A Woman Scorned?

It’s difficult to find a day that mistresses are not in the news.  Today is no exception. NPR ran a story today about the problems rooting out corruption in Chinese politics, the bulk of which was about the problems of mistress culture. According to the story, the way to get dirt about the corruption of high-ranking Chinese politicos is to find scorned mistresses interested in revenge.

These Chinese mistresses – whose “public scandals” have “made for bad press” despite being a symptom rather than a cause of corruption, have been the subject of a number of news and human interest stories. Of course, they are not the first mistresses to attract attention (and blame) in politics – from Paula Broadwell to Julie Gayet, publics love good mistress stories. Political analysts also often cannot resist analyzing the ‘trouble’ caused by sexual politics (e.g., Dan Drezner’s discussion of “The Trouble with Dames in World Politics” and subsequent responses). Some call it news, I call it slut-shaming.

The ‘trouble’ that these Chinese ‘dames’ cause seems to be multi-dimensional, to read their press. The stories characterize them as only in it for the money, cold, disloyal, and ruthless. Rather than talking about them as victims of the sex industry, the stories emphasize that they are ‘players’ who make their own choices, including the choice of betrayal. Their customers, or keepers, on the other hand, are characterized as relatively helpless: ninety-five percent of elite Chinese politicians have illicit affairs and sixty percent keep mistresses, it is ‘required’ for them to demonstrate their masculinity. The mistresses, then, are characterized as a key part of corruption and a key reason that corrupt officials are likely to get caught.  They characterized as the political equivalent of kryptonite to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s crackdown on corruption – they are at once the corruption and the threat to take it down messily. The message to (Chinese) politically powerful men is clear: keeping it in your pants is key to political survival, and women can take you down.

In a world where fifty-something, wealthy, married, powerful men exploit poor, undereducated, teenage women for sex (and often abuse), … how did the woman become the perpetrators and the men the victims?

 I am not arguing that the women who serve as mistresses for China’s powerful politicians are without  agency, either in their decisions to become mistresses or in their decisions to ‘out’ the corruption of their keepers or employers. That would be a short-sighted argument for someone who whose research focuses on women’s agency to engage in behavior that defies traditional gender norms. At the same time, I think a couple of simple observations are in order.

First, China’s corruption problem is not rooted in, limited to, or centered around the tendency of high profile politicians to have prostitutes. Instead, recent studies have suggested corruption is correlated with low levels of access to the media, educational attainment, and regulation; poor design of governmental institutions; and income disparities. The corruption takes the form of bribes, placement in office, back-room deals, and illicit distributions of power. To the extent that the affairs are themselves classifiable as ‘corrupt’ (imperfect analysis to begin with, in my opinion), then they are a part of it, but certainly not a central axis of Chinese political corruption.

Second, the women who are the mistresses of Chinese elite politicians do make choices, but they do so in a country (and indeed in a world) governed by pressures of race, gender, and class. In China, these young women from mostly rural backgrounds deal with the pressures of a rigid class system in which they need to earn a living, in a society with a history of female infanticide. Even the most empowered of Chinese mistresses deals with these pressures, and the vast majority of sex workers in China live and work in conditions that can only be described as inhumane.

Given this, it seems to be a clearly exaggerated and fantastic story to blame Chinese politicians’ mistresses both for their corruption and for the risk of exposing it. So why do media outlets and even politicians perpetuate this wildly false account?

Pure and simple – slut-shaming works as well in high office as it does in high school, and the media and policy attention aimed at China’s elite mistresses is just that. Arguments that sexual and sexualized women upset, derail, corrupt, and/or otherwise screw up (apparently otherwise stable) men are based in the assumption that ‘real’ ‘regular’ ‘normal’ and ‘proper’ women are pure and asexual, and feminine sexuality, when expressed, is dangerous, unpredictable, and chaotic. The association of unleashed feminine sexuality with (political) danger is not unique to Chinese politics, or to Western media coverage of it. Instead, it is a(nother) example of the simultaneous implications that women should not stray outside of traditional femininity, do not belong in the public sphere, and act as a nuisance when they do. These underlying notions about the mysteries and dangers of women and their sexuality are not disappearing with (or as quickly as) legal constraints to women’s rights, and they have potentially more reaching negative impacts on gender equality.

That (among other reasons) is why I hope that the Chinese mistresses who have recently garnered attention do expose corruption and use politicians, since they will be blamed for the fallout either way. In the alternative, I hope this (and other) slut-shaming stops counting as credible news reporting, whether it is in Hollywood or global politics.