Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Sleeping with subordinates

Most of the reaction that I've seen about Weinergate has been variations on what should or shouldn't happen now. Maureen Dowd's take on Weinergate focuses on what men get out of these power differential relationships where men marry up/equal and then cheat down, in yet another illustration of the sexual economy.

Sex with the help (Schwarzenegger and Strauss-Kahn) has a storied and ancient history. Sex with the secretary or work subordinate (Clinton, Gingrich, Edwards) is retro if not ancient. Perhaps the internet difference is not the lack of physical contact, but the wider range of subordinates it allows contact with: blackjack dealer, porn star, college students, and single moms. If this "cheating down" is more about power than sex --- or about insecurity seeking external validation for being a "geek who buffed up" --- the physical acts are beside the point.

Dowd emphasizes the marrying up aspect of these cases of adultery, certainly true in socioeconomic terms, but adultery by high-ranking men has often been about complementing their wives' high socioeconomic status with the reproductive potential of younger women.

In pseudo-economic terms, men have different preferences in different contexts: intelligence and status in public; youth in private. The trophy wife is such a laughable stereotype, and men have gotten used to similarly well-educated wives, that wives are almost always within socially acceptable age and education limits. (Another example of inconsistent preferences is men who are attracted to overweight women in private but would never commit to one in public.)

Few equal status women would agree to an illicit relationship, and as Dowd points out, some lower status women are put off by how pitiful the man seems. Sometimes the lower status women will sometimes accept the sketchy and possibly unsafe sex with a higher status man over the straight-forward relationship with a same status man. Before this current scandal, have we ever found out just how many women turned down these other adulterers and saw them as pitifully validation-seeking? An interesting question is how to interpret the adulterous relationships where the partners are closer in status (e.g., Edwards) --- a sign of healthier self-esteem?

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