Why David Petraeus Cheated

Why David Petraeus Cheated November 19, 2012

Yet again the media is alive with speculation about why men in positions of power cheat on their spouses, often at great risk to their careers—indeed, greater risk than men a generation or two ago when cheating seldom became the scandal it does today. Why is this so, given the fact that we’re further than ever from having clear public norms around acceptable sexual behavior? Indeed, it’s odd that the more marriage becomes de-institutionalized in America, the more publicly problematic extramarital dalliances have become. It would seem to be exactly the opposite of what one would expect.

A colleague and friend asserted that one key reason for the rise in sex scandals is because talking about sex has become easier, and hence more public. For sure. (This blog would be technologically and socially impossible 50 years ago.) When a Kennedy or Eisenhower bent the far-clearer rules around marriage, they did so in an era that did not speak of sexuality publicly without trepidation. Their dalliances weren’t winked at. They were just not thought to be publicly discussable. In this way, it’s a little bit like the problem I noted in a previous blog, about when Joe Paterno came under fire. He was a member of a generation that didn’t like to talk about sex, of any sort. And young adults today—indeed, pretty much anyone under 60—just plain don’t understand that.

But on to Petraeus. While journalists and experts will rack their brain for some new explanation of why men in power take risks that women in power do not, I think it’s a n0-brainer. It points out very old, very stable notions about the sexual exchange itself. Men are the demand side, and women are the supply side. Women could demand sex (and some do), but they’re apt to be remarkably successful when they do. Men can only hope for sex.

David Petraeus didn’t cheat because Ms. Broadwell was so stunningly beautiful that he couldn’t resist her advances. (I don’t frankly know whose idea the affair was.) Certainly this is true of Arnold Schwarzeneggar’s mistress. It’s not about beauty. It’s about sexual availability and men’s excess sexual desire. My favorite social psychologist, Roy Baumeister, one of the few realists writing in a domain—the study of sexual behavior—dominated by idealists, observes:

A man in love may feel sexual desire for a specific, particular woman, but most men also have plenty of free-floating sexual interest in other women, all women, any woman, at least in the broad set of “reasonably attractive” ones (e.g., the top 90% of women in their twenties, etc.).

This is the elephant in the corner that is inexplicably unacknowledged. Most men who stray do so because they like sex. Perhaps “like” is not a powerful enough word to describe it.

Women don’t work the same way. I’m so tired of hearing from people that they do. But it’s just not true. Men are far less discriminating then women.

Baumeister continues:

Before we condemn men as hopeless sinners, however—and I suspect many men regard themselves as such, at least when they reflect on their attempts to come to terms with the inner sexual beast—we might feel a moment of sympathy for their unrewarded successes….He doesn’t get any credit for all the times he stifles his desires, despite all the struggle and sacrifice that they cost him. Daily he wrestles with the beast, and mostly he keeps it controlled….Mostly he succeeds in restraining himself. Out of every thousand times he has to deny himself and stop himself from acting on his feelings, once or twice he slips up, and these can be enough to shame him….(indeed) could ruin him, costing him his career, his marriage, his happiness, even his freedom.

Interesting perspective—one not often noted. Ah, realism. No, male self-control has not changed a great deal over human history. What has grown dramatically is sexual opportunity and what has declined precipitously is social restraint.

At bottom, sex scandals involve men because men want sex more than women do. If the classic sex-for-resources exchange model works—and I hold that it still does, despite the fact that men offer less (and women need fewer) resources than in the past—then women with significant authority and power should rarely find themselves in sex scandals. Why? Because they don’t need the resources. They already have them. The scandals will almost always be about men, because while they’ve got more than enough resources, it’s the sex that remains elusive, just out of reach. Until it’s not.


