Sex and the Married General: 3 Reasons Petraeus Had to Go

When CIA director David Petraeus stepped down from his post, citing an extramarital affair, the political birds of prey immediately started talking about who should replace him. And the usual battleground map was drawn.

On the one side are those who say any leader caught in such a compromising position has to go. On the other side are those who contend private consensual sexual behavior is just that and as long as it is not interfering with a leader’s ability to do the job, it should not factor into whether he or she remains in power.

Petraeus’s romance with his biographer and former military officer, Paula Broadwell, is hardly a new circumstance in American politics.

General Dwight Eisenhower had a well-known affair with his driver while commanding the US Army in Europe, and this did not prevent him from becoming president. Franklin Roosevelt had a long-running affair with Lucy Mercer while he was president without any hints that he should resign the presidency. JFK was a well-known womanizer, including in the White House. And then of course there is Bill Clinton who despite his foolish high risk dalliance with Monica Lewinsky remains (perhaps second only to his wife) the most popular politician in the country.

So you might think I am going to defend Petraeus. Most definitely not, for three reasons.

Being inclusive doesn't end with simply being welcoming.

Leading inclusive conversations requires a new "language."

Get my new resource to help organizations like yours not just survive, but embrace these times of change & thrive.

FREE Language of Leadership Guide Book


First, though sexual acts in private life might be best kept private, it is well past time for men to be held to the same standards as women in their personal behavior. And men in public roles, especially roles with national security sensitivities, are subject to a higher standard than Joe Shmo down the street.

Second, sex with a subordinate–regardless of who initiates it–cannot help but include an element of power imbalance that skews the subordinate’s ability to say “yes” or “no” to sex with a completely clear head. That does not speak well of Petraeus as a leader. Broadwell is no longer in the Army, and therefore technically no longer his subordinate. She is one tough woman, and she should have known better herself. But even that doesn’t excuse Petraeus, who seems to have been able to adhere to discipline in his military responsibilities.

And third, since the power balance remains almost always male on top, Petraeus’s resignation is a positive sign–recognition that the old patriarchal standards no longer apply. Surely this turn of events is progress, to be applauded. It’s a lesson that the vaunted general should have learned during the past few years by observing Anthony Weiner, and many others too numerous to mention here.

All men. 

Not that women aren’t also capable of making poor choices about sex (former Senator Carol Moseley Braun’s financial scandal involving her campaign staffer/fiancée comes to mind), but how many more can you think of? For many reasons–greater risk aversion, the biological fact that women take longer to become aroused which gives them more time to think about the consequences of acting on the randiness of the moment, or simply cultural norms that train women to be “good girls” who control their impulses, whereas “boys will be boys”(wink/nod) remains a norm–women are rapidly becoming perceived as the safer bet for leadership roles.

The social chaos created by changing these sexual mores is a breakthrough opportunity for women who have been stalled at 18% of top leadership positions for over two decades. It’s no accident that when Lockheed’s incoming CEO, Christopher Kubasik, was fired November 9 after admitting to an affair with a subordinate, he was replaced by a woman, Marillyn Hewson. Just as Dominique Strauss-Kahn was replaced by a woman, Christine Lagarde as head of the International Monetary Fund last year.

So, gentlemen, if you want to retain a fair share of leadership roles in this new world order, I suggest you learn from these experiences to keep your brains atop your shoulders, where they belong.

This article began as a response to a question on Politico Arena. My original answer can be found here.

Leave a Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.