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Laurie Penny on the sex lives of powerful men

Our fascination with scandal and sleaze hides the seriousness of corruption and the ordinariness of infidelity, rape and abuse.

The virility of power is no longer in question. In the past month, the papers have been sodden with the sordid sex lives of wealthy, influential men. The former governor of California has been exposed as an adulterer. The former head of the IMF is awaiting trial, charged with the attempted rape of a Manhattan maid.

In Britain, in the superinjunction scandal, a top banker, a leading journalist, footballers and unnamed others have been accused of abusing laws designed to protect the innocent to cover up their extramarital affairs. It is almost a century since women in Europe and the US started to become major players in the world of business and politics but you wouldn't know it to look at the headlines.

In the past few weeks, women have featured almost nowhere in the political press except in the roles of wronged wife or brave victim. There is an ocean of difference between consensual infidelity and sexual assault. Men who cheat are a different species of scumbag from men who rape. Yet that difference has been elided by the schoolyard stereotype that violence, exploitation and lies are an inevitable part of the power rut of modern politics.

Squelchy details

This is not an innocent age. Western society has grown past the scandals of John Profumo, Bill Clinton and Silvio Berlusconi and we can no longer pretend to be shocked by the idea of philandering politicians.

Yet it is hard to decide who is most debased by this pageant of shame: is it the men in question; the press, whose obsession with sex has pushed a great deal of real news off the front pages; or the rest of us, for letting ourselves get sidetracked? People are outraged that public figures have appropriated British laws to hide their own misdemeanours, but our fascination with sleaze distracts us from the importance of this abuse of power.

The hypocrisy of this media circus is that it obscures both the seriousness of political corruption and the everyday nature of sexual infidelity, rape and abuse, none of which is the preserve of the rich and famous. The notion that wealth and status are special predictors of infidelity ignores the evidence that 45 per cent of wives and 60 per cent of husbands engage in extramarital sex at some point in their lives.

“Lawmaker infidelity", as one US news site termed the Arnold Schwarzenegger case, is no different from any other infidelity when it comes down to the squelchy details, though one might possibly anticipate a smarter hotel.

Many feminists have attempted to psychoanalyse the male abuse of women's trust as a disease of power. The cover of a recent issue of Time magazine demands to know why "powerful men act like pigs". This is the wrong question to ask, because it assumes that other men do not and does a disservice to the thousands of women who are raped every day by taxi drivers, office workers, family members and friends. Five per cent of women, according to the campaign group Rape Crisis, will experience rape in their lifetime. Some of their attackers may well be cartoon villains but most of them will not.

It is worth comparing the public condemnation of the disgraced former IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn, whose guilt is tacitly assumed by many, to the case of WikiLeaks's editor-in-chief, Julian Assange, who faces similar accusations in Sweden. Assange has been pre-emptively exonerated of any wrongdoing by the global left on the grounds that, as an outlaw pioneer of free speech, he cannot also be an abuser of women.

Strauss-Kahn, on the other hand, is a powerful player in a financial system whose exploitative practices are accepted. Sexual exploitation and political potency are assumed to be part of the same sweaty package. Both Assange and Strauss-Kahn deny the allegations against them.

There is a complicity to all this - the press loves to watch important men with their flies undone and gossip about how big and hard and naughty they are. Naughty they may be, but the potency of the individuals concerned is very much up for debate.

Ordinary idiots

The problem is not that we are getting screwed, but that we are getting screwed with blood­less inefficiency. The alleged philanderer Fred Goodwin's stewardship of the Royal Bank of Scotland was a misfire. During his time as chief executive, the bank nearly collapsed in a financial crisis that cost us billions. While Schwarzenegger was "Governator", the state of California plunged into an employment crisis; Strauss-Kahn, meanwhile, presided over the imposition of punishing austerity programmes in Greece, Ireland and Portugal, which have failed to rescue the eurozone.

We like to see this type of politician as dynamic, dangerous and in control. In reality, they embody a species of disaster capitalism that is paranoid and exploitative. The men in charge of banks and governments are ordinary idiots with ordinary fallibilities. They manipulate their playboy image to shore up their political power, sometimes with the support of their wives. During her husband's election campaign, Anne Sinclair was asked if she was bothered by Strauss-Kahn's sexual reputation. "I'm actually rather proud of it," she replied. "It's important for a politician to seduce."

Like Sinclair, many of us long for a politics of exciting mutual seduction. Instead, we find ourselves cruelly and ineptly shafted by plutocrats who abuse their privilege to cover their tracks. Jokes about the Chancellor, George Osborne, rogering the British economy and requesting a superinjunction are all very well, but if we want to live in a world where women are respected and workers are protected, it is not enough to point and laugh when power has its trousers down.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 30 May 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Hands up who knows how to fix our schools

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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