The first time my husband confessed to cheating on me, I began giggling
like an idiot.
"My God!" I cried. "You promise?"
Hank narrowed his eyes, suddenly suspicious. Until then, I didn't know
how my dalliance would affect our eight-year relationship. Now I was giddy with
relief to find we both had dipped into the same shallow philandering waters: making out with ex-lovers while out of town. We lay
in bed and gently tormented one another -- ridiculing each other's
pathetically deflective version of our experiences, apologizing and
finally tiptoeing into a new understanding. We would have a "semi-open
relationship," we declared, pioneering a new middle path between the hubris
of the free love movement and the naiveté of conventional marriage. It would bring us closer together and, more important, provide an
excellent source of gossip for our friends.
But after I told my friend Deborah about our brave new marital order,
she only sneered, "Yeah, it's called cheating." All our friends responded
to our new status as happily married sleazeballs with the same appalled
expressions. Nothing, we discovered, turns a stomach like
self-congratulatory libertinism. After a few of these encounters, we zipped our lips. Our friends -- most of whom were still single or in newer relationships -- were looking forward to a future that had less jealousy, instability and
ambiguity, not more.
It's been more than three centuries since Puritans like
Hawthorne's Hester Prynne submitted to wearing the scarlet letter, and most
of us assume that for the average American horndog, the days of
humiliation in the public square are over. Even if you believe adultery is
a mortal sin, it's generally considered a private matter -- affecting only the
two people in the marriage, their offspring and their God. But a stigma
around adultery still lurks in the hearts, and law books, of America. From the District of Columbia, where adultery carries a maximum penalty of $500 or 180 days in jail, to the 20 states like Virginia and Maryland where affairs are misdemeanors, to Idaho, Massachusetts, Michigan, Oklahoma and Wisconsin, where adultery is a still a full-fledged felony, we are a nation still governed by Puritan law. True, these laws are generally ignored -- although in 1997 an Illinois man charged his wife with adultery, using a little-known statute that provides for a punishment of up to a year in
prison. But even among my friends, urban liberals who are loath to fall into
lockstep with the Bible-Belt choir, the big A still carries a formidable
wallop of shame -- even when it involves two consenting spouses.
But the Clinton-Lewinsky melodrama has given the subject of adultery a new spin. Although most Americans -- aside from swinging suburbanites, aging hippies and sex-positive missionaries -- don't condone
extramarital hanky-panky, they have continued to support the
president even after his confession that he cheated. Why don't Americans demand that Clinton live up to the moral
standards they apparently embrace? The answer lies in the word "apparently." As became clear in interviews with a variety of married (and formerly married) men and women, both ordinary people and experts on adultery, people's attitudes about monogamy and adultery are endlessly slippery. What people say isn't necessarily what they believe, and what they believe (or think they believe) isn't necessarily reflected in how they act.
"I don't recommend it," says Nancy Wright of Carmel, Calif., when asked her opinion of adultery. "But sometimes it happens and it doesn't
mean a marriage is over." As a Republican woman in her 60s who was
happily married for 33 years until the death of her husband, she doesn't
fit the profile of a typical Clinton defender. Yet despite her disgust
at Clinton's behavior and her disagreement with his policies, she contends
this scandal should never have entered the political arena. "It was a slimy
thing to do," she says of Clinton. "But in some ways, I think he's become a
scapegoat. It's none of our business."
"I'm especially disgusted with the women involved," she adds, referring to
Monica Lewinsky and Linda Tripp. "In my day we learned it was dishonorable to kiss and tell. If they publish books, I hope that nobody buys them."
Rebecca Morton, a 33-year-old liberal Democrat, doesn't share Wright's
distaste for the First Other Woman. "I'm going to buy Monica's book in
hardcover and I hope she makes a zillion dollars," she declares. "She's a
Her enthusiasm doesn't extend to Monica's dreamboat, however. Once she thought extramarital affairs were no big deal, but after watching several friends suffer the consequences of affairs, she's come to believe that adultery is "tantamount to wreaking cruelty." So when she read that Hillary Clinton had only learned of the affair last week, Morton became "really grossed out."
Unlike many who flog the media for its descent into filth, she doesn't
blame anyone but herself. "I've been overexposed to this by my own prurient interest, and I've been totally compulsive about it," she confesses. "But now I do believe he's lost his moral authority."
Eager to read Monica's book on the one hand and live in a world
governed by leaders with "moral authority" on the other, Morton exemplifies the complexity of a new era in which the blurring of private and public realms ignites both confusion and insight. "I'm sad for the country," she concludes. "We could have done important civil services and civil rights
work in this time."
"It's like a Roman Polanski movie," says a 35-year-old New York psychologist who asked not to be identified. "I think it's morally reprehensible that he had sex with a child, but I still enjoy his movies."
