As reported by the New Haven Register, March 23, 2008.

Sex Scandals Distract Nation

Why We’re Dazzled By Tawdry Dramas

By Abram Katz

Here’s what was happening as Eliot Spitzer secured a niche for himself in the pantheon of public philanderers.

The war in Iraq limped on. The dollar dropped knee-high to a yen. Houses are worth less than their mortgages. Osama bin Laden is still on the loose. Preparations for the next presidential election progress at slug-like speed.

You don’t know about Bear Stearns going belly up, but you’re familiar with Ashley Alexandra Dupre’s career goals.

The U.S. auto industry is on the brink of collapse, but you’ve been too busy to notice, thinking about Silda Wall Spitzer’s humiliation.

Spitzer resigned in disgrace to be replaced by his understudy, Lt. Gov. David Paterson, who immediately embroiled himself in the same kind of slime by calling a press conference to announce his extramarital affairs.

Now Paterson seems lower-key than his predecessor, but if a full-fledged Paterson scandal arises, home foreclosures will fade from public consciousness, along with unemployment and those other discouraging subjects.

That’s just one theory about the public fascination with Spitzer’s adventures with prostitutes, and Paterson’s trysts, possibly paid for with campaign money.

The fascinating but ultimately trivial trash is distracting.

The tawdry spectacle gives us something else to think about. Relief from the relentless flow of economic woes, ever more expensive petroleum, and an increasingly toasty planet.

Something easy to understand yet supremely puzzling.

Or, there’s the common thread. Bill Clinton, Gary Hart, Prince Charles, Rudy Giuliani, JFK, James E. McGreevy, Gary Condit, Mark Foley and elected officials going back to Alexander Hamilton.

All of them had strangely public and inappropriate sexual exploits in one way or another. What gives?

“Wanting to experience somebody else and see them naked is a primitive desire in men,” said J. Edward Lynch, chairman of the marriage and family therapy department at Southern Connecticut State University.

Perhaps, but most men easily control the urge to rut.

The men who engage in self-destructive sex know what they’re doing is against the rules, Lynch said. “That charges it up in an exciting way. The civilized mind sometimes cannot control” these urges, he said.

The uncivilized mind may also be in play.

As children all of us were curious about the difference between Mom and Dad and husband and wife, Lynch said. Somehow the wholesome co-existed with the mysterious and forbidden, Lynch said.

“It’s the unknown and we’re damn curious,” he said. That lingering excitement of discovery may propel men into compromising positions.

Spitzer might have spent $80,000 on Kristen and her colleagues figuring out that old conundrum, even though as an adult and parent he already knew the answer.

And, of course, men are not the only participants in these disasters. “Women are even sometimes more devious than men in things they shouldn’t be doing,” Lynch said.

Men, however, usually do themselves in. Most of what they get caught doing is illegal, but not unnatural, Lynch said. Compare that with young, attractive female school teachers who seduce students.

Since the Kristen and Spitzer Show opened last week, many men have been wondering how the former attorney general and governor of New York could have let himself get caught. Or, conversely, if he hadn’t been found out, what harm was done?

Women reacted differently. They seemed more angry, Lynch and other experts said.

“I feel angry because you treated one of our sisters as an object,’” Lynch said in explanation. It’s also possible that some women unconsciously envy the imagined wealth and freedom of women in escort services, he said.

Karen Steinberg, clinical psychologist and assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Connecticut Health Center, said a married man (like Spitzer) who seeks out a prostitute would seem to have a disconnect between emotional intimacy and sexual behavior.

However, there’s a lot more to marriage than sex, Lynch said, such as spiritual, social, and parental feelings. Even so, men and women have sex for the same reasons sometimes, and other reasons on other occasions.

“There is something appealing about another woman that comes along in our lives,” he said.

“It’s tough. Marriage takes a lot of work. There are so many temptations. He entered a world in which he didn’t belong,” Lynch said.

“Possibly, he enjoyed the danger of getting caught. It may have been thrill-seeking or sensation-seeking,” Steinberg said. Spitzer may also have been motivated by the fantasy that he could do anything he wanted, she said.

His ironic zeal in pursuing prostitution earlier in his career, and his self-righteousness, could be a reaction, she said.

As attorney general, he may have been trying to kill something in himself, she said. An urge to do something he knew he shouldn’t.

This is akin to someone who acts superior because he feels inferior, to oversimplify a bit.

Our voyeuristic culture eats all of this up, Steinberg said. Spitzer’s struggle makes ordinary lives seem not so bad, she said. It’s also exhilarating to see that the most successful members of society are flawed and imperfect.

“It’s reassuring to people that these people have problems,” she said.

Another lesson here is that people are very complex and not always who they seem to be on the surface, she said. “He has parts of himself that he has no clue about,” Steinberg said of Spitzer.

The governor’s behavior also has an element of obsession and compulsion, with an addictive aura, she said.

“We have instinctual drives. Through conditioning and learning we all have the ability to override our instincts,” she said.

At least most people, most of the time.

When former New Jersey Gov. James McGreevey revealed that he was gay in 2004, people were shocked and puzzled, but not captivated. Just as weird, perhaps weirder, than the Spitzer saga, but much less public interest.

People captivated by Eliot Spitzer, call girls and sex for cash keep the whole merry circus going.

“It’s hard to escape as a story,” said Bill McLaughlin, associate professor of communications at Quinnipiac University, and former CBS newsman. “It’s a compelling story, a tragic story, the destruction of a family. It’s a relief to the news media. That continuing boxing match between (Hillary) Clinton and (Barack) Obama is tiresome. The Spitzer story is a new toy in the sandbox. Housing, gasoline, the war in Iraq — they’re difficult to explain. Sex is not complicated.

“About 80 million Americans have learned what ‘schadenfreude’ means,” McLaughlin said, referring to the German word signifying joy in someone else’s misfortune.

Another component of the Spitzer tsunami is the ability of the great to bring themselves low, McLaughlin said.

“Here was a man with money and a picture-book family. He was highly educated,” he said. It’s hard not to watch a person like that self-destruct, McLaughlin said.

A generation ago, reporters would refrain from breaking certain stories, he said. “Everyone knew about John F. Kennedy. Stories were rife. Pierre Salinger, Kennedy’s press secretary, would scold reporters, telling them ‘He has so much on his mind.’

That was enough to keep them silent.

“The rich have always been different. They have mistresses, paramours. That was always accepted,” McLaughlin said.

Europeans were nonplussed over the national response to the Clinton-Lewinsky episode, he said. They would probably wonder even more about the fuss over Spitzer, McLaughlin said.

“We’re becoming more puritanical,” he said.