Sex, power: Men prowl, women shop Different ways of assuring yourself that you exist

September 08, 1996|By Xandra Kayden

WE ARE GOING to be inundated by stories about the downfall of President Clinton's adviser Dick Morris in a sex scandal that gives more visibility to one of the most private of political consultants in modern politics.

While the public is being titillated by the details, it is appropriate to look beyond the individuals involved and ask why some men engage in "aberrational sex" and risk falling from such high positions from time to time.

And why it doesn't happen to women.

The need to cope with pressure exists in many lives and lifestyles, but it almost always comes with the territory of power when individuals are singled out as being better than their peers.

Morris rose to great influence in both parties and, almost single-handedly, it appears, brought the president of the United States back from his nadir after the 1994 election to almost certain re-election.

Quiet and unflamboyant as he appeared outwardly, Morris was the most controversial adviser in the president's camp.

At the risk of generalization - and with only a touch of facetiousness - I think that when the pressure gets too great, men who are unsure of themselves respond in very destructive ways, including inappropriate sexual behavior.

And women under pressure, when similarly insecure, shop.

Both responses are related to identity: assuring yourself not just that you are powerful, but that you exist.

In a man's case, an illusion of power is tied to American cultural norms of male dominance and conquest. In a woman's case, there is an equally American cultural norm that defines femininity almost solely in terms of beauty.

Both responses are akin to feeding oneself, taking care of oneself when others have been neglectful. Both responses reflect internal uncertainty and a feeling that one's public image lacks substance. There is a sense of emptiness and a need to reassure one's existence.

Psychoanalysts talk about the libido - the sex drive - which may also be related to the drive for power. We often associate unusual sexual behavior with those who hold great power.

There is the image of the "public utility" who chases every skirt that crosses his path. And then there are the scandals that occur from time to time - all of them to men.

Maybe there are just that many more men in positions of power, but why? Some argue that it is built into the genes, some that it is the cultural adaptation of genetic reality.

Women don't seduce men to assure their identity; in fact, the more lovers a woman has, the lower her self-esteem, because women tend to associate sexual activity to lasting relationships.

The liaisons reflected in these sex scandals are never associated in our minds with traditional relationships. Women are attracted to power and have been known to use sex to gain access, but if so, they sleep "up."

They don't sleep "down," as these sex scandals suggest men do.

We laughed at the shoes in Imelda Marcos' closet, or the clothes and cosmetics bought by Tammy Faye Bakker. Clearly, these women could have done with less; why did they need to go so far beyond normal bounds?

Forty years ago, Hollywood films promoted the cliche that female characters went shopping for a hat when things got rough. It may well have been a true portrayal of the way many women behave under stress.

These male-centered scandals are tragic for what they tell us about the low self-esteem and conflicts within these individuals. They also tell us something about ourselves.

There is no guarantee that everyone rising to positions of power is internally secure, which is why we place so much emphasis in promoting those who demonstrate traditional family norms, even though very few of us live in such settings today.

Do these private crutches matter in the exercise of power? Yes.

They matter not just because they defy established norms, but because they reveal insecurity and uncertainty on the part of the power holder. Organizations - society - cannot function when the energy of leaders is consumed with internal needs.

Xandra Kayden teaches at the University of California, Los Angeles School of Public Policy and Social Research. The Los Angeles Times distributed her article.

Pub Date: 9/08/96

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