History truly is an endless repetition of the wrong way of living. The high incidence of talented, powerful men not being able to keep it in their pants would be tiresome, if it weren’t so tragic. Teri’s R K Pachauri, India’s poster boy of the environment, is just the newest name on a staggeringly long list of public personalities coming a cropper in a sexual scandal.
The phenomenon of the pharmacology of power trumping self-control cuts across geography and history. Filmmaker Roman Polanski survived the Holocaust and the brutal murder of his wife, gave the world the sensitive Knife in the Water and Rosemary’s Baby, won Baftas, Césars, Academy Awards and the Palme d’Or, and then ruined everything by raping a 13-year-old girl. IMF head Dominique Strauss-Kahn, then tipped to be the next President of France, was accused of assaulting a hotel maid in New York. The charges were later dropped but his image as a serial womanizer didn’t help.
Across the pond, boxer Mike Tyson—the hardest hitter in heavyweight history—was convicted of rape and sentenced to six years in prison and an additional four years probation in the early 90s. After three years behind bars, Tyson was released but still registered as a sex offender in his home state of
Nevada. More recently, actor-governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who had made his way up the social ladder by hard work and marrying well, came tumbling down for frolicking with the nanny.
In India, where such matters are usually swept under the dhurrie, we’ve had a Supreme Court judge, a brilliant lawyer-cum-party spokesman and an editor accused of sexual predatory behaviour in the last few years. And now, we have the head of Nobel Prize-winning IPCC facing similar charges. The courts will decide what exactly happened, and whether the dalliance was consensual or not. What we need to ask—for the millionth time—is why men, particularly powerful men with everything to lose, have such a hard time resisting sexual temptation.
Clearly, it’s not only about sex. Most of them have partners who can cater to that need. Nor can they claim ignorance about the consequences of their actions—to the people around them and themselves. They’ve seen the havoc that sexual peccadilloes have wrecked on the lives and careers of other men before them. And yet, they go ahead and act rashly. Presumably, they believe, that they can get away with it. Is it validation that these men look for, or are they just pandering to a sense of entitlement?
Science has a potential explanation for the misguided actions of such powerful men. It says power causes a surge in the testosterone level (in both sexes). This testosterone, in turn, stirs up the dopamine chemical in the brain, which increases appetite for ‘rewarding activities’ like sex. The problem is that the appetite doesn’t just stimulate hunger for more power and more sex, it also affects the very way that the brain functions. Dopamine affects the prefrontal cortex of the brain, which is associated with forethought, attention and planning. A moderate increase in the chemical can make people smarter. Too much, and people lose their better judgment and suffer diminished forethought and inhibition. Sound familiar?
The problem affects both men and women. Why then is it usually the men who fall victim to such self-destructive behaviour? A recent report in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin says it’s not because males do not try and resist temptation as much as females. It’s just that they face stronger impulses and fail more often. The fact that they’re usually more powerful may also count.