« The Transfer Game | Main | Deferring to agency amicus briefs that present new guidance »

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

What is the "Right" Kind of Mistress?

Let's start off with the obvious.  Most people would agree that extramarital affairs (with or without resulting children) are simply wrong, although we can all agree that people live complicated lives and do indeed make mistakes.  Most everyone agrees that using a position of power to obtain sex is still more wrong, and in importantly different ways.  And forced sex, assuming a difference between this and my second category, is wronger still.  

Yet I am still slightly queasy about some of the language used by some commenters to discuss Arnold Schwarzenegger's affair (the latest reported one, anyway).  One of my Facebook friends wrote yesterday to express disgust with "men who sleep with the help."  Today, Maureen Dowd's column, which I glanced at accidentally (I'm not sure anyone reads Dowd on purpose anymore), has a nearly identical pull-quote summarizing the topic of her piece: "Men who help themselves to the help."  All this is somewhat reminiscent of the late 90s discussion of Bill Clinton, in which his actual and alleged mistresses were roughly categorized in descending order from more or less acceptable sexual partners (within the general assumption that adultery is nonetheless wrong) of his own social class, to young women from good backgrounds, like Monica Lewinsky, who were somewhere further from the pale but might still be considered autonomous sexual agents, to "trailer trash."  There is a similar air to some of the Schwarzenegger talk, in which part of the reaction is one of general disgust toward his behavior, but there is an additional element of disgust at Schwarzenegger's having had an affair, specifically, with "the help."

If the distinction is only about sexual harassment or abuse of power, that's fine.  But I can't help but detect a certain element of class in it as well: a feeling that Schwarzengger not only betrayed his wife and children, which is bad enough, but did so tawdrily, and what can only have been out of lust and convenience, not actual love and affection between emotional equals.  

I'm talking only about language here, not about the actual facts, about which I have little knowledge.  I am not excusing Schwarzenegger's conduct in any event (although, in the case of freely made mutual decisions to enter into extramarital affairs, I am inclined to treat both actors as equally wrong rather than treat only the married person, or only the man, as the sole wrongdoer).  And, to be clear given this week's headlines, none of this has anything to do with the alleged conduct of Dominique Strauss-Kahn.  But it would be nice in this particular case if, absent further information, we did not assume that affairs involving a partner who is, say, a wealthy professional woman constitute a liaison of two minds, while those involving "the help" are treated as barely involving a second person at all.    



Posted by Paul Horwitz on May 18, 2011 at 03:06 PM in Paul Horwitz | Permalink


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference What is the "Right" Kind of Mistress?:


I think you're right that for some people, the class aspect is important. But for many of us, it's the employment/power relationship that makes many scandals different from "just an affair."

In that regard, I'd like to remind us of the record on Clinton in three respects.

1. Yes, some people did point to some of the women as "trailer trash." But, in your example, it's the harasser's/assaulter's critics point to the victim's "low class status" as part of the offense, as in "yuck, how could he descend to hitting on the maid?" But in Clinton's case, while some of his critics may have said that, the "trailer trash" language came often from his defenders, as a way of diminishing his accusers. For example, Carville famously said something like "if you drag a $100 bill through a trailer park, you neve know what you'll find" -- suggesting that Paula Jones was paid to lie, and was trailer trash not worthy of belief.

2. For those of us more concerned about employment/power issues, the most notable pattern with Clinton was not the class issue, but how many were employees and/or involved abuse of power. Lewisnky was an intern. Jones was a state employee in Arkansas. Flowers had been a lounge singer, but he got her a state job and made her then dependent. Kathleen Wille was a volunter, but still a staffer of sorts, who wanted the continued access to her position. Juanita Broadrick had been a nursing home operator, under then-Attorney General Clinton's regulatory influence, I believe.

So he didn't just seek out "low class women"; he sought out women over whom he had power.

3. You rightly note the three categories of consensual affairs, abuses of power relationships, and outright assaults, and you rightly note the overlap between the 2d and 3d, which are different from the first. Clinton was, as my second point stressed, in category two more often than category one (at least as to the cases that made scandals; perhaps he did have enough "regular affairs" to still make that a bigger quantity. If so, the fact that those did not become headlines shows that the employment issues were implicitly honored.)

