mark.”

Newsweek writer Kathleen Deveny writes that initially she pegged Jenny Sanford as “another political wife scorned, somehow willing to put on a pastel suit and sob quietly in the background.” She then took a second look at Mrs. Sanford’s statement and realized “she really kicks some butt, if you're willing to read between the lines.” 

Related Topic: Why was Spitzer so reckless?

When Eliot Spitzer resigned as governor of New York after being caught patronizing a prostitution ring, many were shocked by the brazen nature of his transgression. Bill O’Reilly noted, in light of Spitzer's knowledge of funds transfers and wiretaps, “This is either arrogance or it's self-destructive behavior and he wanted to get caught.”

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