General David Petraeus has resigned from leadership of the CIA after revelations of a sex scandal with a beautiful female biographer. Invariably, whenever such events occur, someone throws around the sex addict label as an attempt to explain why even powerful people make bad decisions when sex is involved. And, every time this label gets tossed around, I stand up and challenge it.
Why did Petraeus have sex with a woman who wasn’t his wife? For thousands of reasons. Every complex behavior is multi-determined, by a host of biological, psychological and environmental factors. Here are just a few:
–Like almost every powerful man in history, a high sex drive may have come along with Petraeus’ drive for success and power. Petraeus’ namesake, King David, had countless wives, but still craved yet another woman, and sent her husband to die in battle so that the king could have his wife. The only surprise here is that we continue to be surprised when powerful men act this way.
–High testosterone levels are common in military men. That’s part of the reason they are drawn to the military—where aggression, dominance and physical prowess are prized. The kinds of competitive, violent and militaristic interactions that are common in the military also trigger testosterone surges. Testosterone surges often connect with increases in libido, and sexual activities such as masturbation and infidelity.
–Powerful people in our society get lots of encouragement to develop “me-me-me” personalities, commonly called narcissism. When you are told by lots of people, in your life and the media, just how great you are, it can be very easy to buy into this and think that it makes perfect sense to indulge yourself. After all, don’t you deserve it?
–It’s noteworthy that Petraeus’ affair was with his biographer, a woman who allegedly idolized the man. Talking about yourself is very seductive. It feeds the ego, and it's very compelling to talk about your experiences to someone who is hungry to hear them. This is one reason why therapy patients so commonly develop erotic transference towards their therapists, and why so much talking and listening happens early in romantic relationships.
There’s no need to posit any illnesses or addictions here to explain why this man made such stunningly bad decisions. As he was making them, they didn’t seem like bad decisions, driven as they were by so many complex factors and influences. Those factors don’t excuse Petraeus’ decisions, or the people he hurt, and possibly the rules he broke. But the understanding of these factors can help us, our society, and our leaders to better prevent such things in the future. Or, at least, to put them into context.