06/22/2011 05:15 pm ET | Updated Aug 22, 2011

Virtuous Political Women? Maybe Not

The arguments over the nature of men and women in the wake of the recent sex scandals -- Weiner, Schwarzenegger, Edwards etc. -- often miss the point

It's argued that women are more moral than men, "hardwired" not to stray from their mates. The old limerick puts it this way:

"Higamus hogamus, woman's monogamous.
Hogamus, higamus, man is polygamous."

But is it true? Not really.

Women in positions of power are not necessarily more virtuous than men -- they are just a lot more scared and careful.

Social science data tell us that women and men are more alike than different in their extramarital behavior. One major study of extramarital affairs found that, overall, 23 percent of males strayed, as compared to 12 percent of females. But for those under forty (the prime dating years), there were no differences between the sexes -- roughly three percent for each.

In a National Opinion Research Center poll at the University of Chicago of 3,432 adults, a fourth of the men and a sixth of the women had had at least one extra-marital affair -- not a major difference.

But from time immemorial, sanctions against female sexuality have been far more stringent than sanctions against straying men. Know a guy who wore The Scarlet Letter? Remember any male "chastity belts?" Did men ever have their feet bound so that women could indulge their foot fetishes?

The need to control female sexuality is powerful, explains New York Times science writer Natalie Angier:

Women are said to have lower sex drives than men, yet they are universally punished if they display evidence to the contrary--if they disobey their 'natural' inclination towards a stifled libido...all the laws, customs, punishments, strictures, mystiques and anti-mystiques are aimed with full hominid fury at that tepid, sleepy, hypoactive creature, the female libido.

A look at the 2008 presidential campaign is instructive. When Hillary Clinton appeared on the Senate floor with a tiny hint of cleavage, the press went wild. You'd have thought she'd done a pole dance in the chamber.

According to Media Matters for America, from 9am to 5pm ET on July 30, MSNBC gave 23 minutes and 42 seconds to segments discussing Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's "cleavage." CNN devoted 3 minutes and 54 seconds to the story, while Fox News devoted none.

CNBC's John Harwood thought it was all part of some master plan. "When you look at the calculation that goes into everything that Hillary Clinton does, for her to argue that she was not aware of what she was communicating by her dress is like Barry Bonds saying he thought he was rubbing down with flaxseed oil," he said on Meet the Press.

The press seemed to regard everything that Hillary did as if she were Lucrezia Borgia, even when she was picking out her wardrobe for the Senate. Most women realized she probably downed her morning cup of coffee, walked to her closet and grabbed a top to wear under a jacket, hoping she'd look pulled-together, but hardly planning some Clausweitzean strategy.

Conservative women seem to get a bit more latitude in the glam department, but there's an underside to that as well.

As Newsweek writer Julia Baird noted, while the media seem to applaud conservative women like Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann for being sexual objects, it bashes progressive women leaders for their supposed failure to do the same. Progressive figures such as Supreme Court justices Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor and, of course, Hillary Clinton, faced countless sexist attacks in their rise to high profile media attention. And the "smokin' hot" conservatives are subtly put down. Baird noted:

It's odd to see how some men insist that when women start to grasp power, we should think of them primarily as playthings and provocateurs. Is this the best way to explain their success? They aren't challenging the status quo. They're being wild! They're not trying to lift the ban on offshore drilling. They're being naughty!

But can you imagine what would happen if Sarah Palin snuck away from Todd and dallied with, say, an Alaskan wilderness guide or a conservative radio host? Would she be forgiven even by her zealous fan base?

Right or left, women are cautious. Nancy Pelosi is often pictured on the web as the Wicked Witch of the West, gripping her broomstick. Could she possibly retain her seat in Congress if she had an affair, like Louisiana senator David Vitter, who got reelected after frequenting prostitutes? Newt Gingrich can dump not one but (count 'em) two ailing wives and still be considered a viable presidential candidate. No woman could ever get away with that.

Even the mildest display of something remotely sexual by a political woman draws outrage. Consider Michelle Obama wearing a sleeveless dress and displaying her well-toned bare arms. Once again, the press acted like she'd appeared in a thong. "Obama's Choice to Bare Arms Causes Uproar," gasped ABC News. The Chicago Tribune opined, "A woman who bears her arms in front of the U.S. Congress, in winter... may well have texted an invitation to the nation to discuss her biceps." David Brooks of the New York Times said "She's made her point. Now she should put away Thunder and Lightning."

Women are acutely aware of a deep unease among men of the combination of female sexuality and power that stretches far back into history. The legendary Medusa caused men to drop dead at one glimpse of her face. Odysseus was so afraid of getting lured to his death by the sirens that he tied himself to the mast. Lady Macbeth combined femininity and murder, and when women practiced the healing arts, they were branded as witches. Some 400 women were burned to death in one day in medieval France.

While man is thought to be the cornerstone of what is human, rational, normal and real, and is seen clear, standing in the sunlight, woman is like the shadows in Plato's cave. She is seen through the male imagination, desired, dreaded, loved and loathed, misunderstood, puzzled over, worried about. Sigmund Freud, after all, did not ask, in a quandary: "What does a man want?"

If woman in her essence is seen as nature, in her sexuality she is seen once again through the prism of the male imagination. Critic Vivian Gornick writes:

Deeply interwoven in the fabric of this cultural cloak is the image of woman: woman, the temptress, woman the slut, woman the heartless bitch--luring men eternally towards spiritual death, making them come up against what they most fear and hate in themselves, pulling them down, down into the pit of themselves.

Or, there's a simpler fear, aptly voiced by Tucker Carlson of MSNBC when he said of Hillary Clinton, "When she comes on television, I involuntarily cross my legs." One image that appeared often on the web was of Hillary holding a "Testicle lock box."

Political women are acutely aware that whatever they do, they will get a higher level of scrutiny and disapproval of their personal life than men do. And in this age of the Internet, where nothing seems to be personal or private, they have to be extra careful. You don't actually have to be a nun to run for office, but it doesn't hurt to behave like one.

Caryl Rivers is the co-author of the forthcoming book for Columbia University Press, The Truth About Girls and Boys: Challenging Toxic Stereotypes About Our Children.