If the headlines seem to tell us one thing about our culture, it is that we are living in the Age of Adultery. A steady line of prominent men have taken the walk of shame across our television screens and through our magazine and newspaper pages over the past decade or so; Bill Clinton (he says it wasn’t sex, but would even he deny it was adultery?), Newt Gingrich, Rudy Giuliani, the three Johns (Edwards, Ensign, and Gosselin), Jim McGreevey, Mark Sanford, Eliot Spitzer, Tiger Woods, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Anthony Weiner. These are just the 30-minutes-of-fame-ers. There are plenty of other minor-league cads who got their more commonly apportioned 15 minutes—San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom, CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin (said to have fathered the child of Casey Greenfield, daughter of pundit eminence Jeff Greenfield), eight-term Indiana congressman Mark Souder; no doubt by the time these words reach print, there will be others. Add them all together, and culture and politics seem like they’re all adultery, all the time.

To many observers, the problem is not so much the lapses of the men in question as the public obsession with them. Why, they ask, are the media and its consumers so preoccupied with these matters when we have so many important things to be pondering?

Why are we chattering about sex tapes and cigars when there are loose nukes and economic mayhem out there? These objections frequently come with accusations against a corporate media interested only in profit and indifferent to the public welfare. At any rate, sexual relationships are private, aren’t they?

Actually, no. In this bloggy, YouTube, and memoir-flooded era, people describe grazing the sexual buffet with little shame or embarrassment; oral, anal, threesomes, hookups, handcuffs, whips, or whatever else floats your boat. Adultery is one exception to this open-mindedness, especially when it involves powerful men in the public eye. If they cheat on their wives, those men will be facing the pursed lips and wagging fingers of Americans, and particularly women, in high moral dudgeon.

Of course, though it is a flashpoint, adultery is hardly taboo. Dating websites for cheaters appear on the Internet and no one is trying to shut them down. In fact, the most famous of them, AshleyMadison.com, cheekily urges, “Life is short. Have an affair.” As for cheating celebrities, we tend to go easy on them, probably because they exist in a different realm than the rest of us; they are more like bickering Olympian gods and goddesses than ordinary bottom-dwellers like ourselves.

But male—they are almost always male for reasons that will become clear—politicians and role models? They’re going to suffer for their adulterous ways. In fact, they will be put through what might be called the National Adultery Ritual. A politician, or in Woods’s case, a role model and a valuable corporate brand, is discovered to have betrayed his wife with another woman, or, as it frequently happens, other women. The press circles and the shame fest begins. The sinner is subjected to a veritable waterboarding of late-night TV jokes, derisive cartoons, tabloid headlines, embarrassing interviews with the mistress and other former girlfriends, analyses by psychologists on the inner demons that drove the man to such behavior, rampant speculation on the future of the bleeding marriage. Then there are the car and helicopter chases, flashing cameras, the gawkers, the plague of paparazzi locusts and microphones, and countless replaying of all of this on YouTube. A sane person might prefer a scarlet letter.

Consider the public judgment rendered on Mark Sanford, cheating husband of Jenny Sanford, father of four Sanford sons, and officially censured governor of South Carolina. The term “laughingstock” comes from the medieval tradition of clamping a malefactor in wooden leg and arm restraints in the town square where passersby could jeer and throw things at his helpless form. Sanford was the 21st-century man in the stocks.

Television hosts mocked him mercilessly. David Letterman (at the time an undisclosed adulterer, although as an entertainer more easily forgiven) tried this: “Governor Mark Sanford disappeared . . . and it turned out he was in South America. And then it turned out he was down there because he was sleeping with a woman from Argentina. Once again, foreigners taking jobs that Americans won’t do.” Keith Olbermann labeled Sanford the “Wild Bull of the Pampas” and provided a dramatic reading of his e-mails with schmaltzy mood music playing in the background, lingering lasciviously over the parts about the curve of his lover’s hips and her hidden tan lines.

