Sex Scandals in Politics: Who Cares?

Researchers explain the politics of post-scandal recovery.

Posted Jun 28, 2013

Anthony Weiner
By Agata Blaszczak-Boxe

Scandals and Comebacks

Two years ago he accidentally tweeted a picture of his genitals to his followers. He did it while his wife was pregnant with their first child. He also admitted to having inappropriate online relationships with several women. After all this, he disappeared for a while.

And now he is back. Despite his transgressions, Anthony Weiner is running for mayor of New York, thus trying to join the long list of politicians who have managed to come back after a sex scandal.

It happens all the time. Every now and then we hear about politicians who just cannot resist the temptation to cheat on their wives. When the scandal comes out, the public outcry often leads to their resignation. But it seems that there is more hope for them to regain public trust than one might suspect. Although studies have shown that, in theory, most Americans disapprove of infidelity, they can be incredibly forgiving when it comes to politicians cheating on their wives. Examples include Bill Clinton, Newt Ginrich, or David Vitter, a Republican senator from Louisiana who got reelected in 2010 despite having been involved in a prostitution scandal. And, most recently, Mark Sanford, who defeated Elizabeth Colbert Busch in the South Carolina special election. Even Jerry Springer, who frequented a brothel while serving on the Cincinnati City Council in the '70s, was later elected mayor.

How to Recover

So how do these men somehow manage to rejuvenate their image in the eyes of society that, in theory, disapproves of infidelity? According to Pepper Schwartz, a sociologist and sexologist of the University of Washington, practicality might play a major role. “While there seem to be a lot of people that condemn behavior, they seem to vote their own interests as they perceive them, and if their own interests are in any way endangered by the other candidate, they may just hold their nose and vote for their guy anyhow.”

But this isn't the only possible explanation. According to Alison Dagnes, a political scientist and editor of Sex Scandals in American Politics, there might be an actual “recipe” for post-cheating political recovery. If followed carefully enough, it is likely to be helpful in a professional comeback. First, the politician in question needs to be “appropriately contrite,” which means he has to acknowledge his misdeeds and say how sorry he is—and he had better sound genuine and convincing. Then, he usually needs to wait a couple of years before trying to return to office. People need time to forgive, if not forget. Or, hopefully, both. Finally, it really, really helps if his wife stays with him.

Weiner seems to be following this recipe step by step. He has waited a couple of years to come back. And he shows contrition, which is clear even in his promotional video. “Look, I made some big mistakes, and I know I let a lot of people down,” he says. “But I’ve also learned some tough lessons.” He also appears in it with his son and his wife, who has stayed with him despite the Twitter scandal.

The element of apology seems to be crucial, which can be explained from a theoretical perspective. “I see it in terms of politics of masculinity,” says Paul Apostolidis, a political scientist at Whitman College, who adds that infidelity is often perceived as “a transgression against the moral value that men should be in control of their sexuality.”

“No one is surprised that men have sexual desires,” he says. But “you are supposed to show that you are capable of controlling these behaviors.” And cheating means that a man lacks this control. At the same time, acknowledging one’s transgressions and apologizing is part of what Apostolidis describes as “reassertion of self-governing of masculinity.” Which means that if a male politician is capable of taking responsibility for his actions, it helps with his public perception as someone who can regain control of his actions. In other words, an apology can serve as evidence that, despite being imperfect, a politician is still a “real” man.

Cheating Abroad

If a married man really wants to be a politician, but he knows he might find it problematic to stay faithful to his wife, he might be better off trying to make it in another country. While it is possible to recover in America, it is much easier to do so in Europe. The distinction between the public vs. private matters is especially pronounced in continental Europe, which has traditionally been more accepting of infidelity in the public sphere than America.

“What they do in private life and what they do after hours is beside the point,” says Mark Sachleben, a political scientist who specializes in international politics. “In an Anglo-American setting, and particularly in the United States, we want our leaders to be moral.” Sachleben cites the example of Francois Mitterand, whose funeral was attended by his wife and mistress, standing next to each other. Incidentally, his illegitimate daughter showed up, too.

Another example comes from the Czech Republic, whose former prime minister, Mirek Topolánek, impregnated his fellow politician of the Civic Democratic Party while he was married to Pavla Topolankova. “Nine out of 15 people questioned on the street by The Prague Post said they don't care what Topolánek does with his private life,” said an article published by The Prague Post in reaction to the news. Interestingly, Topolánek’s wife still decided to get revenge on her husband by… running in the Senate election against a candidate from Topolánek's party. She lost, but still received a fair amount of attention.

What About Female Politicians?

The unignorable fact is that the majority of sex scandals in American politics revolve around men. One of the most obvious reasons for this is the scarcity of female politicians. And the 19% of women who currently occupy Congress seats “had to work harder than men and they had to break every ceiling they possibly could in order to get there,” according to Dagnes. “They’re not going to risk it based on something as fleeting as an affair.”

“And if they do risk it," she says, "they are going to be a lot more careful than the guys who get a lot of opportunity thrown at them.”

Agata Blaszczak-boxe is a health and science journalist based in New York. You can find her here and follow her on Twitter: @AgataBoxe