Power Is an Aphrodisiac That Can Carry an Extreme Price

by Steven E. Rhoads, Los Angeles Times, June 27, 2004

The rabid debates of the late 1990s have returned. According to his defenders, former President Clinton's White House dalliances with Monica Lewinsky were nobody's business but Hillary's. His critics say it was not just about sex — lying under oath was the issue.

Clinton says he did it "just because I could." I say he could because the American people elected him. And sex with an intern in the Oval Office was not a perk we intended him to have. Powerful men are babe magnets, but if we wink at their promiscuity, we undermine civilization. The personal, in this instance, is — and should be — political, whether or not the culprit lies under oath.

One thing men will never understand about women is why status makes a man sexier. In experiments in which the same man is described as studying to be a doctor or pictured as a doctor, as opposed to being associated with less prestigious professions, women not only prefer average looks and a higher profession to good looks and a less prestigious one, but they also think the appearance of the man improves when he is associated with a prestigious profession. The lyrics of a 1960s hit song ask, "If I were a carpenter and you were a lady / Would you marry me anyway, would you have my baby?" The evidence suggests that if the ladies were candid, they would almost certainly answer no.

When men are asked to rank women's looks, they say a babe is a babe whether she is dressed as a princess or a waitress. For men, a woman does not become sexier because she wins a race for the U.S. Senate. But for women, a man does. Power increases his sexiness. Pamela Harriman, U.S. ambassador to France during the Clinton years and a woman who had relationships with some of the most powerful men in the world, famously proclaimed, "Well, of course I wanted a powerful man. What could be sexier?"

In the aftermath of the Lewinsky scandal, other women admitted that power is an aphrodisiac. Former Time magazine White House correspondent Nina Burleigh described how she felt one evening when she noticed Clinton admiring her legs. Burleigh confessed that she would gladly have been his Monica for the evening if he had suggested that they slip off to a motel nearby. Later, on the TV show "Hardball," she told host Chris Matthews that having the most powerful man in the world look at her in a certain way was "seductive." "I think that would affect any woman," Burleigh said. "It's the flattery … it's the attention, the interest of powerful men that is itself seductive."

New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd decided that Clinton had been responsible for a new genre of "feminist erotic journalism."

"After decades spent trying to dissuade powerful men from thinking they can have their way with less-powerful women," Dowd wrote, "feminists now have a terrible confession: They pant for power. They crave droit du seigneur. 'Take me! Take me!' "

Feminists have refused to confront the deepest reason for the glass ceiling. Men tend to be attracted to feminine women while women are attracted to masculine men. Power can chip away at a woman's femininity. Power makes a man more manly, but it does not make a woman more womanly. A survey of medical students found that not one man desired a spouse with higher income or occupational prestige, but one-third of the women did.

Evolutionary psychologists look to sexual selection to explain how male and female roles in reproduction, and subsequently in the nurturing of the child, would induce contrasting psychological predispositions in men and women. In the earliest epochs of human existence, males who procreated with many fertile (i.e., young and beautiful — yes, beauty is connected to fertility) mates were more likely to produce surviving offspring than males who did not — while women, who had to carry and nurse their children, did not have this option in passing on their genes. In contrast, those most apt to reproduce successfully were women who favored partners with traits that would enhance the survival of their children. As a result of this evolutionary mechanism, women care more about a mate's status and resources than men do. It doesn't matter if all this should change in the era of two-career couples; our psychological predispositions do not keep up with the times.

Power, to be sure, is not all that women want in men. They regularly divorce men who behave like dictators and who make them feel devalued. Women seem to like a strong man in the outside world and in the bedroom, but they could often do with men who are a little less lordly in the rest of the house.

What is the political significance of sexual predators in the White House? Advanced societies are monogamous because monogamy helps keep men in line. Whatever adventures may be tolerated among singles, we still expect married partners to be faithful. Men have a far greater desire than women for sex with a wide variety of partners. In the absence of a marital norm of fidelity, men would be endlessly guarding their wives and trying to seduce other men's wives. Male energies would be diverted from providing for families to fights over women.

When we give a politician high status by electing him to high office, we expect him to use his status for our benefit. When he instead undermines societal cooperation by undermining the norm of marital fidelity, he does the body politic great harm.

Click here to read the article at the LA Times' website

© 2004 Steven E. Rhoads
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