Testosterone Kings: Herman Cain, DSK, and the Dirty Dawg Defense

Our society operates on the unspoken principle that biology is destiny. We tell ourselves that men just can't help it. We convince ourselves that the dominant male hormone is to be blamed -- not men themselves.
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If Michele Bachmann were accused of fondling a male employee, she'd be off the GOP hopefuls list before you could say perimenopause.

How is it, then, that married studs like Herman Cain, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Silvio Berlusconi, and Bill Clinton -- to name a few -- get away with their lechery for as long as they do without being marched off the podium?

The answer is: testosterone. Our society operates on the unspoken principle that biology is destiny. We tell ourselves that men just can't help it. We convince ourselves that the dominant male hormone is to be blamed -- not men themselves -- for abusive or stupid behavior. This is like saying it's okay for women to kick in the windows at Saks because their hormonal selves crave some new shoes.

It's true that men are programmed for promiscuity. It is a fact that nature has created us to be, as zoologist E.O. Wilson puts it, "moderately polygynous" (meaning we like more than one sex partner) and that, from a purely reproductive standpoint, "it pays males to be aggressive, hasty, fickle, and undiscriminating... [and] for females to be coy, to hold back until they can identify the males with the best genes... " in Wilson's words. 1 But the notion that biology excuses villainy -- including sexual harassment, betrayal, or lying through our married teeth -- is ridiculous and insulting to both men and women.

The trouble is that testosterone is king in our culture. We're trained to worship its virile endowments -- aggression, stamina, strength, bravado, clarity of mind and purpose -- while excusing its pathological side effects of promiscuity, violence, hyper-competitiveness, and female subjugation. When this contradiction is slapped in our face -- as when Ginger White confessed this week to a 13-year affair with Herman Cain, who arrogantly denies the charge -- many in the public domain react with less contempt than we would if Cain were accused of lying about anything other than sex -- a criminal history, say, or not really being born in this country.

This has given rise to what I call the Dirty Dawg Defense. Like the insanity defense, the D.D.D. operates on the principle that physiology exempts us from guilt. While the Dirty Dawg Defense is not on the books (yet), it wields great credibility in the court of public opinion. "Oh, that Herman Cain," many apparently think, "he can't really help it if he's such a stud. What's a hot-blooded pizza magnate to do? Cut the pepperoni?" While going through the motions of contempt and blame, we exonerate liars like Herman Cain by allowing him to remain in the running for an office that ought to stand for the truth. Our cultural crush on testosterone as both sexual hormone and metaphor (for strength and power) blinds us to sexism and double standards. It fosters the unspoken belief that what men do with their bodies is their business. It even suggests that abuses to boy children (testosterone carriers) are less noxious than offenses against girls, as Daniel Mendelsohn pointed out in a recent New York Times editorial, suggesting that if Jerry Sandusky had been sodomizing a girl in that Penn State locker room, the authorities would have been called in sooner. According to this magical thinking, testosterone makes boys less vulnerable -- more in control -- than their female counterparts. Under its sexual influence, what's more, the minors might even be enjoying it.

As a man, I'm appalled by the Dirty Dawg Defense and the notion that we can't control our own actions. I'm offended by the argument that we're helpless puppets in thrall to a renegade hormone. Herman Cain needs to fess up to his lies (as Bill Clinton and others have been forced to) or be escorted out of the public arena with his tail between his legs. Perennial puberty is no excuse for violating the public trust.

1. Edward O. Wilson, On Human Nature, Harvard University Press, 1978, p. 125.

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