Ryan McReynolds's recent post about prostitution has inspired me to scrutinize the Elliot Spitzer scandal a bit further.
Typical media interpretations would have us believe that this is a story about corruption, hypocrisy and arrogance. Many of the commentaries that followed in the wake of the scandal offered explanations as to why men of power often risk everything and why politicians are so prone to sleaze.
But very few pundits asked the harder questions, like, why did Spitzer go to a prostitute in the first place, and what are the cultural norms currently in place that prime men for such scandals?
And even if they did ask these questions, I doubt that many would analyze it through the lens of evolutionary psychology, sexual selection and gender differentiation.
No, it's much easier to point a holier-than-thou finger at someone and declare them to be weak and corrupt. It feeds our appetite for schadenfreude and our collective inability to question social norms.
What's the underlying story, here?
Did Elliot Spitzer break the law?
Did Spitzer violate cultural mores and social expectations – particularly as they apply to politicians?
Did he show lack of restraint and a possible abuse of power?
But further, was Spitzer behaving in accordance to his biological programming, particularly that of a man with power and status?
Now, I’m not making excuses for Spitzer, he clearly exercised poor judgment, and it’s probably for the best that he resigned his governorship. At the same time, however, this scandal shows how many of today’s social conventions can be artificial and even suppressive.
The layers of this affair run deeper than mere political opportunism and indiscretion. Spitzer's dramatic fall from power is a telling story about our underlying needs and urges and just how much we're willing to put at stake to satisfy those latent desires. Humans are still very much gendered and sexual creatures driven by genetic imperatives. Society would have us believe otherwise, but the evidence is right there before us.
Going back to a question I posed earlier: Why did Spitzer go to a prostitute in the first place? Well, it's not because he's corrupt or evil; those are labels applied to his actions after the fact. Rather, it stems from a deeply hardwired desire to get some action on the side, for sexual fulfillment outside of marriage.
Simply put, he was being a typical guy.
The science of infidelity
The science of male-female differences is beginning to mature; it's providing us with an enhanced understanding of mate selection and sexual behavior.
Evolutionary biologist David P. Barash has noted that males of most species are sexually aggressive and apt to engage in sex with multiple partners when they can. This strategy makes sense; males who succeed in doing so simply leave more descendants.
Geoffrey Miller, another evolutionary psychologist, reached a similar conclusion in his book, The Mating Mind: How Sexual Choice Shaped the Evolution of Human Nature. Fueled by Richard Dawkins’s selfish gene notion, Miller argues that humans have developed a complex psychology that encourages sexual choice.
And Robin Baker, author of Sperm Wars: Infidelity, Sexual Conflict, and Other Bedroom Battles, has shown that upwards of 10% of children are not fathered by their “fathers” and that all sperm are not produced for fertilization, but to literally fight off the sperm of other males (how telling is that!?).
Interestingly, and perhaps quite obviously, infidelity is not specific to males. Baker also shows how women have “smart” vaginal mucus that encourages some sperm but blocks others. Women are also far more likely to conceive through a casual fling than through sex with her regular partner. Other studies have shown how women are more prone to ‘cheat’ during specific stages of the menstrual cycle; women select two types of men: those they partner with and those they actually mate with.
From having wealth, status and power….to having to visit prostitutes
Indeed, one of the most surprising discoveries of the past two decades has been the extent of sexual infidelity – what scientists call extra-pair copulations. As Barash has noted, "It's clear that social monogamy -- physical association and child rearing between a male and a female -- and sexual monogamy are very different things. The former is common; the latter is rare."
Prior to the onset of the monogamous imposition, men of wealth, status and power typically acquired multiple wives and partners. Well over a century ago, a politician like Spitzer would have likely had a mistress and no one would have questioned it. Today, a successful male is likely to have a wife and a girlfriend on the side (along with the hope of not getting caught).
But for men like Spitzer, a mistress is not possible. So instead they visit prostitutes and risk virtually everything. He is a victim of the times.
Again, this is not an apology for Spitzer. As a politician, he knew the sacrifices he would have to make and work to fulfill the public’s expectations. He clearly failed in that regard.
But we need to weigh his actions with a certain amount of understanding. Let's not be too quick to judge the guy and cut him some slack.
[Photo credit: Art of Chad]