With every new sex scandal comes the 'what's wrong with men' backlash. It's hard not to ask the question, if we're being honest.
So now Rep. Anthony D. Weiner is seeking a Bill Clinton-like redemption narrative. First he admitted sexting women (who were not his then-pregnant wife) was bad. Then he checked himself into a treatment center seeking professional help for an undisclosed disorder that causes him to involuntarily shave off his chest hair, take various and sundry photographs of his various and sundry bulges and Tweet those racy photographs to college students and other women around the nation, as well as engaging in a wide range of fetishized, online sexually-charged activities, including with a 17-year-old Delaware girl.
Then he kept it on the DL for a while. Now he and his long-suffering, brilliant and beautiful wife (and mother of his toddler son) have re-emerged in a big splash on the cover of the New York Times Sunday Magazine and all over the media announcing his re-entry into politics.
I'm all for self help, especially if your problem is you can't stop helping yourself.
This has me wondering if the rogue's gallery of cheaters we've been blasted with in the media need our sympathy rather than our scorn. I mean, maybe there's really something wrong with them. In the head. And if they could just get some treatment, they'd get better. Tiger Woods got some. Treatment, that is. Not sure what's up with Arnold Schwarzenegger on this score.
Former IMF Chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn was all over the news re rape charges. Former President Bill Clinton struggled with this same mystery disorder, as well as former vice presidential candidate John Edwards. Besides politicians, Hollywood actors must all be drinking the same bottled water because they seem to need mental health professionals to teach them how to keep their pants up: X-Files star David Duchovny went to sex-addict rehab. Tiger Woods sought help for something after he admitted betraying his marriage. British charmer Hugh Grant got caught with his pants down in a car with a prostitute. The list could go on and on. And on. The fact that actor Ethan Hawke apparently cheated on Uma Thurman (UMA THURMAN!!??) reminds us that having the hottest wife on the planet does not innoculate one against this powerful disorder. (See: Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore)
What is this mystery disorder? Is compassion the answer?
Since scorn and derision don't seem to make a dent, what if we tried to understand the deeper psychological underpinnings of this mystery disorder afflicting so many men. Since many are seeking treatment for it, it seems we, as partners, spouses, wives, girlfriends should understand this dynamic, too.
It's a brain thing
On All Things Considered, NPR's science correspondent Shankar Vedantam's report: What Science Tells About Power and Infidelity, he identifies and tackles the eternal question: "Why does it seem that the one embroiled in a sex scandal is always a person in power and always a guy."
Interesting as that piece is, it doesn't get me closer to compassion. Makes me think about strategic lobotomies.
What do the experts say about what's wrong with men?
Let's wander over to a treasure trove of expertise and insight into human behavior. The bloggers here at Psychology Today share their wisdom on every topic under the sun and beyond.
The first expert I thought of to help us understand the problem with men is Michael Bader, whose blog: What Is He Thinking? Decoding the male psyche, is just up our alley. Bader is a psychologist and psychoanalyst in San Francisco with over 30 years of experience. Bader's books include Male Sexuality: Why Women Don't Understand It-And Men Don't Either.
In his blog post: Everything Said About Anthony Weiner Is Wrong, Bader argues there is only one "legitimate reason to be upset with Anthony Weiner, and that's because his behavior and its discovery has taken away a bold and effective voice in the Democratic party. Everything else you think and feel about him is bull."
Yup, he says, asserting that what's really going on "is too personal and private for anyone to ever know."
This, from the psychoanalyst?
Yup, he says. All the talk about Weiner and all the other cheaters is fiction we create, reflecting our own "forbidden or feared desires," ginned up to explain far more complex situations. Ouch.
You and I can't know "a real thing about Weiner's psyche," he says.
Male psyche too complex for simple answers
In his decades of analyzing men engaging in similar patterns of behavior, Bader writes that only after working together in therapy did they: "piece together a complicated story that explained their behavior, a story involving feelings of disconnectedness, longing, anxiety, guilt, and omnipotence. It was a story that made sense, even if it had led to behavior that caused themselves or others suffering. It wasn't because they were "stupid," or "power-hungry men," or liars, but because of perfectly human motives, needs, and conflicts that, when understood with genuine curiosity and compassion, rendered the behavior anything but "disgusting."
Huh. So if he's right, it means that if we really want to understand what's going on with these guys, if we want a more accurate reading, Bader says that requires us to look with curiosity and compassion and to see these men as complex human beings, full of feelings of longing, anxiety, guilt, and not simply as arrogant, narcissistic, power-hungry, lying pigs who victimize women and wreck their families.
With so much marital carnage, is compassion possible?
Obviously, I have all kinds of instincts to rip into this idea with my teeth. But, I am thinking a lot about complexity these days and am eager to test drive some new ideas I'm exploring about compassion and curiosity. Since I have no dog in this hunt, since Weiner didn't do this to me or anybody I love, I think I'm removed enough to test it out.
But I need a wider focus group. I make some phone calls, shoot some e-mails and button-hole some gals I know. Ran the whole compassion idea by about a dozen women in a highly unscientific mini-survey.
Here's a summary of my findings:
Women are mad as hell and they feel somehow forced to keep taking it but it makes them hate Anthony Weiner and Arnold Schwarzenegger a lot.
One woman says: "We have all spent a lifetime excusing and enabling and cleaning up after various men in our lives (as daughters, sisters, wives, employees). We are tired. Very tired. And we are very, very angry. We are sick of it all and won't take it anymore. Why should we, the ones who pay for these mistakes in huge psychological and financial and professional losses, make the great effort such compassion takes?"
This gal didn't have much time to talk: "We are so often stuck with our jerks so what's wrong with hating the ones we read about and see carrying on all over the media?"
I sent Bader's piece to this woman and she writes back:
"No. No. No. It feels good to hate the pigs. There are so many and they are so, piggish! They ARE disgusting and power hungry and stupid! Don't you think we miss sex? Don't you think we'd love some young thing to adore us and to make us feel hot and powerful and wanted and dazzling? Don't you think women get seven-year-itches and are bored and feel unwanted, unloved, disconnected, anxious and deep, deep longing? You bet we do."
Another one chimes in: "We feel all that AND we get hormonal (which, technically you could call a brain problem.) And despite all of that, we make the choice, every day, not to torpedo our loved ones and our lives at anywhere near the same rate as men. Why is that?"
Whew. And those are the responses that were publishable.
I don't know what the answer is. But I do know that right now, public displays of betraying behavior like Weiner's trigger a lot of rage in a lot of women. Until somebody takes a good, deep, compassionate, curious look at our complex experiences and needs, boys being boys must look elsewhere for compassion.
And, it appears, looking elsewhere is exactly what they'll do.