Sex and power: the sexual predator in art and politics

In recent months, we have been treated to the unedifying spectacle of seeing one of Australia’s most popular entertainers convicted of sexually molesting underage children.

History is full of men in positions of power who have exploited women.

The sexual pecadillos of politicians are a constant source of outrage, amusement and amazement. But it is also true that some women are drawn to powerful men and many politicians are tempted to take advantage of this. In some cases, the relationship is consensual, in some cases it is not. Henry Kissinger famously said that power was the ultimate aphrodisiac. Henry was a bit of a ladies’ man, which is surprising because he was not the best looking bloke on the block but his track record was impressive.

Henry had som pretty good looking girlfriends. You might recognise some
Henry had some pretty good looking girlfriends.

Given that politics is the greatest source of power, particularly for men, it’s not surprising that men in positions of power will take advantage of this and are frequently drawn into sexual relationships that are politically damaging when discovered. Bill “I did not have sexual relations with that woman” Clinton is one of the better known examples of this and JFK was certainly a notorious pants man and probably with better taste than Clinton. He certainly didn’t suffer any public fallout from his relations with other women, most spectacularly Marilyn Monroe.

JFK and Munroe
JFK and Munroe

Anyone who was ever in doubt about the relationship between Kennedy and Munroe should watch the famous “Happy Birthday, Mr President” video clip. Certainly, Jackie Kennedy was in no doubt and reportedly stormed out of the function after Munroe’s singing solo.

Presidential peccadilloes had a nasty habit of surfacing every now and then. Bill Clinton was also a notorious pants man.  Things got really serious and very messy with Monica Lewinsky.bill-clinton-and-monica-lewinski

And there were always stories flying around about other women.

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There is also a sly dig at Clinton in the immensely popular film Love Actually where the American president, played by Billy Bob Thornton, propositions one of the British PM’s staff.387368-4d43d21a-45b2-11e3-b6cf-917abbb54065

Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Professor of economics at Sciences Po, Minister for Economics, Finances and Industry IMF Managing Director and contender for the French presidency was the unacceptable side of this strange dynamic and his chickens came home to roost when allegations that he had sexually assaulted a hotel maid sank his political career and shone a spotlight on his other sexual peccadilloes

Nafissatou Diallo and Tristane Banon: To the women who have accused Dominique Strauss-Kahn of raping them
Nafissatou Diallo and Tristane Banon: Two the women who have accused Dominique Strauss-Kahn of raping them

And then most recently we have President-elect Trump who has defined his presidency by saying: ” I just grabbed him by the pussy”, “When you’re a star they let you do it, you can do anything” as well as bragging about using his fame to try and “fuck” women and groping them without waiting for their consent.

donald-trump-iowa-reuters-800x430

Why are we surprised?

Such behaviour stretches back to time immemorial and one of the earliest accounts is from the 13th chapter of the Book of Daniel.

Two Elders, probably judges but certainly powerful and influential members of the community, watch the beautiful young Susannah bathing in her garden. They accost her and threatened to accuse her of committing adultery, for which the penalty is death, unless she has sex with them. She refuses and is brought to trial.

At the trial, the young prophet Daniel cross-examines the two Elders who contradict each other about which tree the act was performed under. Susannah is acquitted and the two elders are put to death.

There are more than 80 extant paintings of the story. Some artists, such Tintoretto and Rubens, painted it a number of times Nearly all of the artists who have painted it have chosen moment when the two elders proposition Susannah.

The elders are shown as wealthy, powerful, respectable and persuasive. In her 1963 book on Adolf Eichmann, Hannah Arendt wrote of the banality of evil. Here we have another aspect, the respectability of evil.

 Bonaventura Lamberti (Il Bolognese)
Bonaventura Lamberti (Il Bolognese)
Susanna and the elders-Ottavio Mario Leoni
Susanna and the elders-Ottavio Mario Leoni
Susanna and the elders1588 Paulo Veronese
Susanna and the elders Paulo Veronese (1588)

Another group of artists paint a different picture. Here the Elders are less respectable and more menacingly evil.

Jacob Jordaens Susanna and the Elders
Jacob Jordaens Susanna and the Elders

Jordaens’ Elders are grotesque caricatures, a personification of evil lechery, while Rubens’ are the personification of anger, presumably at being frustrated by Susannah’s innocence. The veins standing out on the neck of the elder in blue indicates the vehemence with which he is putting his proposition.

Peter Paul Rubens
Peter Paul Rubens
Sisto Badalocchio
Sisto Badalocchio

Badalocchio’s elders are sneeringly contemptuous of their victim and the brilliantly luminescent painting by van Honthorst shows the two elders feigning concern lest Susannah draw attention to them.

Gerrit van Honthorst
Gerrit van Honthorst

In all the versions of the story, there is an undertone of violence in the portrayal of the two elders. In some cases, it is made explicit in the painting. In Alessandro Allure’s work, the physical threat is palpable, with the indignant Susanna already in the lecherous clutches of the Elders.

Alessandro Allori
Alessandro Allori


Similarly in Claude Vignon’s painting one of the elders is already beginning to man-handle Susanna.

Claude Vignon
Claude Vignon


The sense of violation is palpable in both of these paintings and it is a common theme in all of the others. In some, the sexual violence is implied and most audiences would know the back story to the paintings. But one thing that stands out in all the paintings is the sense of violation inherent in the mere presence of these splendidly dressed men in the company of a near naked women. In many of the paintings, Susannah shrinks away from her tormentors, ashamed to have been discovered naked. It’s a powerful depiction of the commonly held view that such situations are somehow the woman’s fault.

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