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Why so much fuss over Eliot Spitzer’s affair?

Mark Dombeck, Ph.D. was Director of Mental Help Net from 1999 to 2011. Dr. Dombeck received his Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology in 1995 ...Read More

"I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!" – from Casablanca

The other day, March 10th, 2008, the feds released evidence they had obtained from a wiretap showing that New York State Governor Eliot Spitzer had sex with a prostitute in a hotel. Spitzer did not deny the allegation at all but instead last night had a short press conference, admitting that he had done wrong, that he had hurt his family, and that he needed time to think about things. Apparently, people are outraged at this behavior. The contrast between the public image of Spitzer as the anti-vice and corruption crusader for the public good and the human man under that facade is too much to bear, I guess. There are calls for Mr. Spitzer to resign and analysts of various legal and other persuasions suggest that he may very well have to do so whether he wants to or not. All in all this is a bad time for Mr. Spitzer and his wife and family.

The conventional way to write about the story would be, I guess, to focus on Mr. Spitzer, the object of anger and outrage, and on Mrs. Spitzer, the object of pity (I suppose). I don’t think that the interesting story is in that direction, however. The idea that a powerful politician would have sex with a prostitute doesn’t seem in the slightest bit out of character to my mind. What is fascinating to me is why so many people appear to be shocked.

Trust Violation

What are the aspects of this story that offend and cause the anger and outrage? Two jump out at me. The first is, as I mentioned above, that Spitzer seemed by virtue of his carefully constructed public facade (the crusading anti-corruption moral force) like the last person on earth who should have been vulnerable to doing this wrong thing. This is a man who has made a career prosecuting prostitutes amongst other targets. He is the guy you trust to clean up vice, not to contribute to it. So there is a sharp dissonance that occurs when the truth is revealed and the crusader is revealed to be just another guy with problems. People feel betrayed because they had bought into the idea that Spitzer’s anti-corruption image was a faithful reflection of who he really was as a person. There is a big difference between what people say about themselves and what they actually do, however. Mistaking image for actuality is a common mistake people make however.

As an example, my father and I disagree over the legacy of Bill Clinton. He maintains that Mr. Clinton disgraced the dignity of the office of the president by having an affair with Monica Lewinsky. I maintain that Kenneth Starr has that honor. My father’s anger at Clinton stems from an emotional betrayal of a particular kind of trust in public officials that he’d like to maintain. Clinton was the president whose image was supposed to be dignified and stately. Instead, Clinton couldn’t keep his pants on. The opposite of stately. This is an emotional betrayal more than a sexual one, however. It’s not the sex so much as the embarrassment. JFK committed the same crime more or less but because he didn’t get caught, he wasn’t an embarrassment. What’s different between my father’s view and mine is that I expect that a president or similar person who has sought out and obtained power will act in a self-serving manner, and he somehow doesn’t. Or doesn’t want to. I assume hypocrisy and arrogance and he resists it. Why that is I don’t know. It seems like a very important question to me. Perhaps, because it is painful to not be able to trust. It’s depressing. It’s a generational thing, perhaps. I grew up post-Watergate, and he grew up before that. I didn’t grow up with trust for politicians to lose and so it doesn’t feel painful to me.

Sympathy and Identification

The second aspect of the Spitzer affair that offends is the actual sexual affair itself. Why do people care about other people’s sexual indiscretions, I wonder? To my mind, the answer likely involves the human capacity for sympathy and identification. When confronted with a couple where one partner is known to have cheated, we tend to identify with the other, wronged partner. This is particularly the case if we are partnered ourselves, and especially the case if we have experienced relationship betrayal ourselves in a direct manner. We experience at a personal level an echo of what it would be like to have our own partner betray us, and then we transfer that discomfort and our resulting anger onto the cheating partner as though we have a personal relationship with that cheating partner. If it is possible for Spitzer to betray his wife, we might reason, then it is possible for my husband/wife/significant other to betray me, too. Spitzer’s actually impersonal act of betrayal (from our objective point of view) is made personal. We feel weaker, more mortal, more vulnerable, less able to trust and rely on people we need to rely on. We get angry at the person who has "caused" us to feel this way.

What motivates men to cheat?

We ought to ask the question of what is the motivation to have the sexual affair? There is no simple answer really but we can point out a few influences.

First and foremost, there is the Coolidge Effect to contend with. Most men are apparently built at a genetic level to desire more variety in their sexual partnering patterns than are most women. This observation is commonly known as the Coolidge effect based on the following story.

"The story goes that President and Mrs Coolidge were visiting a government farm in Kentucky one day and after arrival were taken off on separate tours. When Mrs Coolidge passed the chicken pens she paused to ask her guide how often the rooster could be expected to perform his duty. ‘Dozens of times a day’ was her guide’s reply. She was most impressed by this and said, ‘Please tell that to the President.’ When the President was duly informed of the rooster’s performance he was initially dumbfounded. Then a thought occurred to him. ‘Was this with the same hen each time?’ he inquired. ‘Oh no, Mr President, a different one each time’ was his host’s reply. The President nodded slowly, smiled and said, ”Tell that to Mrs Coolidge!’

The pure biology underlying sexual desire patterns in male and female humans is tempered by social and cultural demands that males and females restrain their sexual impulses, limit themselves to one lifelong partner, and hold to the standard of monogamy. Beyond the cultural level is the personal level where people derive deep meaning and identity from the action of making and keeping commitments to one another. If a couple vow to be loyal to one another, there is a strong motivation for those partners to remain loyal to one another. These forces are not always enough to keep partners from straying (men and women both) but they do slow infidelities down.

With a man like Spitzer, you’ve got a fourth force happening, which is power. Most of us are kept humble by the fact that we simply don’t have much power to influence other people. Someone like Spitzer has made a very successful career out of accruing power and influence, and that sort of success has got to result in a large number of cases in an inflated sense of self-importance and invulnerability. Alternatively, it might also work out that people with a tendency towards having an inflated sense of self-importance and invulnerability seek out positions of power. It seems obvious to someone looking in from the outside that it is a dumb idea to have sex with a prostitute when you are a government official charged with enforcing anti-prostitution laws, but the judgment call is apparently different when you are a powerful person. You end up thinking you’ll get away with it. Probably most of the time you do.

To conclude, the evolving Spitzer story beautifully illustrates how vital public trust is to maintaining power, and how much that trust is based on public image. Cynical bastards like myself can tolerate a fair amount of inconsistency within their leaders so long as they produce results (and what choice do we have anyway in many cases?), but seemingly, the majority of people cannot. They demand consistency and propriety, or at least the steady appearance of these qualities. The problem is magnified a thousand times when the crime is something ordinary people can related to at an emotional level and get angry about, like a sexual affair. When it’s sexual, it’s also personal. What we have on display here is a bad case of hubris , the gods are angry, and it doesn’t take a genius to guess that the lightening bolts will start flying soon.

Keep Reading By Author Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.
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