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The Science Behind Why Some Politicians Can’t Avoid a Sex Scandal

Clockwise from top left: Anthony Weiner, Donald Trump, Bill Clinton, Chris Lee, John Edwards, Larry Craig, Mark Foley, Newt Gingrich

Clockwise from top left: Anthony Weiner, Donald Trump, Bill Clinton, Chris Lee, John Edwards, Larry Craig, Mark Foley, Newt Gingrich

The only thing more American than apple pie is a good old-fashioned sex scandal, especially when presidential politics and contention with the media are thrown into the mix. On the heels of his now infamously lewd remarks about how he treats women, and with as many as five women coming forward with accusations that he groped or kissed them without consent, Donald Trump has found himself at the center of an all too familiar—and unfortunate—narrative. While he has adamantly denied the allegations, the recent turn of events has left many slack-jawed and wondering why some men can’t seem to keep themselves away from sexual controversy, especially when they have so much at stake. As much as he touts himself as a non-politician, Trump now joins the ranks of Anthony Weiner, Bill Clinton, Chris Lee, John Edwards, Larry Craig, Mark Foley and Newt Gingrich, to name just a few.

Psychologically speaking, reckless sexual behavior can stem from a variety of sources. At the most basic level, sexual novelty, risk-taking and sensation seeking can help distract someone from or liven up an otherwise boring existence. Some guys use sex as a way of dealing with stress; one study of 29 men with self-described “out of control” sexual behavior found that these men were more interested in sex when they felt anxious or depressed versus men who didn’t have problems with their sexual behaviors.

Men with narcissistic personality disorder expect sex to be available to them whenever they want.

In the case of an alpha male who tends to be confident with women, like Trump, his charisma enables him access to a higher number of sex partners. But this can take a dark turn in men with narcissism, which is epitomized by arrogance, an internal sense of grandiosity and a lack of empathy.

As someone who has worked clinically with personality disordered patients, a common thread I’ve seen among narcissistic people is that they live in a fantasy world in which they believe they are special and entitled to preferential treatment—standards that are above the rules and social conventions applying to everyone else.

Men with narcissistic personality disorder expect sex to be available to them whenever they want and that personal boundaries can be crossed. On top of it, these men, if they are in positions of power, don’t often get called out for acting this way because those around them are understandably fearful of retribution. As a result, this behavior will escalate over time because they grow to believe they are immune to punishment.

Other times, unwelcome sexual advances aren’t due to a maladjusted personality or misdirected attempts at stress management, but differences in how a person’s brain functions. They are a symptom of what neuropsychologists would call being “disinhibited.”

In the brain, different parts of the frontal lobe are responsible for a range of higher order functions; basically, they help us make decisions, plan and put the brakes down on our primal impulses. When your friend asks you what you think of his new kicks and you know what you really think, but don’t want to offend the guy, your brain’s ability to inhibit itself lets you say something diplomatic instead of, “They look hideous.”

People injured in this part of the brain—or sometimes, those with atrophy (or a decline) due to aging—can behave in alarming ways, like saying sexually inappropriate things at inopportune times and getting handsy with those around them. This is because the inhibition mechanism isn’t functioning as efficiently as it used to.

Whether Trump’s gaffes are a psychological or anatomical condition might never be known. What America’s latest sex scandal proves, though, is that for the majority of us, sex is always exciting because it’s rooted in the mind. Judgments aside, watching its power unfold over, and perhaps even destroy, the powerful is admittedly both fascinating and frightening.


Debra W. Soh is a sex writer and sexual neuroscientist at York University in Toronto. Her writing has been published in Harper’s, The Wall Street Journal, The Globe and Mail, New York Magazine and many other media outlets. Follow her on Twitter: @debra_soh.

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