Professional comics and pundits are not the only ones to enjoy debasing the sinner. When given the chance, the public eagerly joins in. After Tiger Woods’s wrongdoing came to light, amateur preachers took to YouTube. “Tiger ’n’ Whores” was one musical contribution to the golfer’s punishment; “They’re both pros at what they do,” goes one of the lines. Another preacher mocking the golfer’s dubious taste in mistresses called his video: “Tiger Woods: You Are a Man Whore!” CNN’s story about the Sanford divorce was followed by angry verbal rock-throwing from commenters: “scumbag,” “dweeb,” “dirtbag,” they scrawled. “Go crawl under a rock. Oh and keep your mouth shut because everything that comes out of it is a LIE!!!”

If details of the affair in question come to light, the public uses them to further humiliate the adulterer. Details strip the sinner of any remaining dignity by undermining his intact selfhood and effectively giving the public the ammunition to say: “We own you now!” The most dangerous moment for Bill Clinton was always the cigar and the blue dress, and not just because the latter provided legal evidence. They fleshed out our mental picture of the president during moments no one should have known about, giving each of us power over a man who knows us not at all.

The case of Sanford’s fellow “love-guv,” former New York chief executive Eliot Spitzer, who was caught consorting with prostitutes, yielded a mother lode of prurient detail with which to ridicule the malefactor: he liked rough sex, with his socks on and condom off; he was Client 9 at the Emperor’s Club; he was a “difficult customer.” New York magazine put his picture on its cover; its caption read “brain” with an arrow pointing toward his misbehaving privates. It was a nasty barb, but a pinprick compared to a cringe-inducing Vanity Fair cartoon portraying a naked female receiving money from a leering Spitzer, also naked—except for his long black socks.

This torrent of mockery is bad enough, but the adulterer must still undergo the press conference, the ritual’s climactic moment. During this weird event, the cornered sinner must confess, and he must do so in a very particular fashion. Resignation from office is optional, but grim-faced apology is not. By now everyone knows the liturgy by heart: I have disappointed those I care most deeply about, I have no one to blame but myself, I ask that you please respect the privacy of my family, etc. Sanford was ruined once he went off script; instead of asking for forgiveness from his family and his constituents, he rambled on about his soulmate.

Despite its formulaic nature, the press conference has an important purpose: specifically to convince the public of the sinner’s sincerity, and more generally to probe his character. The truth is, people are willing to forgive. They know sex can make a fool of just about anyone under the right circumstances, and they suspect that powerful men confront many temptations. But to gain public forgiveness the sinner must be really truly sorry, not just to have been caught, but to have had sex with other women. He must show he is capable of genuine remorse, something that the unalloyed villain is not. During the unfolding of the Edwards scandal, People ran an article entitled “Marriage Betrayal: When Apologies Don’t Cut It” with quotes from the press conferences of Edwards, Bill Clinton, and an assortment of cheating celebrities. The article included a poll asking readers to vote: “Who sounds most sincere?” But the editors were not simply asking for an evaluation of a performance. They were asking, “Who can be trusted?”

Spitzer’s signs of remorse were heartfelt enough that within nine months of his press conference, the ex-governor was poking his head out of his private bunker, writing a biweekly column for the online magazine Slate, and appearing on television news shows. He eventually scored his own show on CNN. How did he do it? Spitzer moved quickly to meet with the media, and he was brief and to the point. He had “begun to atone for his private failings,” he said, but he recognized his betrayal of the public. He resigned from office, giving the impression he was ready to put his ambition on hold and engage in the necessary inner struggle. His wife’s demeanor, described by the press as “ashen-faced” and “stricken,” provided a shocking display of genuine emotion in the midst of the predictable ceremony. The first sightings of the penitent ex-governor after his resignation also helped: he was spotted taking his dog for a walk, waving good-bye to his eldest daughter as she set out to school, getting in the minivan with his wife, two younger kids, and two dogs for a family weekend. His classy wife’s apparent forgiveness added to his rehabilitation. Spitzer’s case was unusual, however, because of a lucky (for him) financial crisis. Not only did this former “Sheriff of Wall Street” look prescient, but the industry’s sleaze took our attention off his.

