Sex Scandals and Instincts: It's Your Biology, Stupid!

Sanford sex scandal

 UPDATE: Michael Dowd and Connie Barlow riffed on this topic in their half-hour weekly podcast on 1 September 2009.  You can listen to that episode online, "Evolution and Infidelity" PODCAST, or subscribe to the free RSS feed.

 We are losing our political leaders and will continue to lose them until we come to terms with our basic biology.

Leaders today are no more susceptible to violations of marital vows than were leaders of the past. But in this era of tabloids and texting, sexual scandals have become epidemic.

Every political victory puts the winner in a position not only of privilege and responsibility but also of sacrifice. Just as voters would be wise to withhold their vote from any candidate who lacks a basic understanding of the economy, so should we be wary of electing any man who is ignorant of his biological instincts.

Foremost, he must know about testosterone—what testosterone does and how a rise in status elevates this hormone and thus intensifies one’s sex drive and willingness to take risks.

We can assume that Governors Sanford and Spitzer both knew that testosterone is the sex hormone. We can also assume that Senators Ensign, Edwards, and Craig knew that the more testosterone one has, the more insistent the sex drive. What most politicians don’t know, however, are 5 scientific discoveries that provide crucial perspective.

First, the average adult male has 20-40 times the testosterone of an average female. Translated, the sex drive and willingness to engage in risky activities is usually exceedingly more compelling for men than for women.

Second, politicians are not average men. They are high status men. The body responds to elevation in social position by boosting the levels of testosterone.

Third, most women instinctively become flirtacious around high status men. We are all descendents of great-great-great-grandmothers whose offspring were fed and protected during the worst famines and calamities, thanks to this instinct.

Fourth, dalliance-free monogamy does not have an exemplary track record in any cultural tradition—nor among our primate kin. Only recently have political leaders in America been watched and outed for such transgressions.

Fifth, when the sexual drive butts up against culturally forged values and commitments, judgment may be highjacked. Rational argument morphs into rationalization, and the deceiver becomes self-deceived.

There are two primary ways to make sense of how these five biological facts play out in today’s leaders. One way is via the religious worldview inherent in the apologies expressed by the two most recent political casualties. Both Senator Ensign and Governor Sanford spoke of their “sinful nature.”

The other way is via science. We are evolved creatures, designed naturally over millions of years. Our brain contains vestiges of the past that are not only powerful but mismatched with the needs and norms of the present.

The evolutionary view is our only way forward. Pointing to “original sin” as the cause of today’s sex scandals, while mythically accurate, is ultimately no more helpful than explaining tsunamis as the wrath of Poseidon.

You want family values? Try out a sacred evolutionary worldview. Appreciating our instincts for how they served our ancestors is the crucial first step for moving beyond secrecy, denial, and condemnation and toward structures of support that offer real hope for living in integrity.

We as a nation have an opportunity to move out of denial before hitting bottom. We don’t have to wait for a score more elected officials to fall by the wayward side. If men in American politics don’t get a grip on their evolved nature, then the only viable candidates will be post-menopausal women. We can make this transition now by taking these two steps:

1. Embrace our evolutionary heritage and open our minds to learning the actual origins and consequences of our innate biological gifts and challenges.

2. Put in place systems of support—openly, and with a blend of seriousness and lighthearted humor. Integrity, after all, is not a solo sport. It is time for high-testosterone elected officials to come out of the closet. And it is time for reporters to support them in their sexual sobriety by posing this question at every press conference, “Sir, did you meet with your integrity group this week?”

ALSO SEE: President Obama's Testosterone Levels - January 19, 2009

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