I have to say I was somewhat dismayed when I heard that Arnold Schwarzenegger and Maria Shriver were breaking up and that the reason for their break up was Arnold’s affair with his family’s housekeeper. I found myself feeling weary of hearing the same old story. It seems like every other day on the news a story surfaces about a powerful man cheating on his beautiful wife with an employee, an intern or some other type of domestic worker.
Directly on the heels of this announcement came the alleged rape of a New York City hotel maid by Dominique Strauss Kahn, the presidential hopeful of France and the head of the IMF (International Monetary Fund). Immediately following the news that Strauss Kahn was indicated in a rape charge, the rumors began to fly about the maid being a “plant” by one of Strauss Kahn’s enemies, sent in to humiliate him.
What makes those who are powerful and famous, wealthy and privileged, go after those hired to serve them? What is behind the appeal of seducing an employee, specifically one who works in your home? Here are a few explanations:
1. Our culture has definite domination and submission fantasies. We sexualize women in subservient and submissive positions and perpetuate this idea that women in a maid’s uniform are ripe for anything. These women are often young, single, struggling with financial issues, and may themselves be attracted to the allure of male power (think Monica Lewinsky). Maybe the Schwarzenegger’s’ maid wanted to have sex with Arnold. She admits she pursued him early on. And Arnold did lavish money on the maid; he was reportedly good to her financially. Yet in both cases these women were in a subservient position to their employers.
Perhaps the fantasy of the Nanny in the school girl outfit or the Maid with her feather duster is as ingrained in our culture as a symbol of male power and female submission that men feel they can’t “not” act it out. The question I have for both Arnold and Strauss Kahn is “Why not act it out with your wife?” Does it have to be the real maid? There are Maid costumes galore with the short aprons and short skirts in costume stores everywhere, why don’t you just play “chase-the-maid” at home and stay out of trouble?
2. With money and power comes a sense of entitlement. Perhaps powerful men look at women like candy, saying to themselves, “Ooh that looks good – I’ll take one of those.” Maybe this sense of entitlement is partly a result of our increasingly polarized upper and lower classes; the lower class being the working class and the disenfranchised.
Several hundred years ago a man could just take the woman he wanted, domestic worker or slave, and she was often powerless to stand up to him. Usually these women had little recourse and were blamed for the incident if it did surface. How much has this really changed?
Women are still blamed for sexual assault and for affairs. The press is having a field day figuring out how these two housekeepers were at fault for both the indiscretion of the affair and the alleged sexual assault.
3. Taking a risk is exhilarating. Trouble is fun sometimes. The excitement of the forbidden can be erotic and edgy. But lots of things can entice us and we don’t have to pursue our every urge. As a higher brain function we have a super-ego that helps us control those thoughts. We also have control over our impulses. Why can’t these men keep their impulses in check? (Reminder – rape is never about sex. It’s only about power and violence.)
4. Cheating is about power and opportunity. Studies have shown that cheating may not be a symptom of a bad marriage. Most people cheat because of opportunity (leading marriage researcher John Gottman says this accounts for 80 percent of affairs). For example, Tiger Woods had opportunity—he was in a male-driven culture where the men around him either turned a blind eye to his affairs or they helped him procure the women for Tiger’s sexual liasons. Men like Tiger and Arnold, in power positions, have ample opportunity to cheat, much more then the average guy who travels in somewhat smaller circles. Maybe the average guy does it just as much, too, but we don’t hear about him on the nightly news.
Affairs happen because of opportunity, but they also happen more often in cultures that are not driven by financial desperation. Men of power have the freedom to pursue an affair because they don’t have to worry about where their next meal is coming from. And they may even have an aggrandized sense of entitlement that comes with wealth and power. Perhaps infidelity comes naturally with privilege. Maybe the privileged and powerful feel they are so far above the normal rules of daily life that all of these “rules” about staying faithful just don’t apply. When people see they have the opportunity (an in-home worker) and power, the cards get stacked against fidelity. It’s happened with Jude Law, with Arnold and with countless others.
5. We separate the good girl from the bad girl; the wife from the girlfriend, the servant from the master. We sexualize the bad girl, the girl on the side and the servant, while we tell jokes about the good girl and the wife who won’t put out. Wives are supposed to be the women who don’t cheat. And frankly, fidelity is expected in marriage from both men and women, at least on the surface.
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