What sex scandals say about politics
By Carol M. Ostrom
When a married politician resigns after allegations that he had sex with a young man in an out-of-town hotel room — particularly when he tips off the cops himself — the obvious question is: “What was he thinking?”
In the case of state Rep. Richard Curtis, a 48-year-old Republican from La Center, Clark County, no one knows — yet. Curtis, who resigned Wednesday, has declined to elaborate, on the advice of his lawyer.
But because cases like his are becoming so familiar, experts in politics, risk-taking behavior and psychology have plenty to say. They recall the indiscretions of former President Bill “I did not have sex with that woman” Clinton; former New Jersey Gov. Jim McGreevey, who announced on live television in 2004 that he was a “gay American”; and the late Spokane Mayor Jim West, who last year was ousted from office after a scandal involving alleged gay sex.
On Monday, Curtis insisted to The Columbian in Vancouver, Wash., that he was not gay and that sex was not involved in what he said was an extortion attempt.
But in police reports released Tuesday, Curtis said he was being extorted by a man he’d had sex with in a Spokane hotel room. The other man contends Curtis reneged on a promise to pay $1,000 for sex.
What’s going on when politicians risk everything for a quickie? Do they have some innate need to take risks — a sort of Evel Knievel-like urge to juggle chainsaws at the top of a ladder? Or are they just clueless, like the guy who lights up while pouring gas into his lawn mower?
Is the power of a closeted sex drive so strong that it just can’t be resisted for long? And why would someone repressing sexual urges become a Republican politician instead of finding a job with a private company where no one would care?
“There really is a pattern here,” says John Gastil, a University of Washington professor who studies communications in politics.
Curtis’ encounter allegedly also included his appearance at a porn shop in women’s lacy lingerie. Even so, it only qualifies as a “medium-grade sex scandal,” says Brian Gladue, a behavioral biologist at the University of North Texas Health Science Center who has studied sexual behavior.
“What’s his excuse?” asks Gladue. “That will tell you an enormous amount about how they’re going to do their own risk management.”
Oddly or admirably, Curtis, who told police he had spent his career in risk management, apparently was candid when they interviewed him. Although he told police he gave the young man money “for gas,” he admitted to the sex, according to the police report.
He didn’t say he was sleepwalking, Gladue notes. He didn’t say the whole thing was a setup by Democrats out to get him. He didn’t say the lacy lingerie was just a Halloween costume he was “test-driving.” He didn’t say he had a compulsion he couldn’t control and offer to enter rehab.
He has insisted that he was a victim, however. “I am not the criminal here,” he told an editor at the Columbian.
At 48, Curtis — like McGreevey — now faces the sudden destruction of the life he’s built.
Why would any politician take such risks?
For the answer to that, start with the notion that people who go into politics are more likely than others to be risk-takers, say experts in the field. To a large extent, they’re people who are comfortable inviting scrutiny because that’s what politicians do to get elected.
“Politics tends to attract risk-takers,” says Frank Farley, a Temple University psychologist who has studied risk-taking, politics and human motivation. “It’s an uncertain job, you live at the whim of the electorate, there’s no tenure. It’s often short-term — you’re in for two or four years, and you’re out. Then you have to start all over again in some field.”
Often, successful politicians got there largely because of that personal chutzpah, a risk-taking predilection honed and encouraged by success. For those who come from modest circumstances or small towns, risk-taking is often the only ticket out, as it was for Bill Clinton, who fueled his brainpower with nerve to overcome a childhood broken home and financial hardship.
“Often one of the ways to get ahead is to take risks, be bold; if you don’t, the world is going to pass you by, because you don’t have anything besides your psychology — no wealth, you’re not a Bush, not born into money,” Farley says.
Such risk-takers are likely more prone to do things others consider unsafe, says Gladue. “It’s not that they’re brain-damaged and they can’t evaluate the dangers; they just have a higher threshold for risk than most people. … [To them] it’s not risky.”
Everyone finds a level of risk they’re comfortable with, Gladue says. They’ll hike but not climb. Or they’ll climb Mount Rainier, but only in the summer. Or they’ll climb Mount Rainier in all seasons, but not Mount Everest.
Some people just keep “pushing the limits,” Gladue says. “Everybody knows somebody like that. You just don’t want to be in a car with them, because they’re not managing risk as well as you’d like them to be.”
There’s plenty of research indicating that such sensation-seeking personalities are more likely to engage in risky sexual behavior as well, Gladue says. “This is part of who they are. Their temperament gets a little watered down as they get older, but it doesn’t go away.”
Some evolutionary biologists have argued that politicians, as the modern-day equivalent of the “alpha male” gorilla, are even more tempted than others by the lure of sexual conquests, almost as a right of office. After all, they say, in nature it’s the alpha male who gets the sexual access.
Of course, these days such “evolutionary” urges are generally tempered by pragmatism, they add.
For some people, hiding an inner life that’s in direct conflict with an outer life becomes intolerable, says Farley. “You want to bring some alignment, some freedom, from that continual, conflictual stress.”
At some point, the pain of the conflict itself may become a powerful motivator to resolve the differences, Farley says.
McGreevey, in his tell-all book, “The Confession,” wrote that “the closet starves a man and when he gets a chance, he gorges ’til it sickens him.”
Curtis, like many who have found themselves in this situation, has a wife and children. He ran for office as a conservative Republican.
Farley says that, too, is understandable.
“You’re creating a cover for your behavior so you’re beyond reproach. You figure you will get away with what you’re doing; you’ve covered it with those strong positions, so nobody thinks of you as gay.”
Farley, who has studied heroes, says such “untidy” lives don’t necessarily undo a leader’s popularity. Look at Clinton, or at the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who was said to have “wrestled in his own soul” over infidelity, Farley says.
But these days, covering up is so old-school, he says.
“It’s simply becoming so much more acceptable to state your sexual orientation,” says Farley. In the 21st-century, “people are more upset about covering up something, living a lie, than being gay,” he says. “Saying one thing and doing another — that’s one of the things Americans don’t like.”
In the long run, says David Domke, who studies political communications at the UW, the Curtis scandal hurts not only Republicans, but politicians of every stripe.
“I think the public is going to eventually say, ‘We don’t trust politicians — we’re going to stop listening to you,’ ” he says. “Most people are saying, ‘Either deal with this in your private life or get out of office, because we’ve got more important issues to deal with.’ “
Carol M. Ostrom: firstname.lastname@example.org.