Sex, Lies & Trousergate: Send in the Shrinks

Last week former general David H. Petraeus was a war hero reinvented as the Director of the CIA; this week he has resigned his position and is more famous for committing adultery than for being a four-star general. His sudden fall raises the perennial question: Why do men in power keep cheating, especially in this, the 21st century, when technology and the 24/7 news cycle practically guarantee that they'll not only be caught but memed without mercy? Is it just a dangerous combination of high-test narcissism and boys-will-be-boyness? In 2008, in the wake of l’affaires Edwards and Spitzer, MORE asked six smart writers for their sharpest takes on the psychology of the high-level cheater. Why does he do it? Will he ever learn? And are we wrong to care?

by Naomi Wolf
petraeus and broadwell image
David Petraeus with Paula Broadwell, July 13, 2011
Photograph: ISAF via CNP/Rex/Rex USA

From MORE'S 2008 package on politicians who cheat. Can therapy prevent these powerful men from self-destructing?

It’s hard not to do a double take when yet another political scandal surfaces involving mind-blowingly bad judgment on the parts of men in power and women who should not be in the room with them. “What were they thinking?” is the question indeed.

Many pundits interpret these moments as some kind of revelation of politicians acting out fantasies that all men would pursue if they could. I don’t buy that. I do not believe that these transgressions of judgment are about some kind of innate male skankiness. The reason these men keep finding themselves in insanely stupid relationships has to do not with American puritanical feelings about sex drive but with American puritanism about mental health.

Think about life on the presidential campaign trail (or on Capitol Hill, or in the Oval Office). You could not create a situation more perfectly designed to trigger anxiety or depression—massive responsibility, unrelenting physical exhaustion, the extreme ups and downs of polling, the disorientation of being surrounded by hangers-on and yes-men and -women. But those in power or seeking it know that therapy is off-limits—no matter the stresses and despite the fact that millions of Americans are on some kind of antidepressant or antianxiety medication, and every other Californian or New Yorker sees a shrink. 

What does this taboo do to our nation’s leaders? It makes them nuts. But we do not allow our leaders even to have psyches, much less tend to them. Our model of political leadership—especially the male variety—is of a person who rarely in-trospects and scarcely feels. (Powerful women seem to be different—perhaps because they’re comfortable blowing off steam with a trusted girlfriend.)

I believe this is one major reason we keep seeing these scandals. It’s not just that people lose their judgment when their ego is distorted by power; it is also that people desperately crave an all-supportive, accepting, confidential presence when they are under stress, and to men a sexualized (or commercially sexualized) relationship may be the simplest way to fill that need. Don’t forget, the job of a political spouse is also hard and unnatural; it would take a saint or a martyr to provide uncritical adoration at home. Plus, spouses have needs too—and shrinks don’t. That is one of the delights of the therapeutic experience. Sex workers also don’t show their needs on the job. Neither, generally, do interns.

Our candidates and leaders are stuck in a mental-health time warp, in Vienna, just before Freud. It’s time to let themlive in the U.S. in 2008—a place where everyone and his brother has a subconscious, if not a mood disorder. This is not to excuse or exonerate, it’s simply to say that we can’t expect our leaders to live in a way that would drive anyone into their own worst self. If we want to avoid seeing our leaders act out impulsively—whether with young women in bed or with unnecesssary warmongering abroad—let them talk through their impulses and confusion in private with trusted counselors. Keep America safer; let our leaders have shrinks.

Naomi Wolf's latest book is Vagina: A New Biography.


Judith Thurman's open letter to husbands considering a run for political office.

Susan Cheever: Is Sex Addiction to Blame?

Patricia J. Williams on sex, scandal and the danger of these distractions.

Katha Pollitt on why hypocrisiy is the bigger scandal.

Originally published in the November 2008 issue

Share Your Thoughts!


MissGirl 06.08.2011

Powerful positions (political and social)cause a disconnection from "real life". This disconnection along with the human need for basic acceptance and attention that is not related to the "false" image that is required for those power positions may attribute to the desire for sexual relationships with others outside of the political/social organization.
It is my personal recommendation that those who enter into high profile positions should be sure to surround themselves with "hometown" people that help to protect them and to make sure that the individual keeps the connection with his/her family and close friends.

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