The timeless trend of political sex scandals
Sex scandals are no stranger to U.S. politics. The first notable sex scandal in U.S. history was marked by Alexander Hamilton’s affair with Maria Reynolds in 1797, which he published a tell-all pamphlet about entitled “The Reynolds Pamphlet.”
Fast forward to the 20th century, and many presidents have been linked to extramarital affairs. John F. Kennedy had been linked to a number of high profile affairs during his presidency from Marilyn Monroe to Mimi Alford, a 19-year-old White House intern. Perhaps the most notorious of political sex scandals was between then 49-year-old Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, a 22-year-old White House intern. The relationship ended with the subsequent impeachment of Clinton, and Lewinsky became a punchline.
Lewinsky became one of the first women involved with a political sex scandal to be publically humiliated on the Internet after the story was first published on the Drudge Report. Fox News even released a poll asking if the public thought Lewinsky was “an average girl” or a “young tramp looking for thrills”, with 54 percent of voters rating her a “young tramp”, according to a Time article. She was slut-shamed relentlessly, and her name has been dropped in at least 125 songs since 1998.
Alison Dagnes, professor of political science at Shippensburg University, and a political ideology researcher points out that Lewinsky was just 24-years-old when the affair was leaked to the public.
“When you have an affair with a married man who’s twice your age and the leader of the free world, that’s too much for one person to handle,” Dagnes said. “Much less someone who’s in their early 20s. And so, she was sort of the poster child for what happens to the woman who’s caught with the man.”
Eventually, she was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, Lewinsky wrote in her 2018 Vanity Fair essay.
Like other female counterparts of political sex scandals, the media was cruel to Lewinsky. Dagnes points out that the news coverage of political sex scandals has changed over the past 30 years, with the Internet as the main factor in this. News sources exploded. No longer was news limited to simply print, television and radio. The Internet became a legitimate place to get news constantly.
The digital age didn’t only create a space for political sex scandals to be discussed, but it altered how they occurred, according to Hinda Mandell, associate professor in the School of Communications at Rochester Institute of Technology and author of several books about political sex scandals.
“The first major political sex scandal involving digital elements was Anthony Weiner in 2011,” Mandell said. “It was the first major one where the digital platform played an important role in how that scandal unfolded because he blamed his inept use of technology at first, on the tweet that he sent before he admitted culpability.”
Weiner used Twitter to send a link of a sexually suggestive photo of himself to a 15-year-old girl which he initially denied before claiming responsibility.
While the digital age has been brutal to the women of political sex scandals, often the men involved are far less criticized. Many continue their thriving political careers. Dagnes chalks this up to the “stud-slut paradigm,” where if a man has sex with a lot of women he’s a stud, and if a woman has sex with a lot of men, she’s a slut.
While the “mistress” is often berated in the media, the wives in political sex scandals aren’t treated well either. To assume the wife is a victim can also be degrading to women, according to Dagnes.
“She may be mad as hell, but it doesn’t mean she’s a victim. She might be quite powerful, actually,” she said. “And because marriage is a very private thing, who knows what kind of arrangement had been worked out, to begin with.”
However, Donald Trump’s sex scandal with Stormy Daniels has shaken up the playing field. Stormy Daniels wasn’t an exploited intern, she perhaps took on a different sort of criticism with a breadth of experience as an adult film actress.
“Stormy Daniels is very sex-positive and is on there sort of ‘clapping back… Is that then going to change how it happens in the future? I doubt it,” Dagnes said.
With Trump, Dagnes points out, his supporters knew what they were getting when they voted for him. The Access Hollywood Tape, in which Trump makes crass remarks about women, was aired about a month before the election.
“So he says, ‘Oh women, you can grab ‘em by the pussy and do whatever you want when you’re rich, they let you do that,’ and everybody freaks out. Democrats and Republicans freak out. And then there are no consequences to it,” Dagnes said. “So is it a scandal?”
One of the elements of a scandal is there has to be a consequence for it, according to Dagnes.
Like Donald Trump, male politicians are typically the ones getting caught in sex scandals, and that’s no coincidence. There are far fewer women in politics — only about 25 percent. Women also have the added challenge of running for office. There has never been a major political sex scandal in the U.S. that involves a woman politician, according to Mandell.
“Women are very simply not going to risk that after working that hard for it,” Dagnes said.
Mandell believes that it is important to examine how gender, politics and power manifest together in the U.S.
“Men in power are considered sexy. So you have a lot of underpaid, very young women who work on Capitol Hill who can be exploited by men in power or who they themselves may be attracted to men in power,” Mandell said. “Culturally, in the U.S., women in power don’t have that sexual allure.”
Some politicians are able to survive sex scandals while others aren’t. Some things are too extreme and unforgivable, while having an affair is unethical but not so extreme, according to Professor Steven Grover, a professor in the Department of Management at the University of Otago in New Zealand.
It also depends on if the behavior fits the persona of the person. It would be more shocking if a politician that is family-focused and religious was a part of a scandal than a scandal coming out about Trump. The amount of political power a person has also matters. If a politician is more valuable, the public is more likely to forgive them.
“Politicians can be successful for apologizing in a heartfelt manner, showing that they understand they were wrong and that they are moving toward improving in the future,” said Grover.
Although society is being desensitized to sex, Dagnes doesn’t foresee political sex scandals becoming commonplace anytime soon. She believes that because we don’t do a good job of discussing major issues, we divert to talking about sex. When other people are caught in a sex scandal, it allows other people to compare themselves to them and feel better about themselves.
“I think we’re going to continue to hear about them because they’re easy to talk about and because people are people. And sex is fun. And so they’re going to continue to have it as a result. The scandals are going to just keep on coming.”
Rae Harris is a senior journalism major who won’t stand for your locker room talk. You can reach them at firstname.lastname@example.org.