Power, sex and conventional wisdom

May 20, 2011

Would there be fewer sex scandals if the world were run by women?

The question comes to mind in the wake of scandals that involve two powerful men, Dominique Strauss-Kahn and Arnold Schwarzenegger, and came to light almost simultaneously. Strauss-Kahn resigned as head of the International Monetary Fund four days after being arrested in New York for allegedly trying to rape a hotel maid. Schwarzenegger, the former governor of California, admitted having fathered a child with a woman on his household staff.

The two cases are in a different league – Strauss-Kahn is accused of a violent crime, while Schwarzenegger betrayed his wife, Maria Shriver, who stood by him when he campaigned for the governorship under a cloud of accusations that he had groped women during his rise to action movie superstardom.

One of the first public comments on the Schwarzenegger affair came from a prominent woman, former Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm, who suggested it showed that the United States needed more female politicians. “Another guy guv admits 2 cheating on his wife. Maybe we need more women governors. Guys: keep ur pants zipped,” she tweeted.

The message reflects conventional wisdom – men are more prone to sexual misbehavior and adultery than women. “I’m confident predicting there would be fewer sex scandals if women were in power,” former White House Press Secretary Dee Dee Myers wrote in her 2008 book “Why Women Should Rule the World.”

Such predictions are based in large part on the long list of men caught up in scandal at the pinnacle of power, both in politics and business, by adulterous affairs, sexual harassment or rape.

Women barely figure in recent history. One of the rare cases: Iris Robinson, a married member of the Northern Ireland parliament whose affair with a teenage boy came to light last year.

In Taiwan, a decade ago, a Taipei city councilwoman, Chu Mei-Feng, left politics after the leak of a video showing her having sex with her married lover.

All this pales in comparison with Bill Clinton having sex with White House intern Monica Lewinsky, or Elliot Spitzer cavorting with $4,000 prostitutes when he was governor of New York and pushing a crusade against prostitution.

And there is no female equivalent to Italian President Silvio Berlusconi, whose frequent involvement in sex scandals has so enraged Italy’s women that hundreds of thousands of them came out in protest rallies in Rome and other cities demanding that he resign for having disgraced Italy.

Does this mean that women are morally superior, as some contend, or better able to control their libidos, or less likely to be caught because they are better liars, as an online commentator on the website Jezebel suggested?

A study by Dutch researchers comes to a different conclusion – power, not gender, is the main driver of infidelity.

“Power … increases infidelity among women as it does among men,” according to the study, by a team from the universities of Tilburg and Groningen. Its findings suggest that “women in high-power positions are as likely to engage in infidelity than men.”

The Dutch researchers arrived at their conclusion by analyzing anonymous responses to an online questionnaire from more than 1,500 readers of Intermediair, a weekly magazine aimed at professionals, just under half of them women.

According to the study, due to be published in an upcoming issue of Psychological Science, a journal of the Association of Psychological Science, the reason why high-powered women rarely feature as protagonists in sex scandals is straightforward. “There simply aren’t as many women in positions of power as their male counterparts,” according to the study’s lead author, Joris Lammers of the University of Tilburg.

Case in point: the U.S. House of Representatives, where female members account for just 17 percent of the 435 seats. Of the 100 U.S. Senators, just 17 are women. The numbers are even worse in the corporate world, at the CEO level.

Women run just 15 of the Fortune 500 companies, the biggest U.S. corporations.
These numbers are forecast to change, and so are behaviors now thought typical of men. “As more and more women are in greater positions of power and considered equal to men,” says Lammers, “familiar assumptions about their behavior may also change (and) lead to increased negative behaviors that in the past have been more common among men.”

