Sex sells. Sex titillates. Sex makes us feel alive. It can also turn a good person’s life bad, beat it bloody and beyond recognition and, odds are, David Petraeus is feeling as battered as a foolish, very human, man can feel right about now.
It’s an old story but certainly it’s not just successful men. Men we have never heard of, men with little or no glamour; with not a nickel to their name, have also succumbed to the lure of the extramarital affair and the attendant, unavoidable, consequences. They’re just not famous. Their beleaguered wives are not splayed across the evening news. No one wants to write about the other woman. The damage can be exponentially as catastrophic but at the end of the day, they can quietly make their mea culpas and creep back into the good graces of their lives.
Not so for the successful man, the famous man. Their public tumble from grace can utterly and completely change life as they know it and when the consequences are that high, one has to wonder why they take the gamble. The list of such men is long and stretches back through time immemorial; men who have sacrificed wife, family, reputation, profession, and sometimes their entire legacy for the power and pull of sexual passion. Which tells us two things: sex is the strongest drive experienced by human beings and, once under its spell, men are capable of destroying everything they care about to pursue it.
But why? Why does a successful man who has spent the bulk of his adult life building career, family, and hopefully a memorable legacy, risk it all for sex? Research professor and therapist, Dr. Terri Orbuch, took on the question in her Huffington Post piece, Why Do Powerful Men Risk It All to Cheat? She broke it down to five basic reasons:
- The illusion of invulnerability;
- Ample opportunities for temptation;
- Adrenaline dependency;
- Enabled by “yes” people, and
- Desire for change
Her further clarification of each of these five falls right in line with the many salacious stories spattered across the media in the last few decades, particularly with high-profile politicians from Bill Clinton, John Edwards and Anthony Weiner, to Arnold Schwarzenegger, Newt Gingrich, and Mark Sanford.
But what about the women involved? Where do they fit into all this? David Petraeus’ mistress, Paula Broadwell, is also married with children and, though nowhere near the professional status of Petraeus, she, too, had much to lose by the exposure of this tawdry tale of long-term indiscretions and harassing emails. Why would she risk her family and career? Would Dr. Orbuch’s 1-5 apply to her as well? Given her profile as a “lifelong high achiever” that seems likely.
But, still, the self-destructive tendency has been proven to be more in the realm of the male gender than otherwise. Roy F. Baumeister, an Eppes Eminent Scholar, Professor of Psychology, and head of the social psychology graduate program at Florida State University, set out to explore the influence of cultural and social factors on sexual behavior on both men and women, and his “hunch was that men had the stronger sex drive.” In a politically correct society guided by gender equality, his presumption was met with some resistance; but he pursued the research to prove, or disprove, his theory:
After months of reading and compiling results, the answer was clear. There is a substantial difference, and men have a much stronger sex drive than women. To be sure, there are some women who have frequent, intense desires for sex, and there are some men who don’t, but on average the men want it more. Every marker we could think of pointed to the same conclusion. Men think about sex more often than women do. Men have more sexual fantasies, and these encompass more different acts and more different partners.
If one accepts Professor Baumeister’s conclusion, one could also extrapolate that being “a sexually driven male” contributes to the “blinders on” effect of reckless sexual behavior. And if that sexually driven male is a powerful and successful one, it’s likely Dr. Orbuch’s 1-5 are, again, applicable.
But, still, one of the most confounding aspects of this self-immolating behavior is its disconnect from the reality of getting caught and the consequences that inevitably follow. This would fall under Orbuch’s #1: “The illusion of invulnerability.” Where a normal person might find detection and consequence a suitable deterrent, the powerful will feel protected by the illusion of invulnerability. Which is the chink in the armor. Because only someone deluded enough to ignore the facts of a modern culture where nothing is sacred, everything is discoverable, and will find its way to the media, would allow themselves to actually be so vulnerable.
And there’s one more variable at work here. The unpredictability of human response. It’s likely General Petraeus, however risky his choices, did not consider the potential of erratic, irrational behavior from his lover, behavior that would trigger everything that followed. They met, they spent time together, he was lonely, she was attractive; they clicked, they crossed the line, and lust/love/attraction/affinity – whatever was involved – swept convincingly over wisdom. Irresistible, clearly, and mutually desired. But for some reason, allegedly four months after Petraeus ended the affair, Broadwell turned into crazy “Alex” from Fatal Attraction and bunny boiled the thing wide open with a series of harassing emails to a female colleague, “accusing her of inappropriate flirtatious behavior with Mr. Petraeus.” The recipient of those emails, now identified as Jill Kelly, is, along with her husband, friends of Petraeus and his wife, and her notification to the FBI of the anonymous emails is the incident that set the spark. The “Alex” effect; the “crazy chick,” “psychotic ex-lover” variable is not one that comes to mind when love is in the air. Which, as Fatal Attraction so dramatically illustrated, is a variable one ignores at their own risk.
More details will emerge as the investigation continues; the families of both Broadwell and Petraeus will likely endure public pain, humiliation and embarrassment for, potentially, a very long time. The careers of two exceedingly accomplished people have been stymied, likely, also, for a very long time. And the ripples bouncing off this event in ways personal, professional, and of a national security nature, are as yet unknown and potentially far-reaching (reminiscent of the John Profumo affair).
All for sex. Love. Joy. Lust. Companionship. Etc.
The take-away on a human level is this: somehow all of us – male and female – must figure out how to meet those universal needs without setting the world and the people around us on fire. The needs are understandable; the thoughtlessness involved in not considering the full panoply of consequences is where the hubris comes in. General Petraeus joins a long list of men who figured that out the very hardest and most painful way.