The Math of Sex Scandals: Why Are There So Few?

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Reporters have no trouble finding experts to speculate on why so many politicians have sex scandals. Statistics say the better question would be why there are so few.

Yesterday MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell said egotism is why so many political leaders get embroiled in sex scandals. On Wednesday the Jewish Daily Forward‘s Ron Kampeas cited sources who blamed stress, sycophantic staffers, and separation from families. Back in 2011, psychologist Frank Farley wrote a column for the Los Angeles Times that offered a list of sex scandals dating back to JFK:

So why do we keep electing such people? And why, in many cases, do we continue to see the philanderers as heroes? For one thing, some of the very personality characteristics that make a person suited to politics – features people tend to admire – are also ones that may predispose a person to infidelity.
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There are many possible factors: a need to express power, a love of conquest, perhaps narcissism – all characteristics that may serve a politician well in other arenas. But in my view the factor most responsible for philandering in public officials is a predisposition for risk-taking, which also happens to be an essential quality for politicians. My label for it is the “Type T personality,” with the “T” standing for thrill.

Dr. Farley is a professor at Temple University and former president of the American Psychological Association, but maybe he should have consulted a statistician.

Why so few?

Statistics on sexual behavior vary widely, depending on the research model and the specific behaviors being tracked. But University of Chicago research director Tom Smith’s “American Sexual Behavior” poll of 10,000 people over two decades found that about 28% of men and 18% of women admitted to having had an affair, and 3-4% of married people have affairs in any given year. And the American Psychological Association‘s Brendan Smith wrote that the numbers may be higher for online affairs:

Due to the secretive nature of online affairs, reliable statistics are hard to find, but a 2005 study of 1,828 Web users in Sweden offers evidence about the prevalence of cybersex and online affairs. Almost a third of the participants reported cybersexual experiences, and people in committed relationships were just as likely to engage in cybersex as those who were single. But gender and age made a difference. While men’s interest in cybersex decreased with age, women’s interest increased slightly, with 37 percent of women age 35 to 49 reporting cybersexual experiences compared with only a quarter of men in the same age group (Archives of Sexual Behavior, Vol. 34, No. 3).

A 2008 Australian study offers more insight into Internet affairs. It found that of 183 adults who were currently or recently in a relationship, more than 10 percent had formed intimate online relationships, 8 percent had experienced cybersex and 6 percent had met their Internet partners in person (Australian Journal of Counselling Psychology, Vol. 9, No. 2).

To keep the math simple, I’ll average those to about 30% of people having affairs at some point in a supposedly monogamous relationship, or about 5% per year. That works out to 1-in-20. So – in any given year – we should expect to see a whole lot more politicians embroiled in affairs:

  • 5 U.S. Senators (of 100)
  • 22 U.S. House members (of 435)
  • 2-3 state governors (of 50)
  • 369 state legislators (of 7,382)

The real question isn’t why so many politicians have sex scandals. The real question is … why so few?

“Trial by Ordeal”

The answer, ironically, may well lie in the media feeding frenzy that surrounds politicians and political campaigns:

The campaign process serves another purpose: Trial by Ordeal. We watch these candidates scramble through a series of minefields, as they are hit by (mostly metaphorical but sometimes actual) pies in the face, ambushed by treacherous reporters hunting for blood, and generally perform the twelve labors of Hercules before throwing the ring into Mount Doom, waking the enchanted princess or finding the Holy Grail.

Mead wrote about presidential campaigns and the media are less attentive to other politicians. But sex scandals are reliably popular news, even when the politician is the otherwise-unknown mayor of San Diego. Would-be candidates and potential backers know that … and fear of exposure and public ridicule may be why our elected leaders are caught in far fewer affairs than statistics would predict.

Of course that’s just a theory, but so is the speculation about why ‘so many’ politicians get caught in sex scandals. The difference is that my speculation is about actual data … rather than attempt to explain a false perception driven by availability bias.

The math doesn’t make these sex scandals any less lurid. But it makes them a lot less surprising.

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