I share your view that assaults are "more wrong," even if related to group two, but I also believe that men who repeatedly commit power-abuses are fairly likely to cross to assault. Such a man's sense of entitlement is fed by the unfortunate reality that many women are forced to submit to job/power pressure. Thus, when someone does resist, such a man may be more likely to turn to brute force. I am one of those who believe that such stories about Clinton are, although not proven, more likely than not to be true.

Finally, although we should all agree that "pure affairs" are night-and-day different from either power-abuse or assault, it is shocking to me how many commentators and regular folk blur them, especially in the direction of writing off assault allegations as "just another allegation about affairs and personal life."

In particular, that happens when, as with the IMF head, someone is well-known as a womanizer, and then is charged with assault. Some say, "well, we already knew he was randy," and drop it, as if his "womanizing" were the same as assault. I believe that phenomenon prevented serious consideration of Juanita Broaddrick's accusations about Clinton. If anyone made such a charge against any other president, even from decades ago, it would have been investigated more. But after being weary of Jones, Flowers, Lewinsky, etc., it got written off as "just another Clinton story," without sufficient appreciation for the gravity of it. For instance, Al Gore said something about how we'd had enough questions about personal life. Not "this is patently false," but an implication that EVEN IF TRUE, it didn't matter anymore. That is shocking, but it got a shrug.

We are a long, long way from addressing abuses by powerful men with honesty and the attention it deserves, and in particular, we will not get there if we continue to downgrade the issue when the man in question is a politico (especially one with the "better" views on women's issues as a shield) or a Hollywood celeb or a sports star.

Posted by: scandal historian | May 20, 2011 6:30:36 PM

For men (and women?) of power, the convenience factor of readily available (help, groupies, employees, etc) sex is important. An outside tryst arrangement might be not only too time consuming for the busy person in power but might leave an easier gotcha trail to follow for the media and political enemies.

Posted by: Shag from Brookline | May 19, 2011 8:02:05 AM

Sorry, I meant to say "may fear being DEported" -- not "REported"

Posted by: Bill Araiza | May 18, 2011 5:35:50 PM

Paul: I'm somewhat sympathetic to what you say, to the extent it suggests that the chattering classes are assuming that "the help" can never have a mind of her own, and the will to act on her own preferences. Still, I have to say that, to a very large degree, class IS power (sorry for the caps; I'm not sure how to italicize here). The "wealthy professional woman" you posit in your post presumably has choices -- maybe not perfect choices, but her wealth and her professional status give her options. Often, "the help" doesn't. She may need that job, or fear being blackballed, or (quite likely in California) fear being reported. (Before everyone screams, OK, maybe that's an empty threat from the Governor of the State, since he'd be creating his own nanny-gate -- but let's think of the issue more generally.)

If there is a hint of tawdriness in all the reporting, it seems to me just as likely to flow from the perception that he couldn't even find someone to sleep with that he didn't have power over. The idea that you have to find your sex partners in people who are constrained in their ability to say "no" is what gives me the sense that his conduct is as pathetic as it is wrong.

We'll probably never know what this woman really thought of her lover. Maybe they had an emotionally satisfying, equal relationship. Or maybe he asked, she felt she couldn't say "no," and he took that as a "yes." if it's the former, then maybe we'll see them get together if he ends up divorced. Nah, I kinda doubt it, huh?

Posted by: Bill Araiza | May 18, 2011 5:34:00 PM

I appreciate the comment, Sarah. (And welcome to Prawfs!) I don't think I disagree with anything you said. I just think that, to the extent we discuss these kinds of things, we should carefully pull apart the strands, separating what is about power, or about other things, from what is about class, and not treating "the help" as fixtures or objects of faint disdain rather than human beings.

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | May 18, 2011 3:52:01 PM

Doesn't the class difference and status as employer/employee exaggerate the power difference between these two parties?

A separate issue that I think the media is responding to here is the "ick" factor: the fact that he was sleeping with the "help" isn't only a class/power issue, but also an emotional issue. It's especially creepy because the other woman was so very close to the family. They almost lived together for something around twenty years. In my mind, that does make the actions even worse than they would be otherwise, for both of the people in the affair.

Posted by: Sarah Moody | May 18, 2011 3:43:03 PM

Post a comment