Monday, May 16, 2011

What sex tells us about the rich and famous

I'm manifestly unqualified to talk about the consequences of Dominique Strauss-Kahn's arrest for France or Europe. Suffice to say Stauss-Kahn's behavior appears to have been monstrous and one can only hope his status doesn't stand in the way of justice being done.

But there's something that always bothers me about powerful men and sex, which seems to apply no less here than anytime else.

I suspect I'm far less forgiving of sexual transgressions committed by politicians and other public figures than most of my peers. The prevalent view on these things (the Strauss-Kahn affair excepted, of course, because rape is quite rightly in a category of its own) among many of my friends and acquaintances is that what somebody does in his private life is nobody's business but his own.

I disagree. Not because I think it's important what a person does in the bedroom, but because I think it's important what a person does when he's given power over others.

You see so many powerful men, when granted a position of prestige and influence, through talent or good fortune, rushing to exploit the fact that the ordinary laws of social gravity no longer apply to them. Obviously abuse of privilege can manifest itself in a lot of ways, like corruption, but behavior towards women is one of the clearest and most common. I don't care if you're Bill Clinton or John Edwards or John Ensign or Eliot Spitzer or Tiger Woods or Dominique Strauss-Kahn, your treatment of women all comes from the same place: a sense of entitlement. A sense that "I am special" and "I am different" and "I can have whatever I want." These men harbor ambition that has met with too much success, and now feel infallible.

Anybody who has grown up in the real world knows that life can be about tradeoffs and sacrifices. And if you want to hold a position of influence and power, one of the things you're sacrificing is the right to philander about, to charm or seduce or throw in with whatever women take your fancy. Anything else would imperil your family, who would suffer immensely if your dalliances come to light, would imperil the ideas you profess to champion, and, all too often,would imperil the women of whom you are taking advantage.

These are men, not impulsive teenagers. They have in almost all cases demonstrated tremendous ability to control how they behave and present themselves in the public eye. They are intelligent. They are capable of long-term thinking. They see and know full well the potential consequences of the actions they choose to take.

But so many powerful men -- and for whatever reason, it almost always seems to be men -- simply don't care. Instead of exercising even the slightest forbearance, they'll take everything society will let them take, and sometimes more.

What minimal degree of self-control is needed to simply say "No?" Of course, most of the time, it's not even a matter of refusing or deferring gratification -- it's a matter of not actively seeking it out. Having an affair while running a presidential campaign; hiring prostitutes while governing the state of New York; attempting to assault your hotel's chambermaid: these things aren't mistakes to be regretted and repented, they're egregious failures to live within the bounds that society has constructed, acts of violence against the idea that the powerful should have to live like everyone else.

That's what bothers me. The inescapable sense that so many powerful men have no rules on the inside. They aren't guided by their personal code, or their morals, or even their vaunted ideas, but the laws that forcibly keep them in line, as well as the occasional fear that their transgressions will come to light. For every one that oversteps and gets caught, you have to wonder how many go unnoticed. Quite aside from the tricky politics and morals of the sex itself, what does it say about man when he is unable to live by a simple set of rules for the good of everyone around him? Should he be in charge of anyone or anything?

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