Won’t Somebody Think of the Children?: Sex Scandals in US Politics

Katy Gehred

Women have been actively barred from taking part in elections in America for a very large portion of our country’s history. It took suffragettes almost a century of hard battling to scrape our way up to the vote in 1920. But there is one particularly unimaginative way that women have been active in US politics since the birth of our nation. Sex scandals. The way that sex scandals are handled in US politics says a lot about gender and power in our culture.

Sex scandals are interesting political phenomena. They’re like the Snooki of political news coverage, ubiquitous, and yet never really taken seriously. Even in cases where crimes have been committed (actual illegal crimes not just crimes against morality) a lot of the time they aren’t even prosecuted. Eliot Spitzer violated the Mann Act when he asked that sex worker Ashley Dupre cross state lines to see him while he was in Washington. This made him guilty of a federal crime, and yet he received no legal repercussions [1]. Frequently sex scandals don’t even cause much political backlash. Most senators who are embroiled in sex scandals lose points at the polls, but not enough to undo an incumbency advantage.  And hey, Bill Clinton lied to our faces about Monica Lewinsky and we couldn’t even manage to impeach him.

This isn’t to say that there are no consequences to political sex scandals. Remember Mark Sanford? Back in 2009 there were rumors that he’d be a GOP candidate in this election. Until it came out that instead of “hiking the Appalachian Trail” (still my favorite euphemism for sex ever) he was crying in the arms of his Argentinian mistress. In the flurry of embarrassing press releases that followed, he resigned as Head of the Republican Governors association.  Anthony Weiner, of course, fulfilled the destiny imparted on him by his name by sexting lewd images to a number of young women via Facebook and Twitter. He too, resigned. Herman Cain provided the first juicy scandal of this election when it was released that two female employees of the National Restaurant Association had accused him of sexual harassment. And here we sit, right in the middle of the NObama vs. Mittens showdown, not a Cain in sight. This isn’t France, in the U.S. sex scandals are actually scandalous.

And it’s not as though this is new. Before women got the vote they were still influencing elections and ruining all kinds of men’s lives with their sexy intrigues. (Note: I am fully aware that even before women had the vote they were politically active and influenced elections without using their vaginas as a weapon even once. I just prefer to roll around in the muck with my fellow mudslingers.) Alexander Hamilton caused something of s stir back in 1797 when he admitted to having sex with Maria Reynolds, a poor 23-year-old woman who had come to his door asking for monetary assistance. As Hamilton himself said, “it was quickly apparent that other than pecuniary consolation would be acceptable [2].” How exactly he thought that his particular kind of consolation was going to help her pay her bills I have no idea, but you know, these scandals don’t tend to make a lot of sense. But here’s the thing about this one, Hamilton admitted freely to this seedy sexual affair in order to divert attention away from a financial scandal of which he was being accused. Being guilty of having an affair with a destitute woman 10 years his junior (who was actually being prostituted out by her husband) was less bad in his eyes than being financially corrupt. It certainly didn’t help his political career, but it didn’t stop his face from ending up on the 10-dollar bill either.

Sex Scandals aren’t great, but they certainly aren’t the worst political misstep you can make. Sure, they might destroy someone’s career, and most definitely somebody’s marriage, but they aren’t like, serious business. The concept of the public sphere vs. private sphere (work and politics vs. home and family) keeps men’s lives neatly compartmentalized. General knowledge (and oh how I am loath to quote that dubious source) seems to state that a man can be a total freakin’ player in his personal life and still do a fine job as a leader of our nation. What goes on behind closed doors (or on intimate cell phone pics) is just fluff, and doesn’t have anything to do with the public sphere. From the news sometimes it looks like Washington is a sort of orgy of awkward middle aged men who want to get a little of that rock star lifestyle along with their, you know, well respected positions of actual power and authority

I fully recognize that my position on this issue actually puts me on the same side as Republicans, who face more consequences for their sex scandals than Democrats do. As you might imagine, that’s a rare thing for the co-editor of a women’s history blog (Watch this moment as it shoots past like a falling star). However, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that I don’t like it when a politician can’t keep it in his pants. I don’t believe that integrity only matters when it does not involve your penis.  The whole “boys will be boys” attitude that implies that male politicians are obviously going to be unfaithful to their wives, and in fact have a god given right to due to their sexual drive, is a perspective for which I have absolutely no sympathy [3].  Now, do I believe that these men should be forced to parade around the square with a scarlet letter A pinned to their chests whilst I throw rotten fruit at them and shout abuse?  Or get anything like the huge amount of backlash Kristen Stewart has gotten for cheating on RPatz? No, I’m just saying that it will make me less likely to vote for them. And I’m not ashamed of that.

Everybody has an opinion on sex scandals. Politics, for people who are not constantly enmeshed in it, can be confusing and frustrating. As much as the media attempts to simplify issues and politicians water things down for voters, there are some intricacies of foreign policy and economics that are just impossible to encompass in a sound byte.  But everybody understands a sex scandal. As most feminists are well aware, just about everybody has an opinion on gender politics because just about everybody experiences it on a daily basis. I may not quite understand the reasoning behind the drone bombings of the Middle East, but I know that if my boyfriend was cheating on me with somebody younger and hotter I’d be pissed.

Just because everybody can have an opinion on a sex scandal doesn’t mean that sex scandals don’t matter. The line between the public and the private sphere is not actually all that clear, when examined closely. When a politician’s actions actually hurt someone, like cheating on a spouse, or harassing someone, that says something about their character.

And it affects how I vote.

Katy Gehred is a pop-culture obsessed feminist who is too enthusiastic about too many things. Hobbies include co-editing this blog, knitting, smashing the patriarchy with a hammer, and nerdfighting. She is currently working on her master’s degree in Women’s History at Sarah Lawrence College, and if you have any questions at all about Thomas Jefferson, she is the person to contact.



[1] Girard, Stephanie. “It May Be Wrong, But It Is Not a Crime: The Negligible Legal Consequences for the Amoral Sexual Activity of Men in Public Office.” In Sex Scandals and American Politics. Edited by Alison Dagnes. Continuum International Publishing Group: New York. 2011.

[2] Cogan, Jacob Katz. “The Reynolds Affair and the Politics of Character.” Journal of the Early Republic. Vol. 16, Issue 3. 09/01/1996. 390.

[3] Sachleben, Mark. “A Framework for Understanding: Sex Scandals in Comparison.” In Sex Scandals and American Politics. Edited by Alison Dagnes. Continuum International Publishing Group: New York. 2011.

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