As a European I’ve always been surprised by the importance that American people give to personal sex stories of politicians. The list is long and has ancient roots, but sex scandals, as they are often defined, can bring down everyone in America.

I understand that these “scandals” are often used just as an excuse to vilify the person in question, nonetheless they are enough to defame powerful people, even if they are just private stories which should concern only the people involved.

Why do sex stories have such power in American politics?

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    Berlusconi in Italy and Barnaby Joyce in Australia come to mind as examples of non-American sex scandals. Are you sure an obsession with sex scandals is especially bad in the US?
    – Golden Cuy
    Commented Nov 7, 2019 at 20:05
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    American protestant churches are "puritanical", and place a higher value on sexual morality than mainline protestant and catholic denominations. The resulting culture is highly regulative of sexual notions of purity and chastity, as a reflection of over-all purity and morality. This is reflected not only in politics, but in common american attitudes about nudity, monogamy, and other sexually-related notions.
    – dandavis
    Commented Nov 7, 2019 at 20:42
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    @dandavis - that’s probably the heart of the matter. Thanks for being frank about it.
    – user 66974
    Commented Nov 7, 2019 at 20:47
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    @AndrewGrimm I wouldn't use Berlusconi as an example. The thing that did him in were not the sex stories (that IIRC people mostly chuckled at with satisfaction, in a "good for him" manner), rather the fact that he tried to abuse his power to get one of his girls released from the police with a bald faced lie. And even that would probably not have been enough had the economic situation been good. Commented Nov 7, 2019 at 21:31
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    Related: politics.stackexchange.com/questions/34887/… Commented Nov 8, 2019 at 3:13

7 Answers 7


This answer is going to be a bit circular put a Pew poll found that the US public disapproves of adultery more than the Europeans do.

enter image description here

And there's a fair inference from that that the US public cares more about such matters (like adultery) in politicians' private lives than the European public does. (There might be even polls on this explicitly, but I don't have one on hand right now.)

And (not surprisingly) the US is more religious than many other developed countries.

enter image description here

To go beyond this level of explanation, we'd have to explain the cultural frame that makes the US public inclined in that direction. (Let me know if you want me to elaborate on that... but beware that when it comes to explaining culture, things tend to get more opinion-based.)

N.B. there are also studies that find that (unsurprisingly) voters have a degree of myside bias when it comes to personal scandals in politicians' lives (more broadly than just on sexual scandals), meaning that voters are more forgiving of the private behavior of those with whom they align on general political issues.

  • Thanks for providing statistical evidence. My question is why is that so? (There is always a reason) but I understand that we are moving into POB territory. I think the answer lies in the comment about the “puritanical spirit” that has probably shaped American people perception about sex and other related issues. That’s the main cultural difference I can think of between Europe and America in that respect
    – user 66974
    Commented Nov 8, 2019 at 7:38
  • @user070221: see arabnews.com/node/1352431 for some opinions. Commented Nov 8, 2019 at 8:09
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    Our Sex-Obsessed American Prophets: huffpost.com/entry/…
    – user 66974
    Commented Nov 8, 2019 at 20:29
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    Whatdya wanna bet that "53% don't mind adultery" French rate doesn't apply if it's your spouse being asked about you? More seriously there might even be a bit of positive reinforcement going on: partially due to religion, US politicians tend to talk more about morality in private behavior, putting them more at risk when it turns out that they had an affair or the like. Commented Nov 9, 2019 at 1:15

"Sex stories" as you put them are usually extremely relevant to determing whether or not a politician behaves ethically. It is generally believed that people who do not act ethically in some parts of their lives will also act unethically in others, some of those being very relevant to the voting public.

"Sex stories" are also embarrassing and therefore create the opportunity for a politician to be blackmailed. Even though President Donald Trump has not had any "sex stories" while serving as the President, his prior behavior of cheating on his wife with a pornographic actress was embarrassing enough to him that he was willing to pay that actress money not to talk about their affair. Other politicians who are not personally wealthy and therefore cannot afford to pay blackmail may choose to make problems like that go away by using the powers of their office in ways that they would not ordinarily be used to benefit the blackmailer at the expense of the public.

It is also often not the case that "sex stories" are totally private matters; many of them involve the behavior of politicians in their work environment with people they work with at times when they are supposed to be working. A recent notable case in the United States is former Representative Katie Hill, who recently resigned from Congress because it was discovered that she was having a sexual relationship with an employee of a congressional committee, which is a violation of House ethics rules and would likely also meet the legal standard for workplace sexual harassment if it occurred at an employer who was not Congress.

It is also not unusual for politicians who are engaged in clandestine sexual affairs to commit crimes in order to cover them up. Former President Bill Clinton lied under oath about his affair with Monica Lewinsky during grand jury testimony; perjury is considered a felony under federal law that is punishable by a 5 year prison sentence. Clinton was not indicted for this only because he was the sitting President; the President cannot be indicted according to longstanding legal opinion. So, the House of Representatives impeached him but the Senate refused to remove him from office.

So yeah, if the "sex stories" were merely about consenting adults having sex with their spouse's knowledge and consent, they wouldn't be much of a big deal. They usually involve crimes or abuse of their offices in one way or another, so aren't merely "personal."

