What's to Blame for Sex Scandals? Not Morals, Americans Say

More than half of Americans blame the spate of public sex scandals among politicians on the heightened scrutiny they face, rather than lower moral standards among elected officials, according to a Pew survey released today (June 14).

The telephone survey was conducted June 9 through June 12 among more than 1,000 adults by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press and The Washington Post. Participants chose from two reasons ("greater scrutiny" or "lower moral standards"), and they could select "both," "neither/other," or "don't know."

After weighting the results for a nationally representative sample, the researchers found 57 percent of participants said elected officials simply get caught more often because they are under greater scrutiny, while about 19 percent believed lower moral standards was behind the public sex scandals.

Among this 19 percent, most respondents (13 percent) said that when people get into positions of power, they tend to lose their moral standards, while 4 percent believe the political arena attracts the kind of people who have lower moral standards.

Among those who indicated "neither/other" as the reason politicians get involved in sex scandals, the most frequently cited "other" reason cited elected officials' ego or arrogance.

No significant differences were found across political and demographic groups regarding the scandals.

The survey also showed no difference in opinion between those closely following or not-so-closely following the current scandal involving Rep. Anthony Weiner, who admitted sending sexual messages and photos to at least six women online. [Read: How To Tell If Your Partner Is Cheating]

Whether or not the sexual transgressions of politicians and celebrities are on par with those of the general population is not known, with cheating statistics for average men and women varying widely.

Even so, science has weighed in on the "why politicians cheat" question with a slew of possibilities, suggesting the reason is complex. Power hits the top of the list, with research suggesting that with power comes the temptation to stray — and many powerful men (and women) assume they'll get away with it. Politicians and celebs also have ample opportunities to cheat.

Frank Farley, a psychologist at Temple University and former president of the American Psychological Association, said that rather than the job increasing the chance of affairs, it's actually the other way around — a job in politics might tend to attract a type of person who loves to take risks and seeks out such thrills.

And after the fallout, it seems, we forgive the cheating politician, according to Stephanie Coontz, a historian at The Evergreen State College in Washington and author of "Marriage, A History" (Viking Adult, 2005). Regarding news of former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's fathering a child with a household staff member, Coontz told LiveScience last month that society is quick to forgive, pointing out that former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich feels free to run for president despite a history of adultery.

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Jeanna Bryner
Live Science Editor-in-Chief

Jeanna served as editor-in-chief of Live Science. Previously, she was an assistant editor at Scholastic's Science World magazine. Jeanna has an English degree from Salisbury University, a master's degree in biogeochemistry and environmental sciences from the University of Maryland, and a graduate science journalism degree from New York University. She has worked as a biologist in Florida, where she monitored wetlands and did field surveys for endangered species. She also received an ocean sciences journalism fellowship from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.