What the Anthony Weiner scandal teaches us about cheating and power dynamics in America
Americans are no strangers to the unbreakable bond between male power and sexual prowess – especially when it comes to our celebrities and politicians. With great power comes great ego, and with great ego comes selfishness, indiscretion, and overt disrespect for one’s spouse and family. Being forced to step down from Congress should have been humiliation enough for any philanderer, but two years later, New York City mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner is up to his old tricks while his wife, Huma Abedin, experiences “déjà vu all over again.” Even worse, Weiner estimates the count of women he has texted at “six to ten, I suppose,” meaning that he doesn’t even know the number of women with whom he has cheated on his wife. This is not the romanticized affair of Tolstoy or Flaubert; it is a 21st century politician stroking his ego, among other things, in front of a cell phone screen as countless women he barely knows sit transfixed a world away.
What can we learn about our own relationships from watching the breaking scandals of politicians like Anthony Weiner? Plenty. Weiner descends from a long line of political womanizers – FDR, JFK, Bill Clinton – all of whom are valued as “great men” despite their wandering eyes because they are products of a society that largely overlooks and often rewards such activity. And while plenty of women also engage in rampant and reckless affairs, there seems to be a different set of rules set for men by those in positions of power. Our culture’s glorification of “great men” like JFK who run a lengthy list of women alongside their achievements sends a distinct message to men all over the country: Success is synonymous with the ability to get any woman, or as many women, as you want.
On the July 19th edition of Andrea Mitchell Reports, MSNBC analyst Melissa Harris-Perry noted that as a society, “we reward women who are rule-followers, and we tend to reward men who are rule-breakers,” in reference to the Anthony Weiner scandal. What is political power for Weiner or celebrity power for Tiger Woods translates to perceived power for ordinary men. Not only do they see that the actions of high profile public figures are without consequence, they are bombarded by media renderings of the old ladies’ man vs. slut double standard – male ensemble comedies based around a goal of sexual conquest, commercials depicting a swarm of hot blondes around the holder of the desired beer or body spray, reality shows like The Jersey Shore where the characters Mike “The Situation” and Angela are respectively praised and ridiculed for the same promiscuous choices. “Rule-breaking,” then, becomes synonymous with avoiding responsibility for one’s sexual behavior.
“Rule-breaking” as it relates to cheating in relationships reflects the attitudes of promiscuous men in power in two ways: frequent exploits/high number of partners, and lack of discretion. The first is a matter of quantity over quality – a man sending lewd pictures to multiple women using a convenient group message function, or simply not caring enough about his wife or girlfriend’s feelings and integrity to knock it off after the first fling. Weiner’s uncertainty regarding the number of women on the receiving end of his messages indicates that he is not emotionally invested in any of them, either; they are “six to ten,” they are numbers and not people, much like the numbers of the teenage boy pressured to increase his amount of sexual partners while the respective girl struggles to keep her own number modest and low.
Lack of discretion, much of which is fueled by advances in 21st century technology, signifies a marked change in attitude toward secrecy. Affairs are now documented in written and retrievable electronic forms – text messages, e-mail, webcam footage and chat transcripts – and are often uncovered in social media spaces. Anthony Weiner’s remarks, “I said that other texts and photos were likely to come out, and today they have,” and “I’m responsible for this behavior that led us to be in this place, but in many ways, things are not that much different than they were yesterday,” suggest indifference, a verbal shoulder-shrug that reads less as an admission of guilt and more of a stand that, after an obligatory apology, the matter of his infidelity is somehow others’ and not his own problem to deal with.
Women as “rule-followers” in relationships are often encouraged to and even rewarded for turning the other cheek to affairs, acting as the “the dutiful wife” and salvaging the marriage. Many girls and young women still grow up believing that the man holds the power in the household and that divorce is an abomination – growing up in a partially Catholic family and working for an evangelical Christian school, I have seen plenty of women in unhealthy relationships who feel that it is their duty to stay (rule-following) and not his to change (stopping the rule-breaking). Huma Abedin is referenced in her husband’s press conference comments as a kind of savior, offering guidance and benediction, but the problem with all of this generosity is that it offers no real incentive for cheating spouses to stop their behavior. When one partner in a marriage prioritizes commitment more than the other and to the point that their integrity falls by the wayside, disappointing results can leave them struggling to hold together a relationship in which they are continuously disrespected.
Unfortunately, in the public sphere, a woman’s power is often compromised by leaving the relationship – particularly in politics. Elin Nordegren, former wife of Tiger Woods, faced little obstacle in returning to a life without her golf pro partner and is currently enrolled in psychology courses at Rollins College, but the wives of former U.S. presidents face a different challenge. Because political “power couples” require two to tango, the woman’s power is inextricably linked to that of her husband’s. Eleanor Roosevelt wanted a divorce after discovering Franklin’s affair with secretary Lucy Mercer, but these plans quickly evaporated as soon as the Roosevelt family threatened to shun her husband and subsequently disinherit their children. Hillary Clinton chose to stay with Bill (who famously carried on an affair with Monica Lewinsky “because he could”) and has since been elected a New York Senator, run for president, and served as Secretary of State. These decisions send a clear and disheartening message to women all over the country: “Rule-following” by ignoring or accepting infidelity is often the best method to maintain power and achieve personal gain.
The standard of rewarding men and women in the same way for different sets of behaviors offers no solution to a cycle that simultaneously raises the man’s ego and lowers the woman’s prioritization of her own value. This norm is kept intact by cultural trends like the “sex addict” myth, which perpetuates the idea that men are not in control of their own sexual behavior; they are compelled by some outside force and therefore not responsible for their conduct. A woman who excuses or even pities her husband’s sexual compulsions may enjoy the resulting power and security, but what of the untold damage to her self-worth? Eventually, she will be left going along to get along or, in the case of Huma Abedin, left awkwardly smiling beside him at yet another press conference.
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