U.S. Should Handle Politicians' Sex Affairs More Like Europeans


On Saturday, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi resigned due to his inability to solve the economic crisis in Italy. His resignation now may come as a shock to many: Berlusconi has withstood many hardships in his tenure as a government official. Perhaps most famous among these are those that revolve around sex scandals, and yet those are not what forced him to resign. According to a human behavior analyst, “Italians have a tendency to shrug off this type of scandal,” which seems to be how other nationalities handle sex scandals, if the cases of French President Francois Mitterand or Costas Karamnalis’s Greek government in 2008 are any evidence. This is somewhat at odds with the American way of doing things: issuing a public apology at a press conference and (usually) later resigning. In light of the recent troubles faced by Herman Cain we should reflect on the management of such scandals. The American public and media should consider handling these scandals in a more European way, because the way we handle our extramarital sex scandals distracts both the public and media from important politic issues.

The sex scandal of an American politician takes over the mainstream media in the U.S., like almost no other issue. The recent case of Anthony Weiner is an excellent example of this runaway attention. During the course of the scandal, it was not only the news programs interested by the troubled U.S. representative: “Weinergate” was also the hot topic for The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, TMZ, the National Inquirer, etc. As the Los Angeles Times states, with each new interview he gave, Weiner only made matters worse for himself, especially when he “could not say ‘with certitude’ whether or not the photo of a man’s underpants was of him or not.” It took Weiner days to apologize and resign, and for those days, the American media could not focus on anything else. Less heed was paid to the growing economic crisis or the continuing fight about same-sex marriage, raging at the beginning of June in New York. All the media could focus on was whether or not Anthony Weiner had tweeted an inappropriate picture to an overage woman – disgraceful behavior for a public official, but legal nonetheless – and whether he would ever admit it.

The media coverage of the Weiner scandal is not much different than any American scandal in which a public official has an extra-marital affair (e.g. Mark Sanford, Bill Clinton, etc.), but it is absolutely different from how Europeans view the affairs of their officials. There is no call for resignation, no mass public outrage. Berlusconi’s affairs – while lurid and nauseating – did not serve as quite the same distraction in Italy: People accepted it because of their “Catholic mentality,” according to the aforementioned human behavior analyst. The same can be said of deceased Mitterand, whose wife and mistress both attended his funeral. The fact that Mitterand was leading a double life was well-known to the French people, but he was still the longest-serving president of France, according to the Independent.

As the election season heats up in the United States and Herman Cain (and certainly other U.S. politicians to come) face allegations of extramarital affairs and sexual transgressions, the American people should force U.S. politicians and the media to change the way extramarital scandals are handled. The accusations of sexual harassment that Herman Cain faces are very different from the affairs to which other politicians have admitted. But, due to the extensive coverage extramarital affairs receive, these far more serious accusations are becoming part of the media sideshow. The American people should not stand for this and neither should the politicians whose affairs are of miniscule importance in comparison to Cain’s alleged harassment. While it is necessary to maintain the integrity of our public officials, the media’s coverage only exposes the sordid details more intensely. No one’s integrity is restored in this manner: The American public discovers more luridness than they would if we adopted the European model, and accepted our politicians as humans who engage in dishonest sexual habits. It is not necessary for the American public to “shrug off” these affairs like the Europeans do. However, like the Europeans, we should focus less on upholding officials’ integrity and more on the political issues at hand.

Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore