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12.10.09

Why Women Don't Have Sex Scandals

Why are women rarely caught with their pants down? Rebecca Dana on the adultery gender divide. Plus, notable female affairs through history, from Princess Di to Ayn Rand.

South Carolina Republican gubernatorial candidate Nikki Haley landed in an elite club Monday morning, when a conservative blogger claimed the two had had an affair in 2007. She joins Princess Di, Catherine the Great, Ingrid Bergman and the very few other women who’ve gotten caught in sex scandals.  

Haley immediately denied the allegations that she’d had an extramarrital dalliance with blogger Will Folks while he was in her employ, calling the claim a “disgraceful smear.” Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin came running to her aid later in the day.  

Click Image Below to View Our Gallery of Women’s Sex Scandals

Each week seems to bring news of a new sex scandal involving a man in public office (Haley is running to replace scandal-plauged Mark Sanford), but these ignominies rarely affect their female colleagues. Idaho congresswoman Helen Chenoweth had a six-year affair in the 1980s with a married rancher who later worked for her congressional staff. Utah representative Katherine Bryson was caught with a lover on a surveillance camera. Like Haley, both are Republicans.  

Why do women suffer fewer sex scandals?

Conventional wisdom has a few explanations: Some argue that women have to work extra hard for their prominence and are therefore less willing to risk everything for an easy lay. Others suggest women are overwhelmingly less susceptible to physical temptation. Or maybe it’s just that women are too damn busy doing their jobs and taking care of their families to make time for an affair or 10. Or it’s because, apart from Madonna, real women just don’t have sex like men.

“There are women who are fairly celebrated for their erotic lives, the standard starlets and so on,” says Lionel Tiger, the remarkably named Charles Darwin Professor of Anthropology at Rutgers University and a specialist in the biological origins of human interaction, “but there are none equivalent to Wilt Chamberlain or those men that celebrated how prolific they were in securing females.”

Lizzie Skurnick: Rise of the Alpha FemaleProfessor Tiger offers the story of a woman who once shepherded him around on a book tour. She had filled a similar role for countless rock stars and celebrities over the years and observed an ironclad gender disparity: After a show, the male stars would head back to their dressing rooms with five or so women apiece; and the women would go back to the hotel with a gal pal or two and order room service.

Quite simply, “women tend to prefer males who are more powerful than they and not vice versa,” he says.

But maybe it’s a little more complicated than the standard psychological profile of star-fucking.

“Men are typically seen as having agency and women are typically seen as being acted upon in romantic relationships,” says New York writer Emily Gould (a survivor of her own small-scale sex scandal). “So then even when those stereotypical power dynamics aren’t really the ones at play, the culture-making machinery will simplify whatever the real story is until it is a more familiar wronged-woman, lothario-man narrative.”

Perhaps for that reason, most modern sex scandals centered around prominent women have a more chaste feel. At the height of her stardom, Ingrid Bergman left her husband for Roberto Rossellini, and nearly lost her career as a result. Princess Diana was recorded talking dirty to her pal James Gilbey one night on the phone and ultimately lost her life being hounded by the paparazzi while on a drive with a beau. Meg Ryan cheated on Dennis Quaid with Russell Crowe; while married to Robert Evans, Ali MacGraw had an affair with Steve McQueen during the filming of The Getaway; singer LeAnn Rimes had an affair with Eddie Cibrian, her co-star in a TV movie. There have been some prominent madams, of course—Heidi Fleiss, Sydney Biddle Barrows—but not since Catherine the Great has a prominent woman racked up a harem to rival a man’s.

By far the two most famous categories of female sex scandals are the lesbian love affairs (women’s basketball coach Pokey Chatman, tennis player Billie Jean King, model Gia Carangi) and the female teachers who incomprehensibly fall for their students (from Mary Kay Letourneau on down). Recent years have also seen two minor flaps involving female elected officials, both Republican congresswomen, both tripped up by extramarital affairs.

“It’s not because women don’t get the hots for new guys,” says Jessica Cutler, former author of the Washingtonienne blog, which chronicled her sexual exploits as a congressional staffer. “But who has the time for an affair?”

We’ve yet to see a real whopper of a female sex scandal, but Professor Tiger says this may change as gender parity increases at work and women start making more money than men.

“Who knows? Maybe there are a passel of prominent women engaged in whatever passes for a sex scandal these days,” says Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor of The Nation. “Anyway, I believe we need to keep our gaze focused on what’s real and serious, and sex scandals, 98 percent of time, should remain private unless they impinge directly on public morality, public governance, and public ethics.”

So what would happen if a well-known woman—say, Sarah Palin—were caught up in sex scandal?

“They’d get book deals,” says Cutler. “Obviously.”

Rebecca Dana is a senior correspondent for The Daily Beast. A former editor and reporter for The Wall Street Journal, she has also written for The New York Times, The New York Observer, Rolling Stone and Slate, among other publications.