Sex, Lies, Arrogance: What Makes Powerful Men Behave So Badly?

From the alleged attempted rape by Dominique Strauss-Kahn to Arnold Schwarzenegger's fathering a child out of wedlock, what is it about power that makes men crazy?

  • Left: Mario Anzuoni / Reuters; Shannon Stapleton / Reuters

    Former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, left, and IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who formally resigned on May 18, 2011

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    Shifting Standards
    By now social commentators have the explanations on auto-save: We know that powerful men can be powerfully reckless, particularly when, like DSK, they stand at the brink of their grandest achievement. They tend to be risk takers or at least assess risk differently — as do narcissists who come to believe that ordinary rules don't apply. They are often surrounded by enablers with a personal or political interest in protecting them to the point of covering up their follies, indiscretions and crimes. A study set to be published in Psychological Science found that the higher men — or women — rose in a business hierarchy, the more likely they were to consider or commit adultery. With power comes both opportunity and confidence, the authors argue, and with confidence comes a sense of sexual entitlement. If fame and power make sex more constantly available, the evolutionary biologists explain, it may weaken the mechanisms of self-restraint and erode the layers of socialization that we impose on teenage boys and hope they eventually internalize.

    "When men have more opportunity, they tend to act on that opportunity," says psychologist Mark Held, a private practitioner in the Denver area who specializes in male sexuality and the problems of overachievers. "The challenge becomes developing ways to control the impulses so you don't get yourself into self-defeating situations."

    Nature matters, but so does nurture. Members of royal families are born into a world of indulgence and entitlement, and the princelings who grow up that way may never have to develop any discipline. Athletes often start life at the opposite end of the wealth-and-prestige spectrum, but as soon as they exhibit an unusual talent for swinging a bat or sinking a free throw, often early in adolescence, they may become a kind of local royalty and find that the rules have been suspended for them. They are waved through school and into the pros, and bad behavior is overlooked or covered up. Any skills they may have been developing for self-control or self-denial quickly deteriorate.

    But what of reason, of basic survival instincts? Enter politics and you enter the glass house; there are no secrets and no places to hide. One of the temporarily persuasive defenses of Bill Clinton when he faced charges of carrying on with the intern delivering the pizza was that this savvy Rhodes scholar could not possibly be so foolish as to imagine that anything in the White House goes unnoticed, unrecorded or unrepeated. When John Edwards' affair and love child with his videographer — the very woman in charge of documenting his career — became known, Democrats were confounded that he had ever imagined he could run for office again.

    As for Schwarzenegger's latest revelation, it was agony to imagine what must have run through Maria Shriver's head when she discovered the truth. Here she was, daughter of a great political dynasty with its own zipper issues, who had drawn on her feminist capital to save her husband's career at a crucial moment in his gubernatorial campaign. In 2003, more than a dozen women accused him of harassing and groping them through the years, including on the set of his film Predator . Shriver testified to his character in words that voters believed: "You can listen to all the negativity, and you can listen to people who have never met Arnold, who met him for five seconds 30 years ago," she said. "Or you can listen to me."

    Now it emerges that even as she was defending his honor, he was deceiving both her and the voters. Confronted by the Los Angeles Times , he admitted that all along he had been supporting the child he had with an employee more than a decade ago. That finally explained why, back in January, Shriver moved out of the house.

    Rise and Risk
    Anne Sinclair, on the other hand, is standing by her man. "I do not believe for one second the accusations brought against my husband," she said. "I have no doubt his innocence will be established." But he has not made her faith in him come easy. Through his years as a top economics professor, Finance Minister and Socialist superstar, not to mention three marriages, Strauss-Kahn acquired the reputation of a serial seducer. French newspapers reported that Sarkozy had warned him, upon his taking the IMF job in 2007, to "avoid taking the elevator alone with interns. France cannot permit a scandal."

    A year after taking the job, in a very public scandal, Strauss-Kahn was rebuked by the IMF for "a serious error of judgment" for his affair with Piroska Nagy, a Hungarian-born economist who worked for him. He was not charged with abusing his position, but he apologized publicly and in an e-mail to IMF staff. She warned at the time that he had put her in an impossible position, fearful of the fallout if she were to resist his advances. That followed even-more-serious yet undisclosed allegations from a young journalist named Tristane Banon, now 31, the goddaughter of DSK's second wife. She claims that when she came to interview DSK in 2002, the encounter turned into a violent attack. "We ended up fighting, since I clearly said, 'No, no,' " she said in a TV interview five years later. "It was more than a couple of slaps. I kicked him. He undid my bra, tried to remove my jeans ... It finished very badly." As soon as she fled, she said, he sent her a text: "So, are you scared of me?"

    She didn't press charges, in part because her mother, Anne Mansouret, a local Socialist official, talked her out of it. Other women with similar experiences say they were afraid that challenging a man so powerful in a culture so tolerant would bring them only ridicule and pain. Paris lawyer Emmanuel Pierrat recalls a young woman who told him of a violent encounter with Strauss-Kahn. "She wanted to know whether I thought what I heard would form the basis for a solid legal case," Pierrat says. "I told her I did." In the end she decided to drop the complaint, fearing the media circus, the very good chance she'd be accused of being a liar or worse. "In addition to my client, I also have a personal friend who came to me and described an unwanted, forceful sexual advance by Strauss-Kahn that she was forced to literally fight off," Pierrat says. "They're all essentially the same account, the same kind of behavior, with only the places changed." Yet once again, no charges were ever filed, and Strauss-Kahn was never investigated for any misconduct.

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