Mistresses have always held a certain fascination in American life, especially when it comes to famous and powerful men. Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt (Lucy Mercer), Dwight Eisenhower (Kay Summersby) and John F. Kennedy (Judith Exner, Marilyn Monroe) were alleged to have strayed outside the boundaries of their marital vows. Many other men who lead public lives have been outed as cheaters, including Michael Jordan, Ethan Hawke, Rudy Giuliani, Bill Clinton, John Edwards, John Ensign and David Vitter.
But in recent weeks, the parade of cheaters has picked up momentum with the news that Tiger Woods and Jesse James engaged in extramarital affairs. While the bedroom exploits of a golfer and a biker may not change the course of history, they certainly have triggered a bombardment of tabloid headlines. Because there are so many media outlets in these modern times, and because the wives of Woods and James are almost universally liked, the two adulterous gents have generated perhaps more attention and scrutiny than any hounds in recent history.
Yet what about the women? Were the mistresses truly in love? Were they looking for their 15 minutes of fame and whatever income they could generate as the result of their involvement? Did they give any thought to the possible fallout, or did they give a lot of thought to it? And do their actions create the possibility that other women may emulate their behavior and look upon being a mistress as a career path?
“Obviously I’ve never met these women. And each woman is different,” noted Dr. Charles Sophy, medical director of the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services and a visiting psychiatrist on VH1’s “Celebrity Rehab” and “Sober House.”
“If you look at them in a broad context and examine their personality traits and their psychological baggage for lack of a better term, what’s common with these women is that they’re typically not happy women,” he said. “They have an ax to grind for something that their father did to their mother, or they were abandoned, or they hold no regard for the value of a family. Selfishness and narcissism are common qualities.”
Sophy was quick to say that entitlement and narcissism from the male is obviously a major factor in these relationships happening at all. But when it comes to these high-profile mistresses, the spotlight that is often cast on them rarely results in apologies or regret.
“It’s the same thing with most reality shows: It mirrors positive reinforcement for negative behavior,” he explained. “There’s no downside. They break up a marriage and they rationalize it by saying, ‘It would have ended anyway.’ They’ll say that if a man is out there, then that’s a symptom of his own fractured relationship. But then I’ll say, ‘But why are you the one? Don’t you value the value of a family?’”
Like most human behavior, people don’t always realize or understand why they do the things they do. But one common belief about mistresses is that they gravitate toward men who have power because they’re held back by society from getting any of their own. That belief has been tempered somewhat in modern times by the shattering of glass ceilings in many segments of society. And while Woods clearly is in more of a position of power than the women he cheated with, Sandra Bullock is an A-list star while her husband is at least a few letters below her.
Still, old dynamics die hard, said Gina Barreca, a humorist as well as a professor of English literature and feminist theory at the University of Connecticut. She said if a powerful man exists, there will be a woman somewhere waiting to sleep with him to gain access to that power and the benefits that come with it.
“I think for a very long time in our culture the closest a woman could get to power was sleeping with it because she couldn’t get any of their own,” Barreca said. “Women fell in love with Henry Kissinger even though he looked like Yoda. I didn’t see the reverse happening. I didn’t see adoring men following Madeline Albright around.
“Fame and influence. It doesn’t matter what they look like. If they have achieved something, they’ll find groupies to follow them around. A lot of women still feel their only chance to get close to power is for power to put his arm around them. And that’s what we need to change.”
In many cases, when mistresses enter public life through their liaisons with famous and powerful men, they can use the opportunity to cash in. This appears to be the inevitable result of living in a celebrity-obsessed culture, said Barreca.
“For instance, it was a little scary when Eliot Spitzer’s girlfriend got an advice column (Ashley Dupre was hired by the New York Post to write a column on sex and relationships),” Barreca said. “It’s deep irony. It’s almost like The Onion, except it’s real.
“This is what translates into power in our world. (Jerry) Seinfeld’s ex-girlfriend (Shoshanna Lonstein) had her own line of lingerie. Until that stops having some kind of currency, where women say, ‘I will wear underwear made by someone’s ex-girlfriend,’ then we need to keep women in school longer.”
Of course, not everyone believes the “mistress as a career path” theory. Peter Lehman, director of the Center for Film, Media and Popular Culture at Arizona State University, feels women drift toward men like Woods and James because of something more basic: their masculinity.
“We use the term ‘body guys’ to refer to a certain kind of masculinity that has been emphasized strongly and has evolved strongly in the last couple of decades in our culture that places an increasing emphasis on the body rather than the mind,” Lehman said. “And frequently it has a strong anti-intellectual aspect, so it’s the celebration of the body and sexuality over the mind and intellect.
“Sandra Bullock is a very successful career woman, and at the time this all broke she had achieved the highest honor her profession accords (an Academy Award). Obviously she is attracted to this cyclist, who is most associated with the motorcycle culture, as a man who holds a certain kind of sexual appeal and an attractiveness for her. That extends to all these other women who are attracted to having affairs,” said Lehman, who is also co-author along with Susan Hunt of the upcoming book “Lady Chatterley’s Legacy in the Movies: Sex, Brains and Body Guys.”
But what stands out for Bettina Aptheker, professor of feminist studies at the University of California at Santa Cruz, is that while it may seem that some mistresses are temporarily empowered by their association with famous and powerful men, ultimately it can have a long-term negative effect on themselves and younger women out there who observe their situations.
“I don’t know the people involved. There could be genuine affection,” she said. “But when you enter into an intimate relationship that is not based on mutual affection and love and respect, then it’s degrading for both people. It’s degrading for the man, too.
“The way the media represents it, the publicity it gets, sends a very unfortunate message. In my career as a professor it comes up often. The young women — 17, 18 years old — that’s all they see when they’re reading magazines and watching television.”
Said Barreca, “It’s the worst possible way for women to look for safety. You can look for love in a relationship, but you can’t look for safety. And you can’t look for a definition of yourself.”
Michael Ventre is a frequent contributor to msnbc.com.