Artwork by Megan Smith
It’s been almost two months since the minute-long CCTV footage of Matt Hancock in his office sucking face with his aide went viral. Recorded in May and leaked to The Sun at the end of June, the footage has since sparked his resignation as Health Secretary, a vote of no confidence from his constituency, and a collective skin-crawling of the British public in response to a video that can only be described with one word – gross.
The outrage comes from various directions: a policymaker becomes a hypocrite, a family man becomes a cheater. Ultimately, another Tory politician has made a huge fool of themselves. There are a lot of reasons the affair has received so much media attention, but at the core of it, there’s nothing the British public love more than a political sex scandal. And this one just so happens to be on camera.
The story is the same every time. Powerful man with a lot to lose engages in an affair that could ruin him. And then it does. For as long as they’ve been at the top (so basically forever), influential men who seemingly ‘have it all’ throw it away on an illicit affair. Bill Clinton was at one point the most powerful man in the world and he gambled his presidency away on a blow job. In the sixties, War Secretary John Profumo had his sights set on being Prime Minister until he slept with nineteen year-old Christine Keeler and never worked in Parliament again. Whilst Arnold Schwarzenegger’s newly pregnant wife and three children went on holiday, the world famous actor and soon-to-be governor of California stayed home to ‘work’ and impregnate the housekeeper, the result of which was a love child who looked just like him and the subsequent end of his marriage.
And it’s not just politics. In 2009 Tiger Woods was the best golf player in the world. Then his many affairs came to light and he kissed the million-dollar endorsement deals, his Florida mansion and his wife and kids goodbye. The point is that Matt Hancock is no new model. Though he’s a bit smarmier, lacks obvious sex appeal and most of us definitely wouldn’t, he is undeniably cut from the same cloth.
According to Dr Orna Guralnik, clinical psychologist and star of US series Couples Therapy, no specific type of person is more likely to cheat because affairs can take such nuanced forms and the reasons are so varied. Yet a study conducted in the Netherlands found that “elevated power is positively associated with infidelity because power increases confidence in the ability to attract partners.” Factors we’d expect – gender, frequency of business trips, tendency to take risks – didn’t come into it. The basic idea is that power comes with a sense of invincibility. When surrounded by praise, adoration and people who say yes to everything you demand, you feel like you can get away with anything.
But this is the part I have trouble with. If we’re talking about the average slimy CEO having an affair on the side with his secretary, the results of the study make sense: powerful man takes what he wants and the consequences aren’t important. Yet it’s not the same for men in the public eye. Their lives are constantly monitored; they know that people are always watching. They know that they’re not invincible. You'd think to become a member of parliament, governor of California or leader of a nation, you’d need more than a shred of intelligence. The stakes are higher, as are the chances of getting caught. But they do it anyway.
In her book Three Women, Lisa Taddeo writes, “I have never entirely subscribed to the theory that powerful men have such outsize egos that they cannot suppose they will ever be caught; rather, I think that the desire is so strong in the instant that everything else–family, home, career–melts down into … nothing.”
And this is the crux of it. It's insatiability, not invincibility. It’s an odd thing to do – risking everything you’ve ever worked for for the sake of a moment. But what if, psychologically speaking, they just can’t help it? Speaking on Today in Focus, Dr Guralnik discusses power as an addiction. It comes from some kind of internal lack, she says, the need for outward validation and constant reassurance in the power they’ve already got. And it’s not to say that all powerful people have become so for selfish reasons. There are politicians who genuinely believe in the greater good, in working for the enrichment of society. But all too often insecure boys with some form of lacking grow into powerful men with something to prove. And even when they achieve everything they set out to, nothing is ever enough. They go looking for confirmation of their power elsewhere, and the more dangerous the transgression, the greater the compulsion to do it. Tiger Woods chose a slew of cocktail waitresses and lingerie models. Matt Hancock, his married aide. Bill Clinton, an intern half his age.
And our warped definition of success doesn’t help. As a society, we tend to look at power-hungry people with awe because aren’t we all supposed to want to be at the top? Success, as we know it, is nothing more than a distorted metric on a hierarchical power structure and has nothing to do with internal contentment. Author and journalist Elizabeth Day discusses this in her book, How to Fail. Through interviews with high-profile celebrities she explores the way success has so little to do with happiness. In 2003, on the night she became an Oscar-winner, Nicole Kidman sat in her hotel room after the ceremony feeling flat and disillusioned. She was the most successful Australian actress in Hollywood, she was adored by millions around the world and she was also desperately unhappy. Of course, Nicole Kidman is far from some clammy politician with a wandering eye and I really don’t mean to put them in the same category, but there is a similarity to be drawn here. On a superficial level Nicole Kidman achieved everything she could have dreamed of, she was at the top of her game and it wasn’t enough.
“What happens when, having worked hard and got the requisite number of lucky breaks, you find yourself successful and it doesn’t feel quite as you’d imagined?” writes Day. “What happens if, on paper, you’ve got everything you want, but inside there’s a lingering sense of something missing; an emptiness you can’t admit for fear of appearing ungrateful? In other words: what happens when you fail at success?”
Nicole Kidman moved to a farm in Nashville. She fell in love with a country singer called Keith and changed her perception of what mattered. Elizabeth Day writes about Kidman’s acceptance of the Best Film Actress award at Glamour’s 2017 Women of the Year Awards, fourteen years after her Oscar. She stood on the stage in a pink dress and she said that her forty-ninth year had been the best one yet. She told all the women in the audience that it wasn’t over at forty, nor at fifty, that really it was only just beginning.
Unsurprisingly the Matt Hancock saga hasn’t got such a nice ending. He’s out of the family home and in with the aide. He’s been pegged by the Independent as ‘the laughing stock of Westminster’ and the Guardian has compared his affair to an 80s movie titled ‘the dweeb and the hot girl’. He may well be lurking in the shadows, planning his return to politics but for now the public humiliation is far from over. No doubt he’ll be fine in the end, they always are. Tiger Woods repaired his career and went on to win more tournaments. Bill Clinton co-wrote a couple of novels. Arnold Schwarzenegger worked as an executive producer on the documentary The Game Changers and is now an advocate for eating less meat. The point is they make it back, but it’s never quite the same. It would have just been simpler if they’d kept it in their pants all along.
Article by Annabel White