Jane Marcellus: Sex Scandals

(WOMENSENEWS)–Has anybody else noticed that most news stories about politicians’ affairs aren’t really about women?

There are women in them, of course. There’s the Wronged Wife, who is often portrayed as a victim in stories that frame her in a domestic light, focusing on how she is "coping" and whether "she’ll stand by her man," the Cheating Husband.

And then, of course, there’s the Other Woman, without whom there would be no story. We know her type: a bimbo, a jezebel, a . . . you know. We hear even less from her than from Wronged Wife, since we all know she is (sotto voce here) "unstable." We might see her photo–preferably a semi-nude shot taken in better days–shared with the press by a former boyfriend, now a happily-married tax attorney.

The dichotomy that Helen Benedict described over a decade ago in "Virgin or Vamp: How the Press Covers Sex Crimes" is never more true than in stories about extramarital relationships.

A Man’s Story

Whether it’s Democrat or Republican, John Edwards or Mark Sanford, the story is really about the man–his powerful position, whether he can be trusted to do his job now, what explanation he owes The People, how unfortunate to lose such a promising figure, and so forth.

Other men, priding themselves on moral rectitude, call for his resignation. And often, they get it. The more power the politician has, the bigger the story–it’s a classic tragedy.

But what’s wrong with this picture?

It paints a world that seems stuck in 1952, when women weren’t on the Supreme Court or gaining seats in Congress or winning race car events. It’s a June Cleaver world, one before Betty Friedan brought awareness to it–although it never truly fit reality, truth be told.

In this world, those in government are still expected to have a photo of the wife and 2.4 kids on the desk and live according to all it implies. There are exceptions, of course, but in many areas of the country this is still the norm.

Such rigid coupleism means that both women and men get scripted into predictable and outdated roles, with women in the supporting cast. Judged against these norms, deception–while never good–is hardly surprising.

It’s often noted that in FDR’s or JFK’s day, politicians’ sex lives weren’t news at all. The mostly male press corps looked the other way and women, who had even less power in the workplace then, could do nothing about it.

Supposedly, 1970s feminism brought women the power to demand better treatment. Eventually, it also brought more awareness of sexual harassment and other abuses. So all this new, moralistic attention to these abuses could be considered a byproduct of women’s bigger stake in the power structure, one that says now it matters what happens to women.

Getting the Full Story

That’s not the whole story.

For one thing, divorce used to be harder to come by. You had to prove "grounds" to a judge, who could grant or deny. Since men were to be "providers," there was also more talk about alimony–a more critical issue when women were expected to be men’s "dependents."

We seem to forget that the word "divorce" was such a taboo; it was whispered the way "affair" is today. In such a world, I believe, men may have been more inclined to protect one another.

Now divorce is common, so it’s not only tolerated but expected of unhappy couples. What’s more, there is just enough awareness of male privilege to make it possible for men to look good if they expose their political enemies’ indiscretions with women.

As long as the press goes along with this script, honestly believing they’re doing good journalism, this won’t change.

Once leaked, it’s all scripted, with the confessional press conference (choreographed by an expert in crisis management) functioning as the closest thing we have to a public stoning–the single delicious moment when our palpable pleasure at watching someone else’s pain is at its salacious height. The truly refreshing thing about Sanford’s story was that he didn’t play into the script and spoke from his heart.

Paradoxically, if the press asked real questions, such as "Do you love her?" (meaning the Other Woman) or "Do you have sex with your wife?" it would seem embarrassingly invasive. Yet the press continues to play the tape on tired and tawdry stereotypes.

That’s not the answer.

Human experience–and human love–are far too nuanced for this.

Jane Marcellus is a feminist media historian. Her book, "Business Girls and Two-Job Wives: Emerging Media Stereotypes of Women Who Work for Pay," is forthcoming from Hampton Press.