By Biddi Rorke; photography by David Franklin/Freepik.com
Because ‘bad boys’ are sexy
Of course he’s not a nice guy, but behind every misbehaving politician or scandalous A-list celeb, you’ll find a woman who broke all the rules to be with him. Is power the ultimate aphrodisiac? And what makes high-profile men abuse it in the first place?
Of course, this list of influential men who fall from grace because of lecherous behaviour expands when you cast the net worldwide. American ex-president Bill Clinton’s sexual relationship with 22-year-old White House intern Monica Lewinsky led to his 1998 impeachment and subsequent trial. He was acquitted, but not before the world had heard sordid details of cigars and blowjobs while in the Oval Office.
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In France, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who was on the fast-track to becoming president, admitted to having an affair with a junior employee in 2008. (He has also been accused of sexually assaulting a maid in his hotel room.)
Actor-turned-politician Arnold Schwarzenegger admitted to having an affair and fathering a child with an employee, while a number of other women claim he was guilty of sexual misconduct during his campaign for governor of California. The list goes on. Experts suggest these gross errors of male judgement may come down to biology, hormones and opportunity, but are the women seduced for the same reasons?
1. The lure of authority
John Townsend, author of What Women Want – What Men Want: Why The Sexes Still See Love And Commitment So Differently, found that, when shown a series of photos, women were quick to say they didn’t find the men dressed in fast-food uniforms attractive, even when the models were good-looking. However, responding to the photo of the least handsome man (wearing a smart jacket, designer watch and described as a doctor), 40 percent of the women said they would happily marry him, and 64 percent were willing to date him. (So that’s why Prince William has so many admirers and Steve Hofmeyr leaves a trail of illegitimate children in his wake.) “These tendencies operate in everyday life,” says Townsend. “Women are attracted to men who appear successful and confident.”
2. They scramble your brain
According to Joburg-based psychologist Asiphe Ndlela, women can spot a dominant male from miles away – and almost every quality of a powerful man triggers arousal in her brain. “These include dominant scents, dominant gaits, deep voices, height, swagger, bravado and displays of wealth,” she says.
Book editor Deirdre Greene* was fresh out of varsity when she had an affair with her boss. “He was a senior editor and my relationship with him made me feel safer and more empowered,” she says. “Although he never gave me preferential treatment at work, some colleagues were suspicious and resentful.” Now 43, Deidre knows that realistically it wouldn’t have worked in the long-term, but he helped demystify the world of work, “and I think my interest in him gave him an ego boost.”
3. Blame evolution
Behaviourists claim this attraction boils down to evolution: women are programmed to respond sexually to men who command boardrooms, boast eye-watering bank balances and exude sheer masculine energy. The reason? The cavewoman in you desperately wants her offspring to have the best chance of surviving – and a man with strong, powerful genes hits the prehistoric jackpot. Durban-based clinical psychologist Dr Sherona Rawat has another theory: that many women often perceive “ordinary” men as difficult to manage, so an influential, high-profile man is seen as an even greater challenge.
4. It’s an ego boost
“For some women, having an intimate relationship with someone in a leadership role can be a supreme self-esteem boost,” she says. Subconsciously you might think that others would view you as powerful by proxy – after all, you’ve managed to “tame” an important man. Joburg-based counselling psychologist Margaret Becker agrees, adding that a yearning for admiration and respect could result in attraction to a powerful man. “They fervently hope their frailties and insecurities will be eased or erased because of their association with him.”
5. Men’s own insecurities
Turns out, men’s insecurities play a large part too. According to Joburg-based psychologist Dr Janne Dannerup, men in power often become successful because of their deep insecurities. “Many financially or organisationally powerful men feel like fakes,” she says. “Deep down, they fear that people will see past the façade to their unlovable hidden self, and that they will be rejected and fail. Every conquest proves they are desirable and helps to stave off that fear.”
In the wake of these scandals, the media are happy to expose all the sordid details, but gender activists and academics say that when men sexually harass women, it has nothing to do with desire – and everything to do with domination.
