On Wednesday, news broke that Nashville mayor Megan Barry had an affair with her head of security detail, Sgt. Robert Forrest, who had just resigned that day. Acknowledging the claims, Barry, who took office in 2016, said she was sorry, that God would forgive her, but the people of Nashville don’t have to — she’d earn their trust back. She said that what she did was a mistake, but not a tragedy.
The news set off greater scrutiny of not just her ethics and morals as a steward of public good, but her spending patterns with public monies, including nearly 10 overseas trips alone with Forrest that cost about $33,000, and the now questionable $50,000 he was paid in overtime. But it also set off an interesting gendered discussion about infidelity and political power, and how we talk about powerful women who cheat.
Unlike the conventional trope of a powerful man who cheats — his wife let herself go, his wife was cold in bed, the mistress is a homewrecker and a slut — here, flipping the script, now Barry’s husband takes the heat for his looks and presumed inability to keep her happy in bed. Maybe it made sense that she cheated, for instance, because his looks range somewhere between Simpsons band leader:
And Back to the Future’s Dr. Emmett Brown:
And if maybe, he was just more of a tiger in the sack, the other argument seems to go, she wouldn’t have cheated — ignoring the many complicated reasons people are unfaithful.
In other words, in the popular parlance of politics in 2018, she cucked him.
Also, naturally, she is a whore:
It’s incredibly difficult to find any good juicy stories for comparison of powerful women mayors who cheat because there aren’t that many powerful women mayors in the first place. Only about 20 percent, or 286, of all the mayors of U.S. cities with populations over 30,000 are women — Megan Barry is the first female mayor of Nashville, a blue county in an otherwise red state, and only the second among the four major cities of Tennessee.
Female politicians, the conventional perception goes, rarely get mixed up in sex scandals anyway. In 2011, back when Anthony Weiner had first confessed his sexting sins, Sheryl Gay Stolberg asked for The New York Times why men were having all the scandalous cheating fun. Stolberg wrote:
Women in elective office have not, for instance, blubbered about Argentine soulmates (see: Sanford, Mark); been captured on federal wiretaps arranging to meet high-priced call girls (Spitzer, Eliot); resigned in disgrace after their parents paid $96,000 to a paramour’s spouse (Ensign, John); or, as in the case of Mr. Weiner, blasted lewd self-portraits into cyberspace.
Maybe it’s a power-testosterone thing, she theorized. Maybe women just don’t have the time to be politicians, wives, mothers, and also cheats. “’While I’m at home changing diapers, I just couldn’t conceive of it,’ Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, the New York Democrat, once said,” Stolberg wrote.
But Stolberg drilled into something deeper that better explains why we have fewer female sex scandals in politics: Women are less likely to run for office, more likely to do it because they want to actually affect a specific change rather than to be famous, and know that they attract unusual scrutiny as it is. In other words, there are fewer of them in the mix, they are less in it for the fame and glory, and they know they’ll be nailed to the wall for any transgressions. This means they know they have to work harder, and that even still, they’ll be judged more harshly, not just by a general public, but by the voters, too.
“When voters find out men have ethics and honesty issues, they say, ‘Well, I expected that,” political strategist Celinda Lake told The Times. “When they find out it’s a woman, they say, ‘I thought she was better than that.’ “
Stolberg cites a few examples of female political sex scandals, but none of them hit the prurience of even Weiner’s dick pics. South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley was accused of an affair but denied it and was still elected, and Idaho congresswoman Helen Chenoweth-Hage admitted to a six-year affair to no big pushback.
Anthropologist Helen Fischer tells Stolberg that women under 40 are just as likely as men to cheat, but argues that they may just be less likely to get caught. So either women are less likely to risk political standing with affairs, or better at hiding them.
But that same year, Amy Koch, Minnesota Senate’s first female majority leader, proved the exception. Koch was forced out by colleagues over an affair with another colleague and resigned, agreeing not to seek reelection. Complicating matters was the fact that Koch was both Republican and ardently against same-sex unions in the state. On the heels of the affair admission, gay activist John Medieros wrote her an open letter on behalf of the gay community apologizing for threatening her traditional marriage, launching her infidelity into viral infamy. Koch laid low for a while, but she didn’t have much guidance on what to do next. In searching for stories of other female politicians and sex scandals to figure out what her life after the circus might be like, Koch couldn’t find any.
“I wanted to know who survives this who doesn’t survive this,” Koch told Erin Gloria Ryan at the Daily Beast about the aftermath. “How do they approach things? Why does one person come back and another person doesn’t? And one thing I noticed, I didn’t really find any stories about women politicians…there’s women on the other end of these scandals but there’s not one where it’s a woman politician. None that I found.”
Koch never really recovered — as best I can find, she’s currently a sometimes commentator for local Minnesota media. Ryan lays out at the Daily Beast that in sex scandals, male politicians get a second chance, while women in sex scandals get a Scarlet Letter. If Donald Trump were Donna Trump, Ryan posits, it’s highly unlikely she’d have been elected after bragging about sexually assaulting men, much less having affairs and pimping herself out as a real man’s woman (even the phrase “man’s woman” evokes a kind of cognitive dissonance, no?)
Currently, Missouri Governor Eric Greitens has just acknowledged a consensual, monthslong affair in 2015 with his hairdresser, prior to his campaign for election. It’s far juicier than Barry’s — an audio recording released between the hairdresser and her former husband claimed Greitens had tied up the naked hairdresser, blindfolded her, and warned her to not speak of the affair. The hairdresser’s ex-husband’s attorney now claims Greitens slapped her and blackmailed her. Greiten denies any blackmail, violence or coercion, and says he will not resign.
Barry says she won’t resign either. Local reports indicate that “We love our mayor” billboards have popped up around town, signaling a groundswell of support for Barry to stay in office, too.
But her staying in office isn’t sitting well with everyone, either.
Still, the idea of any man accused of infidelity, using public monies no less, would be forced to resign and have his handed to him on a stake, that’s not always the case either. Mark Sanford was pressured to resign as Governor of South Carolina after his affair with Argentinian soulmate, but refused. Impeachment proceedings were called off, and he was reelected to Congress in 2014 and 2016. Rudy Giuliani’s affairs didn’t harm his political career. San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom recovered from a 2007 affair, and is now running for governor this year, and currently with more funding than his opponents. David Petraeus, the former CIA director caught having an affair with biographer Paula Broadwell, did resign. But he’s now a partner in a private equity firm, and Broadwell is, according to a recent follow-up piece in the New York Times, still struggling to find her footing, noting that, in the aftermath, “Mr. Petraeus had many defenders — and a four-decade career of service to stand on. Ms. Broadwell did not.”
It will be interesting to see if either Barry or Greitens resigns. It’s interesting to watch the grand public experiment of seeing what power does to anyone, male or female, and how gender shapes our perceptions of those abuses. But one thing we know for sure, is that Greitens still has a much better chance of bouncing back.