Petraeus, and the double standard on sex and power

In a pretaped interview set to air Thursday night on CBS, writer and academic Paula Broadwell — whose affair with married CIA Director David Petraeus led to his resignation in 2012 — reacted to the news that the four-star general is on the short list for a Cabinet position under President-elect Donald Trump. “I think he’s unequally qualified for many positions,” she told interviewer Norah O’Donnell. “It was a bit of a shocker.”

Especially because, as Broadwell pointed out, she’s still very much suffering the repercussions of that scandal. “It begged the question of, why shouldn’t I be able to go on?” she said.

Broadwell and Petraeus were involved in a romantic affair while she was writing his 2012 biography, “All In.” Both were, and still are, married to other people. The relationship was revealed after an FBI investigation of “jealous” emails Broadwell sent to a female friend of Petraeus; investigators later found classified documents on Broadwell’s laptop.

Controversy ensued. Broadwell was branded a “stalker,” a “temptress,” and a “home-wrecker.” She lost her security clearance, got demoted, and last month received a formal military reprimand. She told O’Donnell that the scandal has prevented her from getting another job, even though, with two master’s degrees and positions at Tufts and Harvard universities, not to mention 21 years of military service, she’s certainly got credentials.

Petraeus, meanwhile, admitted to leaking classified information to Broadwell, eventually pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge and was handed a $100,000 fine and two years of probation. He was, however, able to keep his Wall Street job at private equity firm KKR Global Institute.

Now he’s a leading candidate for secretary of state.

Any gender-based double standard here? Yes, it’s alive and healthy, and Broadwell isn’t the first or the only woman to have felt its effects. Particularly, when it comes to sex, women almost universally bear the brunt of shame, despite its taking “two to tango.” Consider any number of highly publicized stories of men, often rich men, often husbands, who have affairs and sometimes father children with women they’ve cheated with. The women are “home-wreckers” even as the men duck responsibility.

In large part, that’s because our society continues to suffer from the belief that men and women engage in extramarital affairs for different reasons; that men “do it for love” or self-regard while women do it to get ahead. A 2009 study published in the Western Journal of Communication found that in workplace affair situations, workers believe women are motivated by the prospect of some employment-related advantage while men by romance or ego. As a result, most employees in the study directed negative thoughts at the woman, and not the man.

And what’s a double standard without some hypocrisy built in? During the election, of course, Donald Trump himself heaped abuse on Bill Clinton for his extramarital affairs, at one point even making various women who’ve accused the former president of sexual misconduct part of his (winning) campaign strategy. With Petraeus, however, he’s evidently willing to overlook that same “misconduct.”

The double standard is not only about sex. Throughout the year, Hillary Clinton was taken to task for mistakes and missteps that many suggested might not have loomed quite so large had she been a man. Research shows female leaders are criticized more harshly for making “bad calls” than male leaders. Now, turns out experience proves it as well. Although she was never charged with any wrongdoing, Clinton has said she believes her much-discussed email controversy — in which classified documents were sent through her private server, though never leaked — cost her the election.

Certainly, Trump used every opportunity to take her to task for the emails, going so far as to promise to “lock her up” if he was elected. And yet Petraeus both admitted to sharing classified documents and was charged for the wrongdoing.

Is it interesting that Trump has chosen Petraeus as a candidate? Yes. But is it shocking? Given society’s track record on unequal treatment — and given the President-elect’s own track record on double talk, selecting financial and Washington insiders to posts despite campaign promises to “drain the swamp” — the unfortunate answer is: Not at all.

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