6. Good ol’ testosterone…
Scientists have also suggested that hormones have a role to play, where an excess of testosterone may be partly responsible for the downfall of presidents, politicians and patriarchs. John Gray, author of Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus, says powerful men have a greater sense of entitlement, but they also typically have higher levels of testosterone, which they depend on to function. But while women’s hormones are the butt of all-too-many sexist jokes, having a larger helping of testosterone is often seen as desirable by the “unfairer” sex. “Men with high levels of testosterone tend to be more aggressive, have a higher sex drive, want to dominate and are self-focused,” says Rawat.
“Cultivating an alpha male status can mean a man reaches the higher rungs of the ladder professionally, but it can also result in a dangerous mix of high sex drive and high risk-taking.” James Dabbs, who conducted cutting-edge research on testosterone for over two decades, agrees, and found that “the overall picture among high-testosterone men is a tendency towards excess.” Joburg-based psychologist Hanan Bushkin adds that some powerful men seek risky situations to increase their levels of dopamine (the “pleasure” chemical). “There’s a thrill in seeking the dangerous and the more they get away with it, the more addictive that feeling can become. The taboo; the awareness of the transgression, makes the sex even more attractive,” he says.
So, what’s the deal with women?
Why, then, do so few female politicians and powerhouses fall prey to such embarrassing situations? After all, we’ve never read headlines that Helen Zille, Maria Ramos or public protector Thuli Madonsela have hired male hookers, emailed raunchy images of themselves to waiters or indulged in affairs with interns. Is it just because women don’t have excess testosterone coursing through their veins? Or is it because abuse of power manifests in different ways?
A while back, disgraced former communications minister Dina Pule was reprimanded by parliament for her romantic relationship with Phosane Mngqibisa – not because she had behaved sexually inappropriately, but because he’d benefited from their relationship to the tune of a R6-million contract and a number of trips overseas. According to Dannerup, women are generally not guilty of eroticising their power. Most women still find they’re more powerful when they withhold sex, or grant it as a reward, as opposed to offering it freely.
Think Before You Leap
So why is there such a stark difference between powerful men and women? “Perhaps women are more circumspect about their sexual exploits because they have a lot to lose,” says Rawat. “While men’s adolescent dalliances and misdemeanours are often viewed as momentary lapses of reason, women are generally not forgiven as easily.”
Take for instance Amanda Rosenberg, then 27, who was the subject of vicious online abuse after her affair with her boss – multi-billionare Google co-founder Sergey Brin, then 40 – came to light. She was accused of being overly ambitious and “sleeping her way to the top”, while Brin’s role in the affair was viewed as vaguely understandable. After all, Amanda was young and attractive – what hot-blooded male would be immune?
Dannerup says this is an all-too-familiar scene, but warns of the inherent dangers. “Once co-workers are aware of a colleague’s sexual liaison with a superior, it’s likely that her reputation will no longer be linked to intelligence, talent or output, but rather to the idea that she needed to resort to sex to get ahead,” she says, adding that the reputational damage will limit her career advancement for many years. “What’s even more disconcerting is the woman’s own worries that she might only have landed the next job because the new boss heard of the indiscretions and also wants a nibble of the forbidden fruit.”
However, Susan Shapiro Barash, author of The Nine Phases Of Marriage: How To Make It, Break It, Keep It, says that affairs are on the rise as more women enter the workplace. And new research suggests that the link between power and infidelity exists across both sexes. Dutch professor Joris Lammers conducted a survey of readers of a business magazine, and concluded that being powerful makes women more prone to being unfaithful.
“Because women garner more power in the workplace today than ever before, they trade in the same currency as men have historically. They can have a fling with a boy toy, or a more serious affair with someone of equal or near equal power,” says Barash. But it doesn’t always have to be about the power rush – some experts say that high-profile women who have affairs are more likely to do it because they develop feelings for the person.
When details of the affair between Rebekah Brooks, former CEO of News International, and Andy Coulson, former News of the World deputy editor, were being splashed all over the tabloids, Brooks says she was “incredibly close” to Coulson, calling him her best friend, during her trial for conspiring with Coulson to hack phones.
Whether it’s emotions or a rush of hormones, it’s unlikely that the intoxicating effect of powerful men will cease, or that women will hit the headlines for the wrong reasons. Robin Morgan, author of Sisterhood Is Forever: The Women’s Anthology For A New Millennium, sums it up: “Women tend to regard sex differently. They like to at least like the person.”
*Names have been changed.