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  • SDG

    Reading the passage quoted from Baumeister, the phrase that comes to mind is “sniveling crap.” Poor men, not getting credit for the thousands of verboten babes they ogled without shagging, just because of the handful they did! Perhaps we should recast the question: Why the hell are some men able not to cheat, even if they have the opportunity? What was Petraeus lacking that other men have?

    On the subject of the greater public “scandal” (i.e., media attention) around sexual infidelity today, in a way it is precisely because infidelity is less shocking today than it was a couple of generations ago that it’s more talked about today — but this is true in more than one way. Trumpeting prominent instances of infidelity emphasizes, and thus legitimizes, the breakdown of consensus on sexual morality. The post-sexual revolution generation is less shocked by Petraeus’s infidelity than the Eisenhower generation would have been by Eisenhower’s infidelity — but the post-sexual revolution generation is also much more interested in talking about Petraeus’s infidelity, because it suits their ongoing agenda.

  • Stable my foot. The Middle Ages saw women as the sexual aggressors. As did the Romans and Greeks. Men are told that it is not normal to not want sex, and women are socialized the opposite way. Viewing men as the consumers of sex is a historical aberration, and if psychology backs it up it’s probably because our society plasters messages about sex EVERYWHERE. Socialization is a much more likely answer for the result you think you’re seeing.

    • Mark Regnerus

      Big difference between seeing women as the aggressors, and them actually being the aggressors. I’m aware that they were perceived in that manner, but I think that was a profound misperception. I really don’t think you have to tell men to want sex. No aberration here, friend. The sexual exchange model captures something very old. It works a bit less well today, as I described. Sure, there’s some socialization going on, but hardly enough to overcome the stable differences, ON AVERAGE.

      • I would guess that there is a difference in the kind of sexual aggressiveness, too. Even today, I’ve found women to be more “aggressive” in pursuing a desired relationship (and sometimes willing to use sex to attain the desired relationship), but men more “aggressive” in seeking sexual favors (and often willing to use other resources, including promises of fidelity, to attain those sexual favors). There may be different kinds of sexual aggressiveness being emphasized in different cultures or historical periods.

        Let’s not forget that the Greeks gave us Lysistrata, too.

        • Mark Regnerus

          To be sure, but does it alter the essence of the sexual exchange? Women act more like men in matters sexual today, yes (e.g., aggression, etc.). And it’s been helped that way by creating artificial infertility (hence reducing the “costs” of sex to men, and the “risks” to women). But the dial will not turn the other direction, wherein we see vast numbers of men navigate relationships in ways historically consonant with women. Men are pretty stable in this domain.

  • I think of human beings as having reason, desires, freedom and the ability to reflect on their own actions and the other persons they interact with. Talking about sex as simply (or even mostly) a function of desire overlooks many other things about human beings that enter into the picture.

  • Rick

    It’s pretty obvious that men are more prone to this than women, but also obvious that lots of famous and powerful men (and average men as well) aren’t cheating. Along with the volatility of male physical desire, we should look at other factors which impact the modern man, such as his lack of contentment, his insecurities, his fragile sense of self. Cheating men are immature men, and I think it surprises us when a famous Army general has a glaring immature streak.

  • Michael Mills

    Not [PLEASE!] tonight…I’ve got a headache…

    Generalizations are just that–a point that may be generally true, but not inclusive of all. I remember when my mom was in her early 80s, she confided to me that: “…I use to get terrible headaches…but then your father and I would have sex and the headache always went away…” I was surprised that she shared that intimate detail with me, but it did give me a laugh. (I’d always suspected my mom was a bit out of the stereotypical “norm” when it came to sexual desire.)

    As for why Petraeus strayed, well…God knows and Petraeus ‘might’ know part of the many reasons. I suggest that, far too often, we attempt to find a simple, black or white solution or answer to this question and many others, when so often the greater truth lies in multiple shades of gray….

    • Mark Regnerus

      For sure. I know here at UT a psychology colleague documented 267 reasons that respondents offered for pursuing sex. (Curing a headache being one of them…)