Over the years, the psychologist has come to see adultery as saying more about the married couple's relationship than about the morality of the adulterer. As a consequence, she resists seeing Hillary Clinton as a victim. "I think
they have incredible make-up sex and this is an important part of their
erotic life," she asserts. "She's probably conflicted about being a
powerful person, so she's taken on the doormat role."
If the psychologist discovered
her husband cheating on her, she says, she's now more likely to look for
joint culpability. "But then I would get over that," she adds. "And
punishment would be swift."
Perhaps fearing a similar fate, Mike, a 44-year-old middle manager, also requested anonymity. Although he admits that "monogamy is a practical way to run a family," he also asserts that ever since puberty, he's known that adultery is "inevitable." He says that he's had an affair but is unwilling to elaborate beyond saying that it was a "medium fling" and his wife doesn't know.
What he is open about is his sympathy for Clinton. "They should
leave that poor man alone," he says mournfully. "And Ken Starr should get a
Just what is the state of adultery in America? The statistics on
adultery are a little like Clinton's confessions: open to
interpretation. It's hard to pull hard facts from the quicksand of
sexual deception. Most experts cite studies
by researchers such as Alfred Kinsey and Glass & Wright, which found that adultery
occurs in 50 to 80 percent of all marriages. But for the past several years, random annual surveys of more than 1,200 participants conducted by the
National Opinion Research Center of the University of Chicago have placed the incidence of adultery much lower, around 15 percent. Critics of the NORC studies
-- which involved visiting people in their homes -- point to the fact that
people are more likely to lie about their sex life face-to-face, especially
when spouses may be hovering nearby.
All of the adultery studies conclude
that men are nearly twice as likely to cheat as women, but related studies
show that men tend to exaggerate the incidence of adultery, while women tend to
diminish it. In the same light, most adultery studies conclude that women
under 30 are as adulterous as men, but that may only confirm
that younger women are not as likely to lie about it.
Other statistics about adultery tend to be much more consistent --
because they do not depend on timely self-reporting, as the Clinton
investigation has. Only 10 percent of all adulterers end up marrying their lovers,
and 70 percent of those new marriages end in divorce. Finally, of all those who divorce because of adultery -- victim and perpetrator alike -- 80 percent say they regret that decision.
"The bottom line is that the human animal is promiscuous," says New York
anthropologist Helen Fisher, author of "The Anatomy of Love: The Natural
History of Monogamy, Adultery and Divorce," "and it lies about sex."
Despite these biological facts, Fisher believes that the rise of
divorce, later-in-life marriages and women's increasing economic independence may
send the adultery rate south -- although she doubts it's as low as the NORC
study claims. She sees the Clinton scandal as serving as a "litmus test"
for American standards about sexuality. "It's almost as if people are
watching Clinton and thinking: There but for the grace of God go I. We're measuring ourselves by the first family, and since most
Americans aren't doing too well, they're glad it wasn't them."
Overall, she's been heartened by the changes that she sees in the public
morality. "The double standard is finally disappearing and it's equalizing
standards of adultery for both sexes. At the same time, as we're moving
toward more sexual liberties, America is becoming less prudish."
- - - - - - - - - -
Jerry Hicks, a 62-year-old former
Republican from Torrance, Calif., says Clinton's mistake was he didn't keep lying about his affair. Hicks says his three marriages might
have been saved had he not been so monogamous. Like the other older people I interviewed, he's mostly offended by the transgressions of the
investigation itself. "Who are these people who are so pure, so righteous,
and why are they after the president?" he demands to know.
"I think it's a big waste of taxpayers' money, and it's all politically
motivated," he says, before elaborating his theory that the dirt-digging
excavations so ubiquitous in Washington politics are weeding out more
competent (but less milquetoast) politicians.
But for a 35-year-old Oakland, Calif., homemaker
who watched her husband carry on a flagrant affair just after she gave
birth to their first child, the Clinton sex scandal has produced more
complicated feelings. After being ostracized by her in-laws for telling her mother-in-law -- a woman who had stood by a cheating husband and defended several adulterous sons -- that the family was a "rat's nest of infidelity," she knows how hard it is to break the silence in a home that accepts an adulterer's compulsive lying. From this vantage, she's decided that Clinton's behavior is patently pathological. "And his wife is not helping him by staying," she adds. "Either she's the world's biggest codependent or they have a deal." In her case, her husband's affair resulted in a separation, but the homemaker and her mate are now attempting a reconciliation.
Despite her conviction that Clinton exhibits "deep psychological
problems," she also wonders if it's not essential to his power. "Maybe he
needs to be this way in his position," she muses.
