Sex and Politicians

Sexual behavior is an unhelpful criterion for political office.

Posted Aug 12, 2008

Obviously Edwards is far from unique. Over the past decade we have seen plenty of politicians of both major parties caught in sex scandals. These scandals, and the associated legal and public repercussions, helped cost the Republicans the control of Congress, and before that they impaired the effectiveness (and nearly caused the downfall) of a Democratic presidency. Thus, both major political parties have suffered from sex scandals.

My thesis is that the American people and their chances for good government are the ones most harmed by these scandals. In fact, I recommend that we should stop considering sexual behavior as a qualification for political office.

Everyone complains about politicians. Regardless of your political views, most likely you wish and hope that our country could elect candidates who would do better jobs at governing. The best hope to do this, I believe, is to enlarge the pool of qualified candidates. One good way to do this would be to stop disqualifying people on the basis of things that have nothing to do with governing.

Put simply, there is probably a limited supply of people who are willing to go through all the risk, stress, and hassle required to seek major public office. The ones who will govern well is a subset of those. If we lose some of those good ones because they had extramarital sex, our chances of getting good government are further reduced.

The problem is most likely far more severe than we recognize. Running for national office subjects a person to intense media scrutiny. If sexual misconduct will disqualify you, then anyone who has had an affair will think twice about running. We probably lose quite a few potential candidates, including some who would be wise, honest officeholders, before the process even starts.

Over the years, surveys have given different numbers, but something like half of America's married men eventually have extramarital sex. If that disqualifies them from major public office, we automatically rule out half the male population. Or at least, only those who think they will never get found out will take the chance. Note that the risk is severe. It is much worse to have one's affair found out when one is a nationally prominent politician, and the odds of being found out are much greater, than when one is, say, a lawyer in private practice.

Crucially, too, the odds of extramarital sex are almost certainly much higher among politicians than among the population at large. Politics is a high-risk, high-payoff career, and as such it attracts men with high-testosterone personalities: ambitious, competitive, adventurous, willing to take chances. And yes, sexually motivated. High testosterone does not promote sexual fidelity. It makes men want to have more different partners. On top of the self-selection of adultery-prone men into politics, the opportunities probably increase for a successful politician.

Indeed, part of the attraction of a political career, at least for some men, may be the promise of more women to bed. Evolutionary data back this up. Linda Betzig's research on powerful men throughout history found that they often had many sex partners and many children. To an evolutionary psychologist, that is the pudding in which lies the proof, the goal lurking behind all other behavior. To chuck men out of office for having multiple sex partners is thus a quixotic, paradoxical quirk of modern society, for whether they realize it or not, many men are drawn to seek that office in the first place by the sexual dimension of political ambition. It would be a bit like disqualifying swimming champions because they like to get their hair wet.

I can imagine people objecting that sexual decision making reveals a man's character. (I refer specifically to men here, because so far only men have had their political careers ruined by sex scandals.) This argument seems lame to me. A much better and more relevant test of character would involve how the person has managed his money. Has he always paid his bills on time? If the answer is no, that is much more reason to question his suitability for public office than an occasional bit of unsanctioned sex.

I do concede one argument for disqualifying some politicians for sexual misbehavior, and that would be misbehavior that is illegal. Politicians are responsible for making and upholding laws, and so if they break laws, perhaps they should be punished. Still, adultery is not illegal. I can appreciate the sentiment that someone who is guilty of a serious sex crime such as rape should be deemed unfit for office. Even with legal aspects, however, the lines blur. Remember, in the end no one thought President Clinton should be forced out of office, even though his perjury did break the law. (Had the pressures on sexual behavior been less intense, however, he might not have committed the perjury, which was all about denying under oath that he had engaged in extramarital sex.)

Edwards denied his affair at first and now has admitted it. As has become standard, he had to claim it was a "mistake." The mistake line always seems funny to me, as if the man were aiming at one vagina and missed, somehow accidentally entering the wrong one. ("Well, the room was dark...") Do people really ever have sex by mistake? Can you still call it a mistake if you did it over and over?

In our diverse and pluralistic society, it is necessary to recognize that there are many different attitudes about extramarital sex. To some it is severely wrong ("cheating"), while to others it is an unfortunate fact of life, and to yet others it is a positive celebration of the human condition. As a social scientist, I think all we can say is that it is likely to continue happening, especially among politicians, and that whether someone does it or not - likewise whether he gets caught or not - is a poor basis for judging someone's ability to perform the duties of an elected official. We are not so oversupplied with brilliant, wonderful, effective politicians that we can afford to disqualify a substantial number of them based on something as irrelevant as a bit of wild oats.