Here we go again. Another news cycle focused on powerful men's inappropriate and abusive sexual behavior, ranging from Arnold Schwarzenegger's secret child from an affair, to Dominique Strauss-Kahn's alleged rape of a woman in NYC. Both have histories of sexual harassment complaints lodged against them. Before Arnold, it was Tiger Woods, and John Edwards, and ______ (fill in the blank with one of the many other names that might pop into your mind at this point).
We have heard it all before. The flurry of newspaper and tabloid articles rehash the same old issues. Time magazine's May 30 cover story asked, "Sex. Lies. Arrogance. What makes Powerful Men Act Like Pigs"? There are thousands of articles on the web with titles like "why men cheat." According to sociologist Michael Kimmel, it is a matter of privilege and entitlement:
The answer to the question about why powerful men cheat is, of course, because they can. But it's more than that. It's because they think they're entitled to access to women's bodies as a perk of their celebrity status. And they think that pretty much every woman they meet feels the same way about that as they do.
But not only white male upper class privilege is implicated here. It is also a story of heterosexual privilege. As Warren Blumenfeld , Professor of Curriculum and Instruction, observes, in all of the articles out there "virtually no one accuses these men of destroying marriage itself."
Instead, we save that charge for gay and lesbian couples who seek to marry. Blumenfeld catalogues the many attacks against marriage for same-sex couples: According to a 2008 joint statement by sixteen New England Roman Catholic bishops though: "The legislature of the State of Vermont, by passing the civil unions bill, has attacked centuries of cultural and religious esteem for marriage between a man and a woman and has prepared the way for an attack on the well-being of society itself," and the Catholic catechism refers to "homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity" that are "intrinsically disordered" and "contrary to the natural law." And according to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, "Homosexual behavior violates the commandments of God, is contrary to the purposes of human sexuality, distorts loving relationships, and deprives people of the blessings that can be found in family life.
Blumenfeld's juxtaposition of the way in which heterosexual adultery is analyzed, with the condemnations of LGBT families, reveals much about the operation of heterosexual privilege. The actions of individual heterosexual men are never used against all heterosexuals. One of the central benefits of being part of a privileged social identity group is that your own behavior is never taken as representing that of your entire group. No matter how many stories we hear about heterosexual men committing adultery and destroying their marriages, why is it that we continue to hear that it is LGBT people that are the greatest threat to the institution of marriage?
And what about the stereotypes of gay men as promiscuous, or as pedophiles? Here heterosexual men have gay men beat as well, and there is no dearth of public examples. Time examines many heterosexual men such as Italy's Prime Minister Berlusconi, and Roman Polanski, charged with purchasing sex from and assaulting girls under the age of consent. And yet again it is gay men that our society stereotypes as pedophiles. Blumenfeld notes, "Married men have found it engorgingly hard to keep their pants zipped. But I am continually struck by the perplexing question of why perception persists that primarily gay and bisexual men are termed 'promiscuous.'"
That is what heterosexual privilege does, it allows individual heterosexual men to behave badly without anyone assuming it says something about all heterosexuals. And the point is not to assume that it does, but to ask why so many are willing to quickly make these assumptions about those who do not share the benefits of heterosexual privilege.