Our society continues to suffer from the belief that men and women engage in extramarital affairs for different reasons: men “do it for love” or self-regard, while women do it to get ahead
– Peggy Drexler
Two people working at the same place fall in love with each other. They both have families and are married, yet they are attracted to each other and the secrecy of their relationship makes the bond between them even stronger. At some point one of them craves for more attention than the other can possibly give. Reasonable commitments to primary family make it worse and the relationship starts to break up. Unfortunately when it does break up, the whole world gets to know about it. Including FBI. And President Obama.
Even if you don’t know all the details of this particular case we know that the woman in this story will be socially punished. We’ve seen it in Bill Clinton’s trial, Berlusconi’s prostitute affair, and in numerous other cases where powerful men prevail, and women who were left behind were socially punished. They were directly or indirectly accused of tempting and seducing a married man. Even if the man was the initiator of an affair in the first place, the blame is almost always on women: too beautiful, too sexy, too seductively dressed, too friendly, too smart, irresponsible in her behavior by not saying “no” firmly enough. The reality is that men are rarely held responsible for their actions, specially involving extramarital affairs, while women are responsible by their true nature (gender).
A ROMANCE WITH A GENERAL
An article by Peggy Drexler published on CNN.com brings up an interesting case of double standards that women experience when it comes to sex. The article tells a notorious story of an extramarital affair between a 4-star general – David Petraeus, then director of the CIA and a married man, and Paula Broadwell, then US Army Intelligence Officer, an author, and a married woman.
According to Drexter “Broadwell and Petraeus were involved in a romantic affair while she was writing his 2012 biography, “All In.” It is unclear how long the relationship lasted and the reports vary as of the true nature of their breakup. But what was once a private affair between two grown up individuals became a public show in the summer of 2012. “The relationship was revealed after an FBI investigation of “jealous” emails Broadwell sent to a female friend of Petraeus; investigators later found classified documents on Broadwell’s laptop.” Breaking the protocols for handling sensitive and classified information started a prosecution case and left Petraeus little choice than to resign as CIA director. He held that position for just 14 months.
Later, in 2015, Petraeus pleaded guilty to one misdemeanor charge of mishandling classified information by leaking classified information to Broadwell and “was handed a $100,000 fine and two years of probation”. In June 2013, Petraeus joined the KKR Global Institute, an investment firm based in New York City. Meanwhile Broadwell “lost her security clearance, got demoted, and last month received a formal military reprimand.“ according to the article. She is still employed by US ARMY but she says that “the scandal has prevented her from getting another job, even though, with two master’s degrees and positions at Tufts and Harvard universities, not to mention 21 years of military service, she’s certainly got credentials.”
A LONG WALK TO GENDER EQUALITY
Drexter draws a parallel between the individuals and argues that women are unfairly punished for similar things that men get away for: “when it comes to sex, women almost universally bear the brunt of shame, despite its taking “two to tango”. She believes that the reason for such unfair punishment is our (read men’s) bias towards women’s true cause for the extramarital affair. “Our society continues to suffer from the belief that men and women engage in extramarital affairs for different reasons; that men “do it for love” or self-regard while women do it to get ahead”, she writes.
While the scandal could be the true reason for Broadwell’s work situation, it might also be any other reasons that are all to easy to overlook: under-qualification, over-qualification, gender bias, Broadwell’s salary and job expectations, etc. But unfortunately it’s all too common to hear that women more often than men bear the social consequences of an affair. Monika Lewinski and her TED Talk comes to mind. Interestingly, when asked about his affair involving multiple prostitutes Berlusconi famously brushed it off by saying “it’s better to be fond of beautiful girls than to be gay.” Just to remind you that Berlusconi was Italian’s Prime Minister at that time.
Naturally there is a difference between prostitutes and married co-workers, between married and unmarried men, and each situation in its details is unique. But on a grand scale it is all the same – a woman would not be able to say or do similar things and still be on top of the social ladder. Image a powerful woman (think German’s Angela Merkel) asked about her frequent group sex with multiple male stippers could just brush it off by saying “It’s better to be fond of beautiful boys than to be a lesbian.” That would be the moment when I know we have achieved real gender equality, and the world has become a lot more fun to live in.
When it comes to sex, women almost universally bear the brunt of shame, despite its taking “two to tango.
