TIME

In Defense of Smart Women Who Fall For Jerks

Former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer is mobbed by reporters while attempting to collect signatures to run for comptroller of New York City on July 8, 2013 in New York City.
Former New York governor Eliot Spitzer is mobbed by reporters while attempting to collect signatures to run for comptroller of New York City on July 8, 2013, in New York City Andrew Burton / Getty Images

What we can learn about men, women and dumb choices from the latest Eliot Spitzer scandal

Women usually know when they’re falling for a jerk. In fact, there was a study published in the journal Biology Letters recently showing how most women can spot a cheater just by looking at his picture without knowing anything else about him. Sixty-two percent of women picked out the guys who’d told researchers separately about their less-than-faithful romantic history.

Of course sometimes women have more than just looks to go on. Sometimes, a guy is universally known as a jerk. And in some cases, his jerkiness has even been documented in the national press. Nonetheless, brilliant, accomplished, women with lots of choices still date, hook up with, marry and even have children with men whose behavior has humiliated or otherwise compromised other women. And sometimes, they’ll stick with these guys even after they themselves have been betrayed.

Start with Huma Abedin, who is still married to the disgraced former congressman Anthony Weiner whose pornographic selfies and dalliances with women online were tabloid fodder for months last year, and go all the way back to the marital travails of Abedin’s former boss, Hillary Clinton. The story is the same. Smart women with high-profile careers are called hypocrites, traitors to the sisterhood, or at very least deluded because of their loyalty to men who are not good to women and for putting their own careers at risk as a result.

The latest in this line is Lis Smith, a talented political strategist who ran the Obama campaign’s rapid response team and was most recently New York Mayor Bill de Blasio’s top campaign spokesperson. Thanks to the New York Post, she’s now better known as the 31-year-old who supposedly frolicked topless in a Caribbean hot tub with Eliot Spitzer, the former governor of New York and failed comptroller candidate who famously humiliated his wife and his supporters by frequenting prostitutes. (The Post’s hot tub reporting has just been called suspect by rival tabloid, the Daily News, but the couple’s relationship promises to be endless gossip fodder.)

The choice to date Spitzer has cost Smith—at least in the short term. After her relationship with the still-married-but-separated Spitzer became public, de Blasio’s team announced that she would not be kept on as communications director in his new administration. The New York Post ran front page photos of Smith next to the words “Ho Ho Ho” echoing their famous 2008 “Ho No” cover published after Spitzer was discovered to be “Client 9” at a prostitution ring. Post columnists have gone on to accuse Smith of dating to get ahead, stealing other women’s boyfriends, and of “scheming to dominate the halls of power” since she was a child. Never mind that Smith would actually have been in the halls of power if she were still working for the mayor of New York instead of populating the front pages of the New York press as Spitzer’s official “gal pal.”

Sure, as Vanity Fair’s Juli Weiner notes, the 54-year-old ex-gov is rich and some consider him hot. Even so, Spitzer seems like a dubious choice for the attractive Dartmouth grad, who’s been described by colleagues as tough, smart and ambitious. After all, dating a tabloid-target like Spitzer would make a job as spokesperson for any high-profile candidate difficult to get.

More importantly, how could a woman who’s spent her working life dedicated to progressive candidates and causes risk her career for guy who has treated women’s bodies like commodity? Or, in the words of Post’s Tara Palmeri, “Is this what the first wave (or for that matter second wave or third wave) feminists were fighting for? The ability for smart women to make stupid romantic choices?”

If you asked one of this generation’s most famous feminists, Lena Dunham, creator of HBO’s “Girls,” the answer would probably be yes. Dunham has gotten flack for allowing herself to be photographed by Terry Richardson who has been accused of sexually harassing models. Richardson was dating Dunham’s best friend, Audrey Gelman, a former political spokesperson herself and the woman on whom Dunham based one of her “Girls” characters. Gelman explained the seeming contradiction in principles by tweeting that Dunham was only trying “to see the good i saw in someone & we both have regrets.” Not surprisingly, Gelman stood up for Smith writing: “The least feminist thing one can do is savage another woman based on [her] personal romantic choices.”

But getting judgey about another women’s romantic choices has always been irresistible and that impulse is only accelerated now that we all live in 24-hour hail of social media commentary. It’s something that high-profile women will have to contend with and overcome. The good news is, falling for a jerk and being criticized for it hasn’t kept smart, tough women from success, whatever the emotional cost. Just ask Hillary. So we don’t expect that “gal pal” will be the last title Lis Smith ever has and this surely isn’t the last we’ve seen of Huma Abedin. Just give them time.

Besides, women certainly aren’t the only ones with legendarily bad judgment when it comes to the opposite sex. Men may even be worse off. Just look at all the responses that a fake dating profile got recently from more than 150 men who seemed to be undeterred by the prospect of hooking up with a woman who, while gorgeous, admitted to having an STD, lying to men about pregnancies for cash, lying a lot in general and being a racist. And then there were the men in that Biology Letters study on infidelity. They utterly failed when it came to picking out the women who were cheaters just by looking at their photos. Most of them assumed wrongly that the more attractive women were likely to be unfaithful. The researchers noted that there are all kinds of biological theories about why women have evolved to be better able to spot cheaters than men. Alas, there aren’t so many explanations for why they ignore their instincts.

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