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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

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The Women's March against Trump matters – but only if we keep fighting

We won’t win the battle for progressive ideas if we don’t battle in the first place.

Arron Banks, UKIP-funder, Brexit cheerleader and Gibraltar-based insurance salesman, took time out from Trump's inauguration to tweet me about my role in tomorrow's Women’s March Conservative values are in the ascendancy worldwide. Thankfully your values are finished. . . good”.

Just what about the idea of women and men marching for human rights causes such ill will? The sense it is somehow cheeky to say we will champion equality whoever is in office in America or around the world. After all, if progressives like me have lost the battle of ideas, what difference does it make whether we are marching, holding meetings or just moaning on the internet?

The only anti-democratic perspective is to argue that when someone has lost the argument they have to stop making one. When political parties lose elections they reflect, they listen, they learn but if they stand for something, they don’t disband. The same is true, now, for the broader context. We should not dismiss the necessity to learn, to listen, to reflect on the rise of Trump – or indeed reflect on the rise of the right in the UK  but reject the idea that we have to take a vow of silence if we want to win power again.

To march is not to ignore the challenges progressives face. It is to start to ask what are we prepared to do about it.

Historically, conservatives have had no such qualms about regrouping and remaining steadfast in the confidence they have something worth saying. In contrast, the left has always been good at absolving itself of the need to renew.

We spend our time seeking the perfect candidates, the perfect policy, the perfect campaign, as a precondition for action. It justifies doing nothing except sitting on the sidelines bemoaning the state of society.

We also seem to think that changing the world should be easier than reality suggests. The backlash we are now seeing against progressive policies was inevitable once we appeared to take these gains for granted and became arrogant and exclusive about the inevitability of our worldview. Our values demand the rebalancing of power, whether economic, social or cultural, and that means challenging those who currently have it. We may believe that a more equal world is one in which more will thrive, but that doesn’t mean those with entrenched privilege will give up their favoured status without a fight or that the public should express perpetual gratitude for our efforts via the ballot box either.  

Amongst the conferences, tweets and general rumblings there seem three schools of thought about what to do next. The first is Marxist  as in Groucho revisionism: to rise again we must water down our principles to accommodate where we believe the centre ground of politics to now be. Tone down our ideals in the hope that by such acquiescence we can eventually win back public support for our brand – if not our purpose. The very essence of a hollow victory.

The second is to stick to our guns and stick our heads in the sand, believing that eventually, when World War Three breaks out, the public will come grovelling back to us. To luxuriate in an unwillingness to see we are losing not just elected offices but the fight for our shared future.

But what if there really was a third way? It's not going to be easy, and it requires more than a hashtag or funny t-shirt. It’s about picking ourselves up, dusting ourselves down and starting to renew our call to arms in a way that makes sense for the modern world.

For the avoidance of doubt, if we march tomorrow and then go home satisfied we have made our point then we may as well not have marched at all. But if we march and continue to organise out of the networks we make, well, then that’s worth a Saturday in the cold. After all, we won’t win the battle of ideas, if we don’t battle.

We do have to change the way we work. We do have to have the courage not to live in our echo chambers alone. To go with respect and humility to debate and discuss the future of our communities and of our country.

And we have to come together to show there is a willingness not to ask a few brave souls to do that on their own. Not just at election times, but every day and in every corner of Britain, no matter how difficult it may feel.

Saturday is one part of that process of finding others willing not just to walk a mile with a placard, but to put in the hard yards to win the argument again for progressive values and vision. Maybe no one will show up. Maybe not many will keep going. But whilst there are folk with faith in each other, and in that alternative future, they’ll find a friend in me ready to work with them and will them on  and then Mr Banks really should be worried.