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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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Boris Johnson is right about Saudi Arabia - but will he stick to his tune in Riyadh?

The Foreign Secretary went off script, but on truth. 

The difference a day makes. On Wednesday Theresa May was happily rubbing shoulders with Saudi Royalty at the Gulf Co-operation Council summit and talking about how important she thinks the relationship is.

Then on Thursday, the Guardian rained on her parade by publishing a transcript of her Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, describing the regime as a "puppeteer" for "proxy wars" while speaking at an international conference last week.

We will likely never know how she reacted when she first heard the news, but she’s unlikely to have been happy. It was definitely off-script for a UK foreign secretary. Until Johnson’s accidental outburst, the UK-Saudi relationship had been one characterised by mutual backslapping, glamorous photo-ops, major arms contracts and an unlimited well of political support.

Needless to say, the Prime Minister put him in his place as soon as possible. Within a few hours it was made clear that his words “are not the government’s views on Saudi and its role in the region". In an unequivocal statement, Downing Street stressed that Saudi is “a vital partner for the UK” and reaffirmed its support for the Saudi-led air strikes taking place in Yemen.

For over 18 months now, UK fighter jets and UK bombs have been central to the Saudi-led destruction of the poorest country in the region. Schools, hospitals and homes have been destroyed in a bombing campaign that has created a humanitarian catastrophe.

Despite the mounting death toll, the arms exports have continued unabated. Whitehall has licensed over £3.3bn worth of weapons since the intervention began last March. As I write this, the UK government is actively working with BAE Systems to secure the sale of a new generation of the same fighter jets that are being used in the bombing.

There’s nothing new about UK leaders getting close to Saudi Arabia. For decades now, governments of all political colours have worked hand-in-glove with the arms companies and Saudi authorities. Our leaders have continued to bend over backwards to support them, while turning a blind eye to the terrible human rights abuses being carried out every single day.

Over recent years we have seen Tony Blair intervening to stop an investigation into arms exports to Saudi and David Cameron flying out to Riyadh to meet with royalty. Last year saw the shocking but ultimately unsurprising revelation that UK civil servants had lobbied for Saudi Arabia to sit on the UN Human Rights Council, a move which would seem comically ironic if the consequences weren’t so serious.

The impact of the relationship hasn’t just been to boost and legitimise the Saudi dictatorship - it has also debased UK policy in the region. The end result is a hypocritical situation in which the government is rightly calling on Russian forces to stop bombing civilian areas in Aleppo, while at the same time arming and supporting Saudi Arabia while it unleashes devastation on Yemen.

It would be nice to think that Johnson’s unwitting intervention could be the start of a new stage in UK-Saudi relations; one in which the UK stops supporting dictatorships and calls them out on their appalling human rights records. Unfortunately it’s highly unlikely. Last Sunday, mere days after his now notorious speech, Johnson appeared on the Andrew Marr show and, as usual, stressed his support for his Saudi allies.

The question for Johnson is which of these seemingly diametrically opposed views does he really hold? Does he believe Saudi Arabia is a puppeteer that fights proxy wars and distorts Islam, or does he see it as one of the UK’s closest allies?

By coincidence Johnson is due to visit Riyadh this weekend. Will he be the first Foreign Secretary in decades to hold the Saudi regime accountable for its abuses, or will he cozy up to his hosts and say it was all one big misunderstanding?

If he is serious about peace and about the UK holding a positive influence on the world stage then he must stand by his words and use his power to stop the arms sales and hold the UK’s "puppeteer" ally to the same standard as other aggressors. Unfortunately, if history is anything to go by, then we shouldn’t hold our breath.

Andrew Smith is a spokesman for Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT). You can follow CAAT at @CAATuk.