How sex scandals and rumours lay bare our sexist attitudes, in Hong Kong and elsewhere

Alice Wu says the allegations about chief executive contender Carrie Lam’s marriage show how quick some people are to blame women for the behaviour of men, and this is not OK

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 12 March, 2017, 8:31am
UPDATED : Sunday, 12 March, 2017, 5:36pm

Sex sells, unfortunately. Once exposed, extramarital affairs may ruin not only marriages, but also, sometimes, depending on the gender of the cheater, political careers.

Most of the time, male politicians get away with it. It may take repeated transgressions, as in the case of Anthony Weiner, for it to definitively end careers. Some kept at it with very little professional consequences (Think Rudy Giuliani). Some can even brag about it – one did and was elected to the world’s most powerful political position.

We rarely hear of female politicians cheating, but that’s not to say that women don’t cheat. Former Taipei City councilwoman Chu Mei-feng’s political career ended promptly after a sex scandal. We don’t hear much of cheating women politicians afterwards: they don’t get to make a comeback like the men. Amy Koch, Minnesota’s first ever female majority leader in the senate, had an affair with a staff member and her career crashed and burned.

Sexism is all around us in Hong Kong

Something disturbing happened in Hong Kong politics this month. Chief executive hopeful Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor deserves a big “bravo” for coming out and squashing the nasty rumours about her husband and an alleged mistress.

I don’t even understand how that could have been some “black material”, even if the allegations had been true. Infidelity did become an issue at the last chief executive election, but that was because one contender admitted he had strayed. The last time I checked, Mrs Lam is running in this one, not Mr Lam.

Carrie Lam: I need my husband to lean on

This is where it gets absurd. Would having a cheating spouse count as a black mark against any candidate? If so, then something is seriously wrong. It is 2017, after all. It’s incredible that some people still hold to the backward thinking that women are to blame for their husbands’ affairs.

We must confront these double standards.

Hillary Clinton, whom some people love to hate, is no stranger to sexist abuse. During her run for the US presidency, one person tweeted, “If Hillary Clinton can’t satisfy her husband what makes her think she can satisfy America?” We should have zero tolerance for this sort of malicious attack.

A wife’s infidelity is not a sign of the wronged man’s shortcomings. Similarly, a husband’s philandering is not a sign of the wronged woman’s shortcomings. Marriages are complex, imperfect and it takes hard work for the couple concerned.

One other trend is worrying in high-profile sex scandals. For one reason or another, the wives who have chosen to stay and work things out with their cheating spouse have been shamed for making that decision. That is just another way of holding women responsible for the sexual behaviour of men.

Hongkongers call for an end to sexism in the workplace with video campaign on International Women’s Day

We have got to stop blaming people for all sorts of things that are not their fault. In surveys around the world, a shocking number of people believe that sexually assaulted and raped women are to blame for their ordeal. In a recent poll conducted by South Korea’s Ministry of Gender Equality and Family, for example, 55 per cent of men and 42 per cent of women linked sexual assault with women’s behaviour.

This pervasive sexism makes people think it is OK to make marital trouble political dirt, or, even more despicable, to make up martial trouble in order to create political dirt. We can empower women by putting them in boardrooms and by electing them. But we can empower women and men every day if we reject such entrenched but very wrong thinking.

Alice Wu is a political consultant and a former associate director of the Asia Pacific Media Network at UCLA