Politics and sex: Why take the risk?


Dann, others seek thrills and power, analysts speculate

Attorney General Marc Dann says he won’t resign and doesn’t deserve to be impeached because the pain he is enduring for a scandal of his own making is punishment enough.

“This has been agonizing — personally, politically, in every way you can personally imagine,” the married father of three said May 2 when he admitted that his affair with an employee may have contributed to a culture of sexual harassment in the attorney general’s office.

History is rife with politicians who would understand what Dann is going through, from former President Clinton, to the late Ohio congressman Wayne Hays, to disgraced former New York Gov. Elliot Spitzer.

And always, their constituents are left wondering: Why do politicians risk everything for a fling?

Although there is no evidence that politicians engage in infidelity at a rate higher than the general populace, the risk of getting caught and publicly exposed is far greater in an age when everyone seems to have a cell phone camera and the 24-hour media constantly need to be fed.

And because politicians survive on the voters’ trust, the consequences generally are far more severe for them than for people in other walks of life.

“When you ask the question, ‘Why do they do this?’ it’s more a question of why don’t they stop themselves,” said Jon A. Krosnick, associate director of the Institute for Research in the Social Sciences at Stanford University. “I think it has to be a sense of invulnerability.”

Sensational sex scandals involving politicians over the years have prompted experts in psychology and politics to study if there are common traits among those who engage in risky behavior. Turns out, there are.

“Politicians tend to be higher in the need for power or dominance, are more prone to social desirability pressures, for example to present positive images of themselves, and are more self-confident,” said Kathleen McGray, an expert in political psychology at Ohio State University.

“The higher self confidence may account for engaging in stupid behavior when they have so much to lose, because they are confident they will get away with it. Dann still seems confident he will survive all of this.”

Frank Farley, a Temple University professor who has studied risk-taking and politics, coined a much quoted personality trait he said is common for many politicians — “the Type-T personality.” The “T” stands for “thrill value.”

Politicians, Farley said, “want an exciting life. They came into politics because it’s exciting.”

But it also is fraught with uncertainty, especially lack of job security. As a result, Farley said, politicians tend to be risk-takers, with plenty of self-confidence and energy, driven by a need for public approval and affection, often believing “their fate lies in their hands.”

Farley said politicians also are more prone than most people to be exposed to sexual temptation: “They have more opportunities for sexual infidelity than a lot of people. They keep running into people who are supporters who are emotional about them. They travel quite a bit, they’re out on the hustings. So, opportunities can arise.”

Gov. Ted Strickland, who has called for fellow Democrat Dann to resign or face impeachment, said he did not think politicians were more susceptible to personal peccadilloes than others,

“Political people are so public or have such public scrutiny it may appear as if these behaviors occur more within the political class than elsewhere across our society,” said Strickland, a psychologist. “I just think it is part of the human condition.”

Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, disagreed, contending that while politicians’ sexual transgressions do more often wind up in the public spotlight, “it’s also probably true that they have the escapades more often.

“Sex, like public office, is a form of power,” said Sabato, who discussed sex and politics in his book “Feeding Frenzy.”

“They enjoy it. They want it. It’s a bauble of office. It demonstrates their power and influence in another way.”

Sabato notes that none of this is new, but says recent decades have seen heightened public scrutiny and revelations. In past times, including when John F. Kennedy was president, journalists would ignore such behavior, or even participate in what was going on, Sabato says. And there was the “West of the Potomac” rule that what happened outside Washington stayed out of the public realm.

Whether or not a politician can survive a sex scandal depends on the circumstances. Clinton had extramarital sex with a consenting adult, but garnered support from many Americans who thought impeachment was too harsh for his transgression.

Politicians whose infidelity exposes them as hypocrites usually fall harder. For instance, six-term Rep. Mark Foley, a Florida Republican who crusaded for family values, quickly resigned in 2006 after it was confirmed he sent sexually explicit Internet messages to a 16-year-old male page.

And Spitzer, who as a federal prosecutor put more than 60 people in jail for running prostitution rings, lasted only a couple of days after it was revealed in March he spent thousands of dollars on high-priced prostitutes.

“There are all these levels of complexity to the revelations of sex scandals and it’s appropriate for people to judge all of those pieces of information,” Stanford’s Krosnick said.

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