The revelation that Maria Shriver left Arnold Schwarzenegger because a decade ago he fathered a child with a member of their household staff is, sadly, only a semi-scandal. Is anyone really surprised that the movie star/Governor has been less than faithful to his wife? It’s a brief tabloid headline, another chapter in his long story of a political career that might have been, and then quickly buried under the next news story, which may very likely carry on the theme of the self-destructive behavior of the famous and powerful.

Yet the Schwarzenegger story is an interesting window into some double standards in our society. Dr. Helen points out how different the story-and the legal consequences-would be if it was Shriver, rather than Schwarzenegger, who had a child by someone other than her spouse. Dr. Helen explains:

A man has no choice but to pay for a child in this situation [that his wife has a child from an affair] should he find out ten years after the fact, or even sooner. Not only does a woman not pay, but I heard a news show saying that Shriver may be entitled to compensation in a divorce if Schwarzenegger paid any support for the child. Imagine the outrage if Shriver was kicked in the gut not only with the news of this illegitimate child but double-kicked when told by the law that she now had to contribute to the child’s support until the child was 18? It is unimaginable. Not so for men.

This is certainly a fair and important point. For too long, many of our family laws have been tipped against men, treating them more as wallets to be accessed to pay for kids, but with little other rights or role in raising them. Men wrongly accused of paternity can fall into a child support enforcement system that has almost boundless ability to extract payment. We need laws that protect the rights of men as well as women, and that recognize that children have an interest in the involvement of both parents, and involvement doesn’t just mean financial support.

Yet there’s another double standard worth noting. If it had been Shriver who had a child through an affair, it would obviously be a much bigger scandal. Hollywood and the political class on both sides of the aisle are littered with men who have had significant ethical lapses, and who quickly return to public life. From Eliot Spitzer to Dick Morris, the public quickly gets over it when a man has a scandal, even one that includes actually illegal activity. Meanwhile, as IWF’s Charlotte Hays wrote, the scrutiny and pressure that was being placed on Gov. Daniels’ wife (who had left him and their children to marry another man and then returned to him years later) drove him out of the presidential contest.

In highlighting this double standard, I’m not arguing that society should ease up entirely on women and
shrug at instances of infidelity as they do with men. Nor am I arguing that people who have done bad things should be driven entirely from public life. People (men and women) should be given second chances. Yet it would be nice if the public could expect a little more from our public and political leaders. It shouldn’t be such an everyday thing for another scandal to break about this Congressman or that Senator caught sleeping with a junior staffer or sending pornographic pictures of himself around. There should be forgiveness, but there should also be consequences, and at a minimum, as a culture, we should encourage men and women alike to take their marital vows seriously.