Driving the recent sex scandals is more than just a superinflated ego

JASON MERRITT / Getty Images
JASON MERRITT / Getty Images
Posted: May 20, 2011

In 1971, Henry Kissinger said: "Power is the great aphrodisiac." Two years later, he pumped it up: "Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac."

Since David first set eyes on Bathsheba, powerful men have been doing foolish sexual things in a sybaritic salsa across the world's pages.

Former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger admits to having a child, by housekeeper Mildred Baena, threatening his marriage.

Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who resigned Wednesday as head of the International Monetary Fund, is indicted on charges of sexual assault and attempted rape.

And Nevada's John Ensign flees the Senate before he can be expelled for a nasty sex scandal.

What is it with these guys? That question faces us with the depredations of power; a misled, disappointed search for intimacy; and the sickness at the heart of success.

The rot within. Political analysts stress the link between sexual excess and power. "It's yet another confirmation of the truth of Lord Acton's aphorism that 'power [tends to] corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely,' " says Ross Baker, professor of political science at Rutgers. For Strauss-Kahn and Schwarzenegger, he says, that became " 'power delights and absolute power is absolutely delightful.' For those delightful moments, these two powerful men are paying the price of public humiliation."

Narcissism and abuse. Politicians, studies suggest, are no more prone to affairs than nonpoliticians. But they live in a pressingly intimate world ripe for such encounters. On the May 18 Diane Rehm Show on NPR, Sandra Sobieraj-Westfall, Washington editor of People, told Rehm that public figures "become so cloistered by an apparatus of staff and pollsters and handlers . . . adoring . . . and enabling. . . . It does breed a sense of invincibility on top of an already superinflated ego."

Michele Swers, associate professor of government at Georgetown University, added that with Ensign, "you had adoring staffers who tried to protect him . . . and a story of sexual harassment and power over your employees." Eric Pape of Foreign Policy magazine said Strauss-Kahn enjoyed admiring throngs in finance, in politics, and in the classroom: "He had this job at the IMF that had him jet-setting around the world like he's a head of state. . . . It certainly creates a rock-star-like environment."

Abuse of power means abuse of people. Philadelphia therapist SaraKay Smullens, an expert on abuse in families, says, "Schwarzenegger was abusing his whole family, not just his housekeeper, but also Maria [Shriver], his wife, and all his children." Think of the women made public cuckolds by their prominent husbands: Hillary Rodham Clinton, Elizabeth Edwards, Darlene Ensign, Jenny Sanford, Shriver, and Silda Wall-Spitzer.

David Greenwald, a clinical psychologist with practices in Center City and Doylestown, says: "A certain number of the men I see, prone to very risky behavior like this, have a sense of entitlement: 'I deserve this. I don't have to play by the same rules as other people. Gravity doesn't apply to me. I'm an Alpha Male, and that goes with the territory.' "

Trying to fill the lack. But Greenwald adds that "many more of my patients are people who have never had a sense of being loved, and who, therefore, substitute compulsive sexual encounters, which at least give some sense of connection."

Robert Weiss, founding director of the Sexual Recovery Institute in Los Angeles, says: "These are people who, always having lacked control, search for what they can't ever have: controllable intimacy. It has to be intense; a spouse can never do it." Exhibit A: Bill Clinton. "Abandonment and alcoholism in the family, and he develops a skill set whereby he can get intimacy by entertaining and getting close to people."

As Smullens puts it: "There's a grandiosity that's a cover-up for severe kinds of insecurity." It cuts across all classes and professions, says Weiss, "from politicians to firefighters."

Is it more of a male thing? "Among people we treat," Weiss says, "80 percent of the men act out through sex, and 80 percent of the women through food. But the syndrome is largely the same."

The psychopathy of achievement. Irony and sadness abound. Society gives permission to such men and their drives, Weiss says, "because their achievements help drive society forward." But as Greenwald observes, "It has an effect on the whole culture, because these guys are searching for $10 billion bonuses while their companies bust the economy."

Not to call anyone a psychopath, but there is a disturbing trend. Kevin Dutton, expert on psychopathy among CEOs and author of Split-Second Persuasion, a study of the ways of charmers and seductives, says: "The kind of personality that rises to the top of shark-infested professions like politics and finance tends to be ruthless, fearless, charming, and somewhat lacking in the conscience department. Now while such attributes are pretty much de rigueur in the business world, if the corporate cage suddenly springs open and the beast gets out into everyday life, it's almost certainly going to end in tears."


Contact staff writer John Timpane at 215-854-4406, jt@phillynews.com, or at @jtimpane on Twitter.

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