Affairs to Remember

The media loves a sex scandal—but only, it seems, when the adulterer is a powerful man screwing over his wife while screwing his mistress

Truth is, the sex scandal is a media construct. Even as we sigh at the sheer idiocy of guys who get caught, there’s comfort in the media’s familiar tropes: powerful men are selfish, self-entitled, and/or their behavior is due to biology. Absent other explanations, it’s dubbed an addiction. It’s not as if women don’t play their parts, from the wronged wife who stands by her man to the brazen hussy. The media tempest allows us to feel righteous indignation while devouring every last salacious detail.

Our appetite for this stuff shows just how much the media—and viewers—enjoy seeing women as victims. Now that an increasing number of women have power and money, that victimology is bizarrely sentimental rather than factual, but it seems no less alluring as a story. In a way, the Dominique Strauss-Kahn alleged rape of a hotel housekeeper has taken some of the heat off Schwarzenegger, presenting the public with a scenario that—if true—has a very real victim.

Another narrative has persisted over the years: an adulterous woman jeopardizes her role as mother. Men who cheat just need some rehab time. Women who do the same are sluts who deserve to lose custody of their kids.

And it’s not only that the media would rather see sex as a male pursuit—it continues to see sex through profoundly male eyes. Men do the desiring, women are passively desired.

On TV, when a woman cheats, it’s often in a traditionally “male” way (remember Eva Longoria’s character on Desperate Housewives with her hot garden boy toy?). In real life, married women don’t necessarily pick guys who work on the imagination in such an aphrodisiacal way. Perhaps female desire is simply more omnivorous? At any rate, our erotic fixations rarely set media pulses racing. Not even the smut-loving British tabloids knew what to make of news that the chic, sometime publisher of the U.K.’s Spectator, Kimberly Quinn, had a love child by the nation’s OK-looking, single (and blind) then-Home Secretary David Blunkett. And what could have made Edwina Currie, another British MP, indulge in a long affair with nerdy John Major before he became PM?

A sex scandal with a female lead is not exactly a positive, nor should it be in any way inspirational. But it would be dishonest to pretend that power doesn’t equal publicity, that success doesn’t merit attention. A media that continually plays the male-on-top card in its own way perpetuates the idea that women belong on the bottom.