We might be shocked by the bedroom scandals that dominate political and economic news this week, but we ought not to be surprised.
The sexual misadventures of politicians, celebrities and business leaders make headlines so regularly that they get our attention mainly when they vary from the usual script, which is that of a powerful man who has a few liaisons, or a few dozen, on the side. We expect the sex. We don’t expect the sex to be accompanied by violence or coercion, probably because we presume that powerful men have no need to resort to force.
So the arrest of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, managing director of the International Monetary Fund and until now a likely candidate in next year’s French presidential election, caught everyone off guard. He was charged with attempted rape and illegal imprisonment in an alleged attack on a New York hotel housekeeper last weekend. Strauss-Kahn has a history of sexual dalliances, including a well-known relationship with a co-worker that could have cost him the IMF post. Since his arrest, stories have emerged that indicate he may have tried to force himself on an unwilling woman at least once in the past.
The Strauss-Kahn arrest was unusual but not unique. Colorado prosecutors dropped rape charges against basketball superstar Kobe Bryant in 2004 after the alleged victim in that case, also a hotel employee, declined to testify. The judge had ruled that Bryant’s lawyers would be allowed to question the complainant about her sexual activity in the days surrounding the purported 2003 assault. Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger drew a six-game suspension, later reduced to four games, after a young woman accused him of raping her in a Georgia bar. Authorities declined to press criminal charges against Roethlisberger, and the athlete denied assaulting the woman.
On the heels of the Strauss-Kahn case, former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger acknowledged fathering a child with a longtime household employee. The Los Angeles Times reported that Schwarzenegger and his wife, Maria Shriver, separated after he told her that the child was his. Though the separation was recent, the child was born over a decade ago, before Schwarzenegger entered politics. The child’s mother retired in January after working for the family for 20 years. Schwarzenegger has been accused in the past of repeatedly groping females in his vicinity, and he acknowledged that he had “behaved badly.”
The Strauss-Kahn arrest itself came just days after the Senate Ethics Committee released a report on its investigation of former Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev. The committee said it found possible criminal violations stemming from Ensign’s effort to cover up an affair with the wife of his chief of staff, Douglas Hampton. Hampton received a large payment from Ensign’s parents, and Ensign tried to help him establish a new career as a lobbyist, possibly in an effort to keep him from making the affair public.
Eliot Spitzer resigned as New York governor when his repeated meetings with prostitutes were revealed. Former Sen. John Edwards, a one-time U.S. presidential contender, belatedly admitted fathering a child with a woman who worked on his campaign while his then-wife battled cancer. Current GOP presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich had affairs during his first two marriages and is currently married for the third time, to a woman who served as a congressional staffer (though not Gingrich’s staff) when he was House speaker in the 1990s. Tiger Woods saw his marketing value badly damaged when his wife brought his infidelity to public attention with a three-iron.
As business managers, shareholders and voters, we cannot escape the simple truth that the people who work for us are human beings who behave as such — meaning they will sometimes behave in ways we wish they would not. The question is how to deal with it.
It is not news that many women are strongly attracted to men who have fame, wealth and power. Such men can become accustomed to women literally throwing themselves, or at least their undergarments, at them. (Ask any male pop star.) British researchers who conducted a cross-cultural study found that women reported that sex with wealthy men was more satisfying than sex with men of more modest means, The Times of London reported. Science tells us that even men who can simply give the subliminal impression of high status, from cues such as wearing red clothing, have a head start in the race to the bedroom.
We cannot change our biology. When a man whose power gives him easy access to sex encounters a woman who wants to grant that access, chances are good that sex will ensue. This can have sad and serious consequences for families and long-term relationships. Yet in many instances — though not all — the families are the only parties that really need to be concerned. If a politician has a mistress who is not on the government payroll and who does not affect his official duties, should we care? Perhaps we should, if the politician has hypocritically held himself out as some sort of paragon of “family values.” But then we have to ask ourselves why we want our legislators and government executives to demonstrate family values in the first place. We don’t need them for that. It would suffice for them to do their public business competently and handle their private affairs privately.
Should advertisers dump Tiger Woods because of his broken marriage? Yes and no. Purely from a business perspective, Woods’ brand became so damaged that his marketing power was much diminished. He could no longer stand as a symbol of superhuman integrity — not that an uncanny golf game was ever any indicator that he possessed superhuman traits in other areas. He also could no longer effectively market products, such as a sportswear, that a woman might buy for her husband. No wife wanted to be reminded of what happened to the woman whose husband endorsed that brand. But should Tiger’s endorsement of, say, a golf club be compromised? His golf record stands on its own. Over time, he will probably regain some, though not all, of his marketing power.
Things are different when a manager becomes involved with a subordinate. The higher the manager, the worse things get. A power imbalance in the workplace creates an element of economic coercion, along with other problems. Other employees may perceive favoritism toward the subordinate who goes the proverbial extra mile. After the relationship ends, the former lover may see retaliation in any unfavorable decision by the supervisor. It does not matter whether the favoritism or the retaliation is real. The manager creates the problem by taking advantage of his work position for a personal, sexual benefit.
But employees are humans, and humans will have consensual sex. In most cases, a degree of frankness can avoid problems. Employees can be reassigned to other managers, or public disclosure (at least when marital and other circumstances make it possible) coupled with extra efforts to be fair to everyone can also help. But a CEO who has to maintain secrecy about a relationship with an employee has created a problem that is almost unsolvable without the chief executive’s departure.
For these reasons, even the earlier, supposedly consensual workplace relationship involving Strauss-Kahn was a warning sign that he could not appropriately wield the power he held.
Is a womanizer necessarily a rapist? Obviously not, but the line may not always be as clear as we like to think. The more powerful partner may not even recognize or acknowledge the coercive power of his position. And, in at least a few cases, a man who is accustomed to hearing “yes” before he has not even asked the question may not respond to the eventual “no.”
This does not in any way excuse the behavior of a Strauss-Kahn or a Bryant or a Roethlisberger, assuming any of them did the things of which they were accused (but for which they were never convicted). As a result of Strauss-Kahn’s alleged breach, the entire world lacks his services at a crucial moment in the Greek government finance crisis.
I never saw much of a link between womanizing and forcible assault, until I reflected on the Strauss-Kahn charges. Then I thought back to the scandal involving Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky. I believed then, and for the most part still believe, that it was a travesty to force either of them to testify about their consensual relationship in connection with Paula Jones’ lawsuit alleging that Clinton had made unwanted overtures to her. Now, though, I have to confess at least a bit of doubt. If the man who holds the world’s most powerful office uses that power to obtain sexual favors from a young intern, might he also simply assume that crude advances toward another weaker woman would be, at least, tolerated? A pattern of misusing workplace power may be more relevant than I used to think.
Powerful men usually get what they want. Some women willingly give it to them. We can’t change this. We can gear our expectations to reality, however. We can expect public and private employees to behave decently in the workplace and to keep private matters private. We can likewise disregard private conduct when it is irrelevant to us. When it intrudes in the workplace, it should be dealt with constructively, if possible, and prohibited sparingly, since prohibitions are prone to fail anyway.
And no always means no. The most powerful men need to be the most sensitive to this fact. I think most of them are. Those who are not are liable to cause the greatest harm, and to suffer the heaviest consequences.