The connection between Clinton's leadership skills and his sexual
compulsions is echoed by Lana Staheli, a Seattle psychologist and
author of "Affair-Proof Your Marriage: Understanding, Preventing, and
Surviving an Affair" (HarperCollins, 1998). Clinton's faults, she
maintains, are inextricably bound up with his strengths. "Americans like
leaders who are exciting, risk-taking, charismatic, and those leaders are
inevitably going to take risks and make mistakes. You can't expect someone
who came from the socioeconomic background Clinton did and became the most powerful man in the world not to make some mistakes. He found his own way. If he had followed convention, he wouldn't be where he is today."
She draws a parallel between the bargains people make in choosing their
mates. "You can't have it both ways in the same person. If you have a
partner who's a risk taker, they'll bring you both more pain and more
According to Staheli, American marriages have become more durable in the wake of adultery. "People are more able to admit to having affairs, and more willing
to repair their marriage after them," she says. "Twenty or 30 years ago
it was grounds for divorce. Now people take it as a wake-up call to start
paying attention." Like many other adultery experts, Staheli contends that
if couples can overcome the ravages of adultery, the marriages are often
better than before.
"Now many of the (political) leaders are saying that they're not going to forgive Clinton, but
I think that the anger we're seeing is part of a normal stage," Staheli
says. "When people learn of a betrayal, at first they're disbelieving and
stunned, then they feel anger, hurt and disappointment. But the next level
after that is acceptance."
Unlike psychologists who label Hillary Clinton's behavior as codependent or
deceptive, she considers her a model of equanimity. "I liked what Hillary
did. She was upset, but she didn't react -- she took some time with it. I
recommend that my clients take three months before they make any decision."
While opinions about Hillary and Monica seem to run hot and cold, the
discussion about President Clinton is oddly lukewarm -- and perhaps more subtle than any
poll can measure. The awkward dance between the punditry and public opinion
during the past seven months offers a glimpse into just how difficult it is
to pigeonhole the American people on this issue.
Initially, many journalists observed that Americans, with their
famous moral earnestness, were less able to brook the contradictions
that come with adultery, than, say, the more sexually sophisticated French, who would never
consider subjecting a philandering president to public humiliation
and psychological scrutiny. But such comparisons didn't
square with the polls, which again and again showed that Americans weren't
nearly as horrified by Clinton's behavior as predicted. Sexual mores
seemed to be changing faster than the pundits could measure. Was this a
sign that we were maturing past our Puritan roots and embracing a new, more
sophisticated understanding of human foibles? Or had we finally succumbed
to the godless ravages of a culture of unchecked hedonism? (Or was that the same
question translated into two different cultural tongues?)
The day after
Clinton confessed in the public square of the TV screens, the major media, including the New York
Times, ran stories about a Gallup poll
indicating that Clinton's ratings had plunged a full 20 percent in the course of
24 hours. The following day, the Times quietly amended this with an article explaining that
a subtle change in wording, not the opinions of the American people,
had caused the fluctuation. The poll that had sent Clinton's numbers
plummeting asked respondents to think about "Bill Clinton as a person"
instead of simply saying whether they had a "favorable or unfavorable opinion
of him." John and Jane Q. Public, it appeared, were drawing a distinction
between a good president and a good person.
"It's an incredibly complicated task -- trying to untangle why people
are responding to Clinton as they are," says Don-David Lusterman, author of
"Infidelity: A Survival Guide" (New Harbinger Publications, 1998). "People's
feelings about adultery depend upon personal experience, educational
background, religious upbringing and age. For many young people, the
president is like a father figure and their responses are very judgmental."
Lusterman, who is 66, doesn't understand why the
historians on television, who tend to be young, fail to note that other presidents have been
involved in extramarital affairs. "The difference in those days," he
concludes, "was that there was a traditional respect for privacy."
"Respect for privacy." For the past seven months, my mother, who is turning 70 this fall
after 47 years of marriage, has been reciting the phrase to me every chance she
gets. "When did we start to bring people up in the public square and shame them
for sexual misconduct?" she cries over the phone after Clinton's
confession. "That's what happens in totalitarian societies -- the citizens
can't escape the eyes of their government. What so many younger people
don't seem to understand is that privacy is the cornerstone of a free
society." On the day after Clinton's admission, she launched a phone-tree campaign
among her elderly friends to save democracy and stop Kenneth Starr's
But amid so much outrage and hand-wringing, excess spin and
under-laundered dresses, some see a bright side in the president's public humiliation. "It's a good weird awkwardness to have out there,"
says Paul Lundahl, a 36-year-old media producer. "Like George Bush throwing
up in Japan -- that kind of vulnerability is really wonderful. It's a
humanizing force, to know our leaders sometimes fail."