Until that happens, one has to look back into history to find women who used their power to help satisfy outsize sexual appetites. Their most famous representative is Catherine the Great, the 18th century Empress of Russia, said to have had so many lovers that miniature portraits of them covered the walls of her bedroom. Her lust was so legendary that when she died, rumors spread through Russia ascribing her death to an attempt at having sex with a stallion. Historians dismiss this as a myth. (You can contact the author at Debusmann@Reuters)


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Absolute power absolutely corrupts. I don’t think for one minute that gender plays a roll. As it is when there is a sex scandal between a man and a woman there IS both sexes equally involved already. What about the female teacher that had sex with a student to go on having his children also. Its the power dynamic that plays a role not the gender. Playing the gender blame game will not help bring about gender equality.

Posted by mich07 | Report as abusive

[…] the whole story: Reuters Published May 20, 2011 Tags: Decision Making, Gender, Perception, Personality, […]

Posted by Power, sex and conventional wisdom – Association for Psychological Science | Report as abusive

[…] EDIT: I didn’t see this until after I had published this post, but there is a very interesting post published today by Bernd Debusmann at Reuters about many of these same ideas! Here is the link: Power, Sex and Conventional Wisdom. […]

Posted by Who Runs The World? Not Girls. | PsySociety | Report as abusive

We all should look back into History and see what prominent roles women played. Then look what roles they were subject to post the Catholic Church and its fanactic domination of the world, post the fall of the Roman empire!
Pretty much most crutches, I mean religions, have delegated the female to the lowest levels of society. Fortunately, time is on the Females side as well as common sense.
Which brings me to another point, Bernd since when do you write for the National Enquire?? Joking. :) Great piece.

Posted by Av8ts | Report as abusive

I wonder if “Sperminator” is already applied for as a registered trademark. Heck, if Disney can get “SEAL Team 6″, why not?

Posted by Bill6 | Report as abusive

The vices of men are different from the vices of women, simply put, because men and women are different.

Women commit their own physically and emotionally violent assaults against people under their control, usually children. They also initiate the majority of physical hitting in domestic violence. But our society refuses to acknowledge this. A good example is how many American cities have cancelled policies requiring police to arrest the party starting a physical fight resulting in a domestic violence call. Far too many women were going to jail.

Posted by txgadfly | Report as abusive

Legalize Polygamy and all of these will go away!

Posted by alcompco | Report as abusive

What an tempting topic.
Some men use power to get sex, some women use sex to get power. And some don’t. As statistical distributions in the population.
“XYZ Sex Scandal” seems to be some of the mass media trivialised version of politics and history as Celebrity Personalities, and Scandalous Stories.
Most seem to have sacked journalists with a broad tertiary education, as a threat to the audience packaging for advertisers, etc.
Wives seem to have a track record of bringing disasterous corruption by inlaws to Great Leader regimes- Ben Ali, Marcos, Mao Tse Tung, Mandela, …
Many deaths, tortures and sufferings in the background.
In times past, the new wife of a tyrant often seems to prefer homicide of the children of earlier wives, and the rest of their families to avoid revenge.
The DSK situation is notable for the huge impact on the policies of the IMF and the French Presidency based on fragile evidence in an ambiguous situation.
In a French hotel chain Sofitel, with an employee, seems to point more to French intrigue than US/CIA.

Posted by Neurochuck | Report as abusive

txgadfly, thank you. I was sexually abused by two women before I was ten. I have never had any friends who hit their girlfriends, but I have had many who’ve had girlfriends or wives scratch them (and draw blood), hit them, throw things at them, etc. Women are equal in their capacity for rage and perversion as well.

Posted by johnnyever | Report as abusive

…”Would there be fewer sex scandals if the world were run by women?…” OF COURSE – ALL WOMEN KNOW WE ARE THE SUPERIOR SEX 😉

Posted by kiwibird | Report as abusive

Kiwis can’t fly. Why be a bird if you can’t fly ?

Posted by Neurochuck | Report as abusive

What difference does it make what someone does in their personal life? Just because someone is a “bad husband” or a “bad” wife…does that automatically mean they’re going to be bad at their job? No, it doesn’t. It’s a moot point.

Posted by gruven137 | Report as abusive

“Would there be fewer sex scandals if the world were run by women?”

