Why Powerful Women Can't Afford to Cheat

For the high-powered woman, the concept of "having it all" means pressure to succeed professionally while also being a good mother and wife. For the high-powered man, "having it all" apparently implies succeeding professionally while also having a respectable wife and a high-paid prostitute/housekeeper/intern/biographer mistress on the side. Why do powerful men risk everything on affairs? As more women take over positions of power, will they break adultery's glass ceiling?

We can now add former CIA Director David Petraeus to the long list of famous and powerful government officials so self-important that they apparently never dreamed anyone would notice their extramarital indiscretions, regardless of their high profiles: Arnold Schwarzenager, Eliot Spitzer, John Edwards, Bill Clinton, etc., etc., etc. Why do these men — always, always men — keep risking it all when the eventual outcome is so obvious to the rest of us?

Last year, a study published in Psychological Science found that power overrides gender when it comes to infidelity. "There has been a lot of research in the past that indicates that gender is the strongest predictor of infidelity, but none of these studies have been done on powerful women," said Joris Lammers, the leader of the large, anonymous internet survey conducted amongst readers of a weekly magazine geared toward professionals. He found a strong association between power and confidence (shocking!) and that the amount of confidence someone has is the strongest link between power and adultery — more than gender. In fact, the researchers found that gender made no difference "in past digressions or the participants' desires to cheat" whatsoever.

The study's press released wondered "If this is true, why do we as a society not hear about more women cheating?" and said the answer is clear: there aren't as many women in positions of power as men. Lammers said he believed that, "as more and more women are in greater positions of power and are considered equal to men," high-profile women cheaters would become more prevalent.

But it's not that simple. Even the most high-powered women don't enjoy that same luxury of feeling invulnerable, given the way our society operates and has always operated in the past. Most powerful men are constantly told by their parents, professors, and peers that they're destined for greatness while growing up; of course they feel invincible. But even privileged women have to jump through a different set of hoops to succeed, because they have to convince employers and constituents that they're just as qualified for the job as the man that likely held the position before then. They have to prove that having kids won't change a thing — or, if they're childless, that there's not something inherently wrong with their "barrenness." Their stakes are so much higher. They have no time to be that narcissistic.

Of course, there's also the impenetrable double standard that men are studs and women are sluts. Schwarzenegger, Spitzer, and Clinton are all examples of men who are doing just fine post-scandal. Would a female governor or president be able to recover so quickly? It seems doubtful. Petraeus has farther to fall than his biographer lover, Paula Broadwell, but he'll probably end up fine, a high-paid analyst or consultant. Who will trust Broadwell ever again?

Most people writing about the still-developing scandal and wondering why he threw his storied career away are focusing on the details of the relationship he had with Broadwell, like Slate's Fred Kaplan, who points out that the two have a lot in common — "Broadwell was exactly the sort of aspiring officer-intellectual that Petraeus was keen to mentor" — that she's beautiful, and that her biography of him "is essentially a valentine to the man."

Wow, sounds like all that would be hard to resist! For, you know, your average, run-of-the-mill dude, whose 9-to-5 doesn't involve RUNNING THE CENTRAL INTELLIGENCE AGENCY. One would assume that Petraeus could handle a significant amount of pressure, right? Petraeus, a four-star general, had almost forty years of experience in the army. He oversaw the war in Afghanistan and was the Commander of United States Central Command. Humans are simple beings, yes, but come on: wouldn't a military star who was also the fucking DIRECTOR OF THE CIA know how to keep it in his pants/out of his Gmail account? The same goes for Edwards, who could've been President one day if he had managed not to be such a lying, manipulative sleazebag, or any of the other number of powerful men who fucked things up by literally fucking around.

Lammers's thesis that infidelity is all about power, not gender, doesn't really take into account how welded power and gender are thanks to centuries of the same old patriarchal bullshit. Will women start acting as recklessly as men as they take over more positions of power? We don't think so — at least not for a good, long while — because you have to be pretty damn comfortable to risk losing one of the most important jobs in the world for sex under a desk or a frenzied barrage of emails.