Show Hide image

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

Photo: ASA
Show Hide image

Harmful gender stereotypes in ads have real impact – so we're challenging them

The ASA must make sure future generations don't recoil at our commercials.

July’s been quite the month for gender in the news. From Jodie Whittaker’s casting in Doctor Who, to trains “so simple even women can drive them”, to how much the Beeb pays its female talent, gender issues have dominated. 

You might think it was an appropriate time for the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) to launch our own contribution to the debate, Depictions, Perceptions and Harm: a report on gender stereotypes in advertising, the result of more than a year’s careful scrutiny of the evidence base.

Our report makes the case that, while most ads (and the businesses behind them) are getting it right when it comes to avoiding damaging gender stereotypes, the evidence suggests that some could do with reigning it in a little. Specifically, it argues that some ads can contribute to real world harms in the way they portray gender roles and characteristics.

We’re not talking here about ads that show a woman doing the cleaning or a man the DIY. It would be most odd if advertisers couldn’t depict a woman doing the family shop or a man mowing the lawn. Ads cannot be divorced from reality.

What we’re talking about is ads that go significantly further by, for example, suggesting through their content and context that it’s a mum’s sole duty to tidy up after her family, who’ve just trashed the house. Or that an activity or career is inappropriate for a girl because it’s the preserve of men. Or that boys are not “proper” boys if they’re not strong and stoical. Or that men are hopeless at simple parental or household tasks because they’re, well...men.

Advertising is only a small contributor to gender stereotyping, but a contributor it is. And there’s ever greater recognition of the harms that can result from gender stereotyping. Put simply, gender stereotypes can lead us to have a narrower sense of ourselves – how we can behave, who we can be, the opportunities we can take, the decisions we can make. And they can lead other people to have a narrower sense of us too. 

That can affect individuals, whatever their gender. It can affect the economy: we have a shortage of engineers in this country, in part, says the UK’s National Academy of Engineering, because many women don’t see it as a career for them. And it can affect our society as a whole.

Many businesses get this already. A few weeks ago, UN Women and Unilever announced the global launch of Unstereotype Alliance, with some of the world’s biggest companies, including Proctor & Gamble, Mars, Diageo, Facebook and Google signing up. Advertising agencies like JWT and UM have very recently published their own research, further shining the spotlight on gender stereotyping in advertising. 

At the ASA, we see our UK work as a complement to an increasingly global response to the issue. And we’re doing it with broad support from the UK advertising industry: the Committees of Advertising Practice (CAP) – the industry bodies which author the UK Advertising Codes that we administer – have been very closely involved in our work and will now flesh out the standards we need to help advertisers stay on the right side of the line.

Needless to say, our report has attracted a fair amount of comment. And commentators have made some interesting and important arguments. Take my “ads cannot be divorced from reality” point above. Clearly we – the UK advertising regulator - must take into account the way things are, but what should we do if, for example, an ad is reflecting a part of society as it is now, but that part is not fair and equal? 

The ad might simply be mirroring the way things are, but at a time when many people in our society, including through public policy and equality laws, are trying to mould it into something different. If we reign in the more extreme examples, are we being social engineers? Or are we simply taking a small step in redressing the imbalance in a society where the drip, drip, drip of gender stereotyping over many years has, itself, been social engineering. And social engineering which, ironically, has left us with too few engineers.

Read more: Why new rules on gender stereotyping in ads benefit men, too

The report gave news outlets a chance to run plenty of well-known ads from yesteryear. Fairy Liquid, Shake 'n' Vac and some real “even a woman can open it”-type horrors from decades ago. For some, that was an opportunity to make the point that ads really were sexist back then, but everything’s fine on the gender stereotyping front today. That argument shows a real lack of imagination. 

History has not stopped. If we’re looking back at ads of 50 years ago and marvelling at how we thought they were OK back then, despite knowing they were products of their time, won’t our children and grandchildren be doing exactly the same thing in 50 years’ time? What “norms” now will seem antiquated and unpleasant in the future? We think the evidence points to some portrayals of gender roles and characteristics being precisely such norms, excused by some today on the basis that that’s just the way it is.

Our report signals that change is coming. CAP will now work on the standards so we can pin down the rules and official guidance. We don’t want to catch advertisers out, so we and CAP will work hard to provide as much advice and training as we can, so they can get their ads right in the first place. And from next year, we at the ASA will make sure those standards are followed, taking care that our regulation is balanced and wholly respectful of the public’s desire to continue to see creative ads that are relevant, entertaining and informative. 

You won’t see a sea-change in the ads that appear, but we hope to smooth some of the rougher edges. This is a small but important step in making sure modern society is better represented in ads.

Guy Parker is CEO of the ASA