Does anyone really care? People in the world don’t have food to eat and the news focuses on issues like these. It’s no wonder the world has gone to hell in a handbag.

Posted by somethingtosay | Report as abusive

I don’t know, or care, if women ruling the word would be mean less infidelity. But I do like to think it would mean less WAR!

Posted by Marla | Report as abusive

Here are some stats to support the writer:

“Percentage of men who admit to committing infidelity in any relationship they’ve had: 57%

Percentage of women who admit to committing infidelity in any relationship they’ve had: 54%”

“Fifty United Kingdom divorce lawyers were asked to name the most common causes of their cases in 2003. Of those who cited extramarital affairs, 55% said it was usually the husbands and 45% said that it was the wives who cheated.”

Less than a 5% difference.

If there were an equal amount of women and men in power, do you think the statistics would change? There is no way to tell if women in power would be more or less likely than men to have extramarital affairs, but it is possible for women in power to be more promiscuousness than men.

Posted by GSH10 | Report as abusive

I think if we had more women in power, maybe we would not have any less sexual encounters, but at least we would have less war. Women are not inclined to spend 20 million for a predator drone. I figured out how many jobs at 60,000 that would be, 333333.33 jobs, boots on the ground. Do we want new toys or jobs?

I believe one of the reasons we have such an explosive mideast, is that there is to many young men without access to young women. No where to drain off that sexual energy,so they revolt. No job, no marriage, no sex. What is a boy to do ?

I know one of the concepts of the young suicide bombers is the prize of 70 virgins at the end of their short lives, but what if the virgins don’t want them?

Posted by memoir | Report as abusive

The crime of which DSK stands accused is not infidelity but rape. Had he merely gone to bed with a hotel maid, we would never have heard anything about it.

Since most women are physically weaker than most men, crimes involving rape or any other kind of sustained physical assault by a woman against a man are necessarily relatively rare. But no one knows whether those rates would be equalized in a population where, for some obscure reason, women and men had equal strength.

However, a woman can readily shoot a man with a gun, since this can be done from a distance and requires little physical strength. Thus it might be more informative to compare gun violence perpetrated by each sex upon both the opposite sex — and also upon the same sex. Good-quality statistics are not easy to find, but the general indication seems to be that men kill women only slightly more often than women kill men.

Men and women are designed differently, but we are both cut from the same cloth. Though I might prefer to think that the moral character of women is better than that of men, life experience leads me to suspect that is, unfortunately, not the case.

Posted by Ralphooo | Report as abusive

[…] Power, sex and conventional wisdom – via Reuters- “Power … increases infidelity among women as it does among men,” according to the study, by a team from the universities of Tilburg and Groningen. Its findings suggest that “women in high-power positions are as likely to engage in infidelity than men.” […]

Posted by Simoleon Sense » Blog Archive » Weekly Roundup 128: A Curated Linkfest For The Smartest People On The Web | Report as abusive

If someone said we needed fewer African American leaders because they have a statistically significant higher crime rate (I’m not sure if that actually translates into a higher rate of corruption in elected leaders, but for the sake of argument, assume it does), they would (and ought to) be dismissed as racist, regardless of study results.

Why can someone say the same thing about men and be applauded for it? Vote for the person who can do the best job, period. Biases against women should obviously be countered, and there clearly still are many. But that doesn’t justify reverse sexism.

Posted by ZPT | Report as abusive

Successful politicians, and successful people in general, require a larger degree of risk-taking than the average man. They have to – elections are expensive with no guarentee of any return at all.

The very traits that make them good politicians – charisma, attractiveness, confidence (arrogance?), and taking risks – all happen to make them prone to infidelity too.

Posted by drewbie | Report as abusive

If we judged leadership using Jennnifer Granholm’s performance as a benchmark, a parallel comment would be that we need fewer women in state government.


Posted by Michigander2 | Report as abusive

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Posted by Johnie Fernholz | Report as abusive