Dr. Laura is taking an enormous amount of heat from feminists over her comments concerning the Eliot Spitzer/Silda Spitzer situation. I certainly have many disagreements with Dr. Laura, but I also think she often has many, many good things to say.
(Full disclosure: Dr. Laura used her radio show to support two of our campaigns–Campaign Against ‘Boys are Stupid’ Products and Campaign in Support of the Alliance for Children Concerned About Move-Aways–and she discusses our work in her book Woman Power: Transform Your Man, Your Marriage, Your Life.)
In the Salon Broadsheet blog post Dr. Laura to Silda: It’s all your fault!, feminist blogger Kate Harding writes:
“Conservative radio host Laura Schlessinger has offered us a new theory on Silda Wall Spitzer: She drove her husband to cheat in the first place.
“In the last week, she has been on Hannity & Colmes, Larry King Live and the Today show, offering opinions like this:
“‘And when the wife does not focus in on the needs and the feelings, sexually, personally, to make him feel like a man, to make him feel like a success, to make him feel like her hero, he’s very susceptible to the charm of some other woman making him feel what he needs. And these days, women don’t spend a lot of time thinking about how they can give their men what they need … I hold women accountable for tossing out perfectly good men by not treating them with the love and kindness and respect and attention they need.’
“Gee, what a breath of fresh air.
“Now, Schlessinger spewing insane antiwoman vitriol is hardly news in itself….An income and a room of one’s own will only get a woman writer so far these days; if she wants to hit the big time, a deep-seated hatred of her own gender helps a bundle.
“Of course, as the promo for Schlessinger’s Larry King appearance helpfully explained, Schlessinger is just telling it like it is. And what it is like, as we all know, is this: Women are always messing up their own lives! Look at Silda Spitzer. The woman forced her husband to hire a 22-year-old prostitute! You can build a lucrative career if you’re a woman willing to tell it like that.”
I’m not sure I would go quite as far as Dr. Laura does here, but I believe that the Salon/Harding criticism goes way overboard, and is unfair. For one, Dr. Laura made it very clear that she was not speaking specifically about the Spitzer case and their marriage. She made it clear that she was only speaking in general. And in general, I think her comments are fair.
Let’s speculate a bit about the Spitzer marriage in light of Dr. Laura’s comments. It is certainly true that the relentless media script of Eliot the villain and Silda his victimized, betrayed, humiliated wife may very well be true. Perhaps she has been a devoted, loving wife who has done everything reasonably possible to have a happy marriage.
However, there are other scripts which are also possible. Perhaps they did not have a good marriage. Perhaps they have drifted apart. Perhaps they have very little sex or none at all. Perhaps they often fight. Perhaps, as is not uncommon in marriages, Silda is critical of Eliot, and he feels that somehow he can never do anything right. Perhaps Silda was angry at him quite legitimately, but over things that Eliot could no longer change. I know that critics of mine who read this will say, “There goes Sacks, figuring out a way that it’s the woman’s fault again.” On one level, that is fair. On the other hand, we all know people who are in marriages like the one I just described. There’s no reason to dismiss the possibility that the Spitzer marriage may be one of them.
Let’s say for the sake of discussion that the above scenario is more or less correct. Let’s look at how it would’ve looked to Eliot Spitzer. You are enormously successful, and are understandably proud of your success. You have worked very hard, have taken risks and public criticism, and have risen to one of the most prestigious offices in the United States. You’re not sexually the young stallion you once were, but you’re still relatively young, and certainly not ready to be finished sexually.
Your sex life with your wife is very limited. You can’t seem to get her interested in you and you can’t seem to communicate with her the way you would like to. You don’t want to break up the marriage for a variety of reasons. It would greatly reduce your access to your children, who you love. It would be a big financial hit. It would be bad for your public image.
You’ve already seen another prominent New York politician, Rudy Giuliani, go through a divorce and it was a disaster. In Giuliani’s case, he remained married to his wife, with whom he was estranged, and moved on to a relationship with another woman. Giuliani’s overall behavior, while not admirable, was more or less defensible. Yet when things blew up in the Giuliani case, nobody was interested in his side, and even the fact that he was unfairly cut off from his children was given very little attention. The scandal may have even cost him the Republican presidential nomination. (To learn more about this, see my column In Defense of Giuliani’s Family Life, Providence Journal, 9/21/07)
You tell yourself you don’t want to do anything to go down that road. Your kids don’t deserve it, you don’t deserve it, and your wife does not deserve it. On the other hand, you are lonely and sexually deprived. You’re the goddamn governor of New York for crying out loud, yet everybody in the state gets to have sex but you. The waiters at the restaurant you frequent. The limo driver. The delivery boy. They all have sex, but you don’t. It’s infuriating. It’s not fair. You want to do something to change it.
It would be very easy for me and others like me — meaning men who have been married a long time, have good marriages, and have never cheated on their wives — to blame Eliot Spitzer and moralize at him. I could easily condemn the behavior and say, “My father has been married for 45 years and never cheated on my mother, I have been married for 15 years and have never cheated on my wife. It’s not the kind of thing we do. We’re better than that, we’re better than Spitzer.”
But one thing I have sadly learned is that it’s not always so easy and it’s not always so simple. Yes, I have never cheated on my wife, but on the other hand it has been very, very easy not to. I’ve never been tempted, never been close, not because I’m a saint but because I’m in a good marriage. (I will add, though, that I do have self-discipline, and I do occasionally have contempt for men who create big problems for themselves because they are unable to control their sex drives.)
Getting back to Dr. Laura, what she has stated regarding the Spitzer case is a common theme of hers, and it’s a good one. She says — correctly — that the modern wife often voices complaints about her husband and expects him to change, to do more for her, to be more attentive, to do more to fill her needs, etc. Sometimes this is perfectly appropriate. Yet when men ask the same from their wives, it is often portrayed as the man being excessively demanding, unfair, sexist, Neanderthal, or even emotionally abusive. It is a double standard, and one which hurts many marriages.
Dr. Laura’s audience and readership are largely female, and one of her main goals is keeping marriages together. I have listened to her on a fair number of occasions, and it would be very wrong to claim that she wants women to stay in bad or abusive marriages. However, she is not hesitant at all to tell women that sometimes they are the ones who are causing problems in their marriages.
I don’t always agree with Dr. Laura, and sometimes I may agree with her 100% and disagree with her 100% all within the span of a minute. But her central theme — that both men and women need to pay attention to what their spouses need and want, and that both men and women can ruin a marriage by being inattentive or cold or distant or self-absorbed–is the truth.
I have often heard from readers who have told me that Dr. Laura’s advice on these issues, including her books, have helped their marriages. Given the enormous pain and destruction caused by divorce, this is very important work. Dr. Laura deserves better than to be crucified for voicing the truth–in some marital breakdowns, it is women who have harmed their marriages and driven their husbands away.