Sex scandals, politics and religion: Avila professor explores their influence on American culture in new book
By Jill Draper
American elections present a curious contradiction. How can it be that politicians who seem to least embody “Christian values” are the very same people winning over conservative religious voters?
That question is at the heart of a book published earlier in 2020, “Compromising Positions: Sex Scandals, Politics, and American Christianity,” by Leslie Dorrough Smith, a professor at Avila University.
In exploring this question she focuses on politicians from both sides of the aisle. Our current president, whose well-known past includes nonmarital sexual escapades and degrading comments about women, is among those featured.
“I don’t think Donald Trump’s behavior matters at all to his base, because he represents white masculine aggression,” says Dorrough Smith, who teaches religious and women’s studies. Because strong, white men have long been symbolically associated with political leadership, she says that image is very reassuring to many audiences.
She argues that Americans both condemn and excuse the sexual misbehavior of politicians depending on how well they represent “manly men.” Generations of people like to talk about the family man, loyalty and monogamy, but they are often willing to look the other way when politicians engage in sex scandals because they like even better the idea of a strong protector and, well, boys will be boys.
“All of us adjust our ethics to fit our own interests, and some of us do it more than others,” she says. “Some people call it hypocrisy. I call it normal social contradictions.”
Or, as she puts it another way, sex scandals are about something other than sex—they’re more about power and alliances.
Dorrough Smith was raised in a conservative church where women were not allowed to hold leadership positions or even to speak publicly. She accepted those limitations until she signed up for a New Testament class in college that offered a wider vision of the world. Now she’s fascinated by evangelicalism and how it influences culture.
In a book she published in 2014, “Righteous Rhetoric: Sex, Speech, and the Politics of Concerned Women for America,” Dorrough Smith studied the nation’s largest conservative women’s organization. In both books she looked at evangelical elites who write self-help and relationship literature. One of the main messages of these marriage and sex manuals, she says, is that marriage exists to give women domestic security and men (who are portrayed as barely able to control themselves sexually) access to a woman.
“I took these ideas and sat on them for a while, and I began to see them working out in sex scandals,” she says. “Many evangelical ways of thinking about gender are really common in American culture. We have certain ideals about who is eligible and who is not eligible to represent us as a nation.”
She was fascinated by how sexual misconduct of politicians either causes a huge uproar or falls flat depending on their image. In one example she cites three men, Rudy Giuliani, Newt Gingrich and John Edwards, who all had affairs while their wives were critically ill. She notes Edwards’ platform advocated for the poor, but there was no apparent enemy he was fighting. He was feminized by the media, which focused on his expensive haircuts and toothy grin. His career was crushed, but the other two men, who were seen as more hyper-masculine, rebounded.
She also mentions Paula Jones’ claim of a non-consensual encounter with Bill Clinton, who has a history of sexual indiscretions. Once nude photos of Jones surfaced from an old boyfriend, the public disregarded her claim. “We normalize male sexual desire, but seeing Jones as a sexual being was something that discredited her,” she says.
According to Dorrough Smith, there are no studies of female politicians in her book because they have few sex scandals, and when they do, they are crucified. Humans are inconsistent, she says. Americans talk a lot about ethics, but in reality they are flexible. While this is part of the current culture, she sees a change coming with the younger generation.
“Young people today have a much lower tolerance for sexual harassment and a totally different understanding of gender,” she points out. “What it means to have American values is changing quickly for them.”
In the meantime, what happened on November 3 is a referendum on what we want the nation to be, not just who we want to lead it, Dorrough Smith says. “There is nothing subtle about politics right now.”
(These perspectives of Leslie Dorrough Smith are not necessarily shared by Avila University)