updated 7/13/2013 3:16:18 PM ET 2013-07-13T19:16:18

For men, a sex scandal is a tattoo that fades over time. For women, the tattoo – the scarlet letter, you might say – does not fade. She does.

When men are drummed out of office for a sex scandal, we lament their lost potential. Anthony Weiner had such promise, we groaned. David Petraeus was so brilliant, we sighed. Now they’ll never get to fly as high as they might otherwise have, as high as they should have. When Weiner relinquished his seat in the House of Representatives, the WashingtonPost mourned his “squandered political promise.” When Eliot Spitzer resigned, his colleagues rued his “promise lost.” In his own resignation press conference, the former “Sheriff of Wall Street” himself said, “I look at my time as governor with a sense of what might have been.”

In political sex scandals, women are not lost potential. They are punchlines and punching bags, and then they fade away into obscurity. The women these men were caught with, whether they were trading explicit Twitter messages or having a sexual relationship with the president in the Oval Office, become guaranteed laugh lines. If we know their names, if we remember their names, it is because we mock them. Monica Lewinsky! Chuckle, chuckle. Paula Broadwell! Giggle, giggle.

At the time, we laugh at the men, too, of course – we joke about “hiking the Appalachian Trail” and make sly asides about going “all in,” – all the while knowing that the men could bounce back, given a few years. The women, as TheNew YorkTimesreported recently, will not be so lucky. The New YorkDaily News ran a photo of Ashley Dupre, the woman with whom Spitzer was caught cheating, with the headline “Hi, ho Eliot!” He’s running for controller; she’s still a “ho.”

In these scandals, wives often fare no better. Regardless of how they behave, they are criticized. If they stand by their men, they’re pushovers, traitors to the cause of betrayed women everywhere. Or, they are ambitious and grasping, clearly staying with their husband because they crave political power and will endure anything to have it. And then, they too fade away. The most obvious exception to this is Hillary Rodham Clinton, who has done the opposite of fade into obscurity. But the public’s view of her will always include the knowledge of the sex scandal and her choice to remain in her marriage. For some, it was an opportunity to criticize her and make her to blame for her husband’s behavior. This isn’t the kind of reaction one hears often these days in serious conversations, but Rodham is still kicking – indeed she may be gearing up for the biggest kick of her political life – and the way that we reacted to that scandal, as a nation, continues to influence our view of her, whether we admit it or not.

What about women politicians who are caught up in sex scandals? We don’t know, because we’ve yet to witness such a thing. With so few women in elected office, this is no surprise.

But there are small powerful hints of what it might look like when a woman politician is caught in a sex scandal. The way that we talk about women’s bodies, clothes, and behavior indicates that were a woman politician to be caught in an extramarital sex, her career would be burned to the ground. There would be no sighing over her lost potential. She would be mocked and maligned and she would never be able to run for office again. Until such a scandal happens, we won’t know for certain, but one thing is sure: in this day, in this age, in our sexual politics, no woman could ever bounce back the way that Weiner and Spitzer have.

For men, a sex scandal is a bump in the road – a big bump, yes, but not big enough to cause a crash. Insulated by a belief that “boys will be boys,” and that male sexuality is a sign of power, not of weakness, these men will have political lives after a sex scandal. It is a tattoo that fades over time. For women, the tattoo – the scarlet letter, you might say – does not fade. She does.


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