Sex at Dawn

Exploring the evolutionary origins of modern sexuality

Did Petraeus Betray Us?

If innate, victimless behavior never changes, shouldn't our expectations?

Maybe David Petraeus' wife feels victimized by this mess. We don't know. But if she does, it's likely her pain is as much a consequence of the media frenzy as it is of her husband's wayward affections. 

I've got nothing to say about whether Petraeus is a national hero or a war criminal; I can see the merit in arguments for either position. But what's clear is that his professional legacy is being destroyed due to something that has nothing at all to do with counter-insurgency expertise or innocents killed by drone strikes in Yemen. Say what you will about the wisdom of American foreign policy, it's clear that our political class is being gutted by unrealistic assumptions and expectations about human nature.

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What would happen to the standard of medical care if every surgeon caught having an affair were fired and barred from practicing medicine? How would flight safety be affected if the sexual lives of pilots received the same level of scrutiny and judgment as politicians'? Who would be left on court if the NBA enforced the same zero-tolerance sexual code we apply to our political leaders?

Homo sapiens is arguably the most libidinous mammal on the planet. Most of us yearn for novelty in our eroticism just as we do in our food, music, film, friendships, etc. There's nothing inherently tragic or shameful in this very human attribute. What's shameful is that we're still operating under thoroughly discredited assumptions about human sexuality, and going through the motions of shock, outrage, and human sacrifice over and over and over again each time these assumptions collapse. 

The prevailing counter-argument seems to be that sexual peccadillos of our leaders open the possibility of blackmail by foreign powers and others. Perhaps, but isn't the leverage really due to the social shame with which we stigmatize the exposed offenders? In other words, if the first step in such an investigation were to simply ask, "Is your wife/husband OK with this?" wouldn't an affirmative response neutralize all possibility of blackmail? Remove the public humiliation, and you remove most of the leverage. Respect the rights of couples to negotiate their own marital arrangements, and you remove the rest of it.

And really, if we are seriously worried about our leaders being blackmailed, shouldn't we be focussing on reforming our corrupt electoral system and eliminating lobbyists from the halls of Congress, where they routinely blackmail our elected leaders every damned day?

Christopher Ryan, Ph.D., is co-author of Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality (HarperCollins 2010).

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