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    Thanks for your interesting answer which confirms that American do matter or should matter about politicians sexist affairs. But why politicians sex affairs in all cases should be of public relevance is not clear. In Europe we don’t care about our politician their sexual lives (unless there are criminal offenses involved) are we unethical?
    – user 66974
    Commented Nov 7, 2019 at 20:12
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    >extremely relevant to determing whether or not a politician behaves ethically how so? if it's between consenting adults and doesn't fall afoul of say manager to underling laws and employment guidelines, why should it matter, unless the politician in question specifically makes a career of preaching sexual morality? Commented Nov 7, 2019 at 20:43
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    This doesn't necessarily explain why Americans seemingly value this more than other Western countries. I think I can recall a few romantic /sexual affairs with European leaders which didn't see other politicians weigh in and mostly played out in tabloids.
    – JJJ
    Commented Nov 7, 2019 at 21:59

Because religion is very important for about half of all Americans. Like all religious people they have a fascination with what other people do in their bedrooms, even though it has nothing to do with their performance regarding political matters.

Americans love sex scandals, islamic countries worry about homosexuality.

Silly folly diversions are very typical in all religious history.

  • even though it has nothing to do with their performance regarding political matters” I don’t think many people would agree on this point...actually the perception is that a private “betrayal” would easily lead to a public, political ‘betrayal”.
    – user 66974
    Commented Nov 10, 2019 at 10:44
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    I addressed the fact that many religious people worry about other people's sexual history. Being a good law maker has nothing to do with a persons sexuality in anyway, any more than sexuality matters or judges a surgeons abilities and so on. Commented Nov 11, 2019 at 4:24
  • I think you misunderstood the question.
    – user 66974
    Commented Nov 11, 2019 at 10:44

As Americans, our flavor of capitalism conflates the concept of virtue and prosperity in our attempts to paint ourselves as a meritocracy. X person is richer/more powerful because he's a harder worker, stuff like that. Why? Part of it is our White, Anglo Saxon Protestant forebears who found hard work to be one of the greatest virtues. Another part is that the wealthy and powerful need a story by which to explain why they should have more wealth/power than everyone else: it's that they're better people.

By setting our leaders on so high of a pedestal as not only sociopolitical leaders but also moral leaders, the most minor of personal failings can easily topple them, as it proves they shouldn't be in their position of power.

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    I think that ancestral history is an interesting angle but it probably needs some references to support it.
    – JJJ
    Commented Nov 7, 2019 at 21:56

I think the answers so far have missed something important, which we might call the "not practicing what you preach" factor. That is, most people don't care all that much about politicians' sex lives, what they care about is the hypocrisy of them saying one thing for public consumption, yet doing just the opposite themselves.

For instance, not many people cared all that much about Trump's sexual relationships (at least the consensual ones), what made it an issue was his attempts to cover them up and pretend to adhere to conventional ideas of morality. Similarly, you can (at least these days) be an openly gay politician, and most people won't care. But they'll come down on you like a ton of bricks for being anti-gay in public, while pursuing homosexual relationships in secret.


I think this comment explained it the best:

American protestant churches are "puritanical", and place a higher value on sexual morality than mainline protestant and catholic denominations. The resulting culture is highly regulative of sexual notions of purity and chastity, as a reflection of over-all purity and morality. This is reflected not only in politics, but in common american attitudes about nudity, monogamy, and other sexually-related notions. – dandavis Nov 7 '19 at 20:42


Two reasons:

  1. America is fundamentally a Christian nation. In terms of our values, our heritage, and our founding principles, there is only one thing that is more scandalous than extramarital affairs. This can be read straight from the Ten Commandments delivered by the Savior. What this means for politicians is that stories about such scandals are extremely impactful as to public perceptions. A return to our foundational principle of repentance and having the personal moral rectitude to discern returning prodigal sons apart from unrepentant and adulterous Pharisees will help this nation's morale and unity more than anything else could.

  2. There is an increasingly popular anti-Christian movement in the USA. This movement wants to see illicit sex normalized and so continually pushes the boundaries on what kinds of salacious content can be presented, promoted and exposed in the news, in schools, and every other venue in an attempt to normalize their religion and dispense with moral authority.

As a strong evidence that the latter is on the rise in America, consider that both Donald Trump and Ronald Reagan had an extramarital affair. Trump has been vilified (ironically) chiefly by anti-Christians, and many Christians have followed suit. Reagan was admired and applauded across the aisle as one of the best presidents we have had in modern times. The key difference is in the values of the people making the judgments: We were much more Christian as a nation back then.

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    For a contrary opinion see "Founding Myth": America was never a "Christian nation" - Salon.com.
    – agc
    Commented Nov 13, 2019 at 1:46
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    @agc Petty neo-inclusivism may be politically correct but it is short-sighted and actually exclusive. Such rewriting of history cannot erase realities such as the fact that the values-based objection to sexual promiscuity the OP cited originates in the Bible. The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution and the Declaration of Human Rights they inspired would all crumble without the Bible and its influence on the Founding Fathers. Any who were not formally Christians were heavily influenced by Christianity, which is synonymous with freedom. This is obvious and manifest to all people.
    – pygosceles
    Commented Nov 13, 2019 at 17:11
  • That Salon URL doesn't mention "neo-inclusivism".
    – agc
    Commented Nov 13, 2019 at 17:31
  • @agc I am calling it what it is, not what the article says it is.
    – pygosceles
    Commented Nov 13, 2019 at 17:53
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    Being a Christian nation is not about establishing a theocracy (Those are two very different concepts). It is about the values of the people, which include respecting and sacrificing for the freedom of others. Not everyone who takes the name lives up to it, but the principle of "liberty and justice for all", while it belongs to all people, has Christian origins.
    – pygosceles
    Commented Nov 15, 2019 at 19:03

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