Published by the Faculty of Business, Government and Law, University of Canberra

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Research and Stories through a Gendered Lens

Why so few women politicians get embroiled in sex scandals

Feb 4, 2020 | News

Written by Sharon Bell

Barnaby Joyce’s bid for a phoenix-like rise to regain leadership of the National Party failed. Commonsense and political reality prevailed among the 21 people in the Nationals Party room. Otherwise, Mr Joyce –  aka the Beetrooter – would be once again our deputy prime minister. 

Joyce’s resignation and demotion to the backbench was triggered by – but not wholly bound up – in the affair and ensuing pregnancy with media adviser Vicki Campion – all while campaigning during the 2016 election as a wholesome married man who held traditional family values close to his heart.

Compounding the deceit, were several allegations of sexual harassment and misconduct. In other words, what Barnaby says is not what Barnaby does.

The affair also triggered a bonk ban – one of the most hypocritical, knee-jerk reactions to unfolding events in recent political history and one that cast young female staffers as evil seductresses.

The affair also triggered a bonk ban – one of the most hypocritical, knee-jerk reactions to unfolding events in recent political history and one that cast young female staffers as evil seductresses.

Barnaby beerMr Joyce’s momentary rise from the ashes has raised questions about the relationship between the private behaviour and public expectations of politicians, not least of which is: what happens when a female politician is caught up in a sexual indiscretion?

Quite simply, history provides few clues. Bill Clinton and Donald Trump might top the list of the highest-profile adulterers in recent times, but the list of names of men who have strayed is so long it would run from Canberra to London to Washington and back again.

Women politicians who have affairs, however, are rare.

Women politicians who have affairs, however, are rare.

Which is an odd thing. Because married women do have sexual relations outside marriage.

An US survey – the General Social Survey 2010-2016 – found that 20% of men and 13% of women reported having sex with someone other than their spouse while married.

Younger women, aged 18-29 were slightly more likely to cheat (11% vs 10%) than younger men. It found that infidelity rises with age and peaks among men in their 80s (I kid you not) with 24% of men reporting having extra-marital sex.

And while American women were 40% more likely to cheat on their husbands than in 1990, the number of men cheating had remained constant (21%).

Given those figures, it would be right to assume that a certain proportion of female politicians are also having affairs.

But evidence suggests not.

In an excellent 2011 article in the New York Times, titled ‘When it comes to scandal, girls won’t be boys’, journalist Sheryl Gay Stolberg notes that the proliferation of male politicians caught out could be filed under the notion of “boys being boys”. Or, as she says, its easy to dismiss such transgressions “as a testosterone-induced, hard wired connection between sex and power (powerful men attract women, powerful women repel men).”

But research suggests there are gender differences in why women and men run for office – women become politicians to “do something”, men do it to “be somebody”. 

Research suggests there are gender differences in why women and men run for office – women become politicians to “do something”, men do it to “be somebody”. That might be a trifle simplistic, but it does point to an idea that women are much more acutely aware of the scrutiny that comes with public office. As a general rule, they need to dress well, behave well and be nice.

After all, politics is still a man’s game in Australia, despite a landmark moment following the 2019 election with women now making up 47% of the Senate. Conversely, in the House of Representatives, that figure is halved – with 23% representation. Two of our seven premiers and chief ministers are women.

The argument posited in the NYTimes article is not just that women go into politics with different motivations than men, but that once they are there, they are more aware of the scrutiny and have to work even harder to prove themselves. Literally, they have no time to have an affair.

And, as US Democrat Senator Kirsten Gillibrand once pointed out: “While I’m at home changing diapers, I couldn’t conceive of it.”

Sarah Hanson YoungWhat we don’t know is whether the public, the media and political systems would hold women to higher standards than their male colleague. 

One suspects it might be so. Only last November, former Liberal Democrat David Leyonhjelm was ordered to pay Greens Senator Sarah Hanson Young $120,000 plus interest in a defamation case after he has claimed Hanson Young was a misandrist and hypocrite because, well, she had sex with men.

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