DIFFERENT MOTIVES FOR SEX
Peggy Drexler quotes an interesting research to build her case for gender inequality that concludes that “in workplace affair situations, workers believe women are motivated by the prospect of some employment-related advantage while men by romance or ego.” This is all too-well-known theme of framing a woman’s sexual desires as selling love for money (in this case for career advancement) and men… well just being men. Personally I’m a bit skeptical to the quality of insights of a study results based on surveys and polls alone. But bear with me for a second.
In researching for this article I found another study covering motives and attitudes towards workplace romance. Conducted in Sweden, it concludes that “the motives for a workplace romance… were related to work (e.g., advancement) ego (e.g., excitement, sexual experience), and love (e.g., genuine love, longing for a partner). Interestingly, “none of the participants talked about their own work-related motives, although they recognized the existence of such motives in others.” As there are much less women on top than men, men can’t use sexual relations at work for their own career advancement. Men can use other means for the same purpose: bars, sport activities, and for real shared experience – strip clubs.
SEX FOR THRILL, NOT PROMOTION
The same study concludes that sharing a secret of sexual relationship at work is the thrill behind the work romance: “the secrecy itself seems to create a bond of substantial strength that may be the basis for an individual’s attraction to and preoccupation with a partner… When secrecy is built into sexual scripts, it is possible that sexual arousal increases when there is a risk that the secret may be revealed.”
Most employees in the study directed negative thoughts at the woman, and not the man
So while both men and women engage in sexual relationship at work, they do it differently. Men can’t often get a promotion because of sex, simply because there isn’t as many females as males in senior positions. That leaves work-motive out for most men, living them with ego and love motives. They engage in other non-sex activities for getting a promotion.
Females on the other hand have a much larger pool to choose from and a lot of this pool is in higher ranks of the hierarchy. As a result they can have all 3 motives to choose from. Indeed, if everything else being equal, it only makes sense for a woman to pick a COO than a fellow e-mail marketing assistant.
But the relationship is also an unwelcome puzzle for the COO. If the COO really cherishes the relationship and has genuine love for his partner, wouldn’t it make sense to help promote her, given she is on pair with other candidates? Isn’t that what we be do in a truly committed relationships – make our partner’s wishes our own priority? But if he does help the woman he inevitably undermines her credibility, and in the eyes of the others he reduces the relationship to “sex for promotion”, only highlighting the prior bias for such relationships. But it would also be wrong if he could help her, but he doesn’t.
THE MAKING OF A SLUT
I think when it comes to work romances there are two kinds of stories: sex stories and love stories. It is important not to mix these two in one. Most of us are familiar with the love story: two people meet at work, fall in love, move in together, and now have kids. The sex story doesn’t come that easy, at least not in my mind. It’s hard to know for sure, it’s not openly discussed. It’s based on gossips and subjective observations. Then one day she gets a promotion. This is our proof – we knew all along they slept with each other. Our previously insignificant evidence is now transformed to a solid proof that we are true slut hunters. We now have a moral right to call that woman a slut, and we secretly envy that other guy. Of course we will never tell him that we envy his success with the woman, but we will make sure to tell that woman that she is slut. After all she can’t really be hurt, as she knows this is who she is. This might sound funny, stupid or exaggerated, but the consequences of such biases are real for many women.
We ought to think twice, no, trice, before we judge or label someone, based on our limited knowledge of his or her situation. It is true for all human relationships that it is better to be kind than right. The true power of human species is our great ability to understand the world around us. Our brain and intellect is our greatest differentiator in the animal kingdom. We are not the strongest, the fastest, or the largest animals, our senses are very limited, our skin unprotected, we can easily die from a mosquito bite or a cut in the skin. Yet our intellect’s ability to understand the world gave us language, mathematics and science to build ships, to visit the Moon, to develop medicine to cure many previously incurable diseases and to create an iPhone and an App store. Ironically, many men won’t be able to live a day without their iPhone, yet they live for decades without every using their brains to try to understand their wives, mothers, sisters, daughters and girlfriends, losing some of them as a result of failure to understand.
Many men are still in the equivalent of the Stone Age when it comes to biases, stigmas, traditions, moral and ethical expectations on what a woman can and cannot do. The fact that we can have vivid and articulate discussions on what a woman should be allowed to do demonstrates how we are, for today we still see women as a separate species from men, and humans in general. Feminism might be here but it has to catch up a few thousands of years.