Linking drives for power and sex


January 27, 1998|By Patricia Meisol | Patricia Meisol,SUN STAFF

Some of us are saying a president shouldn't have extramarital affairs.

Some of us are saying a president shouldn't have affairs at least while he's in the White House.

Some of us are saying affairs are OK, even in the White House, but not with a 21-year-old.

Some of us are saying a president's sex life is his or her business, but don't lie about it.

True or not, allegations of a sexual liaison in the White House have opened up a major discussion about sex and public life.

Confronting our views of sexuality is something Americans do either too much or too little of, and almost always in a crisis. And as the nation reels from this latest crisis, some observers raise the question: Is it time to set boundaries for people in public life, to follow the example of doctors and teachers who agree to control their sex drives for the sake of their authority in society?

"We are all entrapped in the chase. See the president run. Will he get caught?" says John Gagnon, a sociologist at the State University of New York/Stony Brook and co-author of the 1992 national "Sex in America" study. "Maybe at one point we'll stop and say, 'What is it we want from this man?' "

Cover your ears and wince, OK, because the questions are tough: Is there a correlation between success and sex drive? Do strong leaders inevitably come with high testosterone levels? Or is power, like Henry Kissinger said, the aphrodisiac?

Should our leaders be any different? What about the biological differences between, say, someone who drives himself or herself to become president and somebody who has only enough energy to drive to work?

"There's no question but that a high level of testosterone is associated with aggressiveness and also associated with the sex drive," says Helen E. Fisher, an anthropologist at Rutgers University and author of the "Anatomy of Love."

"When men win, testosterone levels tend to be high, for example after a tennis match or a chess match. So there seems to be some link between real assertiveness and testosterone and a related link between testosterone and sex drive.

"So putting this all together, one could guess that a lot of political leaders do have high levels of testosterone and also have a high sex drive."

The lure of power

But there's another factor at work: Women are attracted to power, not only in America but around the world, Fisher says. It's a survival instinct: The toughest job is carrying a child, she says, and women need a mate to help. Even an extremely rich woman is attracted to a richer husband, she says.

It doesn't have to do with how much money you have but with basic human taste, she says.

"So here we have a president who probably has a high level of testosterone, is assertive, has high rank and probably has a very high sex drive. And he is surrounded by women who find that attractive. So he might not be the person who's constantly doing the approaching. They may be approaching him."

Fisher describes three emotional systems for mating in a soon-to-be published article. The first is lust -- the drive for sexual gratification associated with testosterone. Then comes romantic, passionate love, and finally a third attachment associated with a brain chemical called oxytocin that helps form monogamous relationships. These are so distinct, she argues, that one can feel a deep attachment for a spouse and still have an affair.

"It is basically different parts of the brain at war with each other," Fisher says. What happens next is the result of free will. "By the time you are president we all hope you can control your feelings. But I am not surprised when people don't."

California author Michael Hutchison, who wrote the 1990 book "The Anatomy of Sex and Power," argues that genetic wiring accounts for a larger part of sex drive than environmental factors: Men seek multiple mates because of the ancient biological imperative to produce as many children as possible.

In the last 16 years, scientists have only begun to examine the physiology and psychology of sexual choices. But most research so far is with animals. For example, a team led by Thomas R. Insel at the Yerkes Regional Primate Research Center at Emory University in Atlanta is studying the oxytocin receptor gene in the brain of field mice to find out why a prairie vole is monogamous but his cousin mouse, the montane vole, is not.

Biologically speaking, the argument is that males are concerned with aggression and dominance and being at the top of the group, says Andrew J. Cherlin, sociologist at the Johns Hopkins University.

In primates, it is the dominant males -- monkeys and apes -- who have sexual access and block others' access. But, he adds, "We're not primates ... we have a culture that regulates our behaviors. Powerful men get around that."

Regardless of the basis of a strong sex drive, our society has always been at work to tame it.


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