John Edwards was the opposite of the genuine repentant. He not only refused to come clean, but also lied about the extent of his affair and his paternity of his mistress’s baby. Clinging to his ambitions, he tried a preposterous cover-up—having an aide claim to be the father—thereby figuratively doing to his staff and supporters what he had literally done to his mistress. Worse, his previously admired wife joined in the sham. According to political reporters John Heilemann and Mark Halperin, in their best-selling book Game Change, during his career people often reacted to Edwards as “a pretty boy phony”—until they saw Elizabeth, plump and four years his senior. Before the scandal, Elizabeth had lent John depth and authenticity; a handsome, successful man like the senator from North Carolina could have any beauty queen he wanted, but he had chosen a weight-struggling everywoman. But her Lady Macbeth ambition destroyed her image. “[B]ecause of a picture falsely suggesting that John was spending time with a child it wrongly alleged he had fathered outside our marriage,” Elizabeth fibbed in August 2008 on the popular liberal blog the Daily Kos, “our private matter could no longer be wholly private.” Not only was Edwards a “dirtbag,” he turned everyone around him into one as well.

Now, despite its prominence in the cultural scene, many people other than Elizabeth Edwards claim to want nothing to do with the National Adultery Ritual. These folks frequently insist that our fascination with adultery is a sign of America’s lingering Puritanism. Americans, they say, remain neurotic when it comes to matters of sex. They can’t accept it as a natural part of the human experience or recognize that sexual behavior has nothing to do with a politician’s—or golfer’s—competence at his chosen profession. Here’s the London Observer’s Johann Hari in a searing example of the genre after the publication of Elizabeth Edwards’s 2009 memoir:

And so America has finally stumbled on a political issue of real significance. No, not the trifling matters of economic collapse, global warming, or two wars. No—the issue of the day is John Edwards’ dick. Since Elizabeth Edwards published a book about the supremely trivial fact that her husband had an affair, the cable shows have been endlessly debating the “issue” once again.

Memo to America: Grow. Up.

Have you forgotten the lesson of Lewinsky so soon?

While al-Qa’ida plotted a murderous attack on the US, the twice-elected president was busy being impeached over a few bouts of consensual oral sex. It meant nothing. It was nothing. But it skewed your politics for years.

(Huffington Post, May 14, 2009)

Inevitably, Hari goes on to compare America with the “mature model” found in Europe “where politicians’ affairs are considered irrelevant,” and where no one is interested in their leaders’ “meaningless ejaculation[s]. . . . The idea a French president would be debarred from office for sleeping with somebody other than his wife is preposterous.”

Hari and his like-minded critics are right about one thing: the National Adultery Ritual is a uniquely American bourgeois exercise. But the origins of our obsession cannot be chalked up to immaturity or sexual hang-ups. No, the ritual is a tribute not to chastity but to fidelity, specifically male fidelity. Hari—a male, in case you hadn’t realized—doesn’t like it. Many men don’t. The truth is the adultery ritual is for women’s sake.

Let me explain. For reasons that neurologists and evolutionary psychologists suggest are embedded in the Y chromosome, male promiscuity and infidelity have been a stark fact of human society since, well, since the first man said, “I do.” To be sure, women have cheated on their husbands. But throughout time men have always been the less fair sex as, by all surveys, they remain today. Polygamy has been widespread, far more so than monogamy in fact, while polyandry, women with more than one husband, has been exceedingly rare. In ancient Athens married men had their way with female slaves, as did men in the antebellum South. Extracurricular sex by men was widespread enough to create the market for the world’s oldest, and probably most universal, profession. Many cultures have accepted the male predilection for prostitutes as inevitable and even as a safety valve for what Thomas Aquinas called men’s “careless lusts.” In urban ports all over the world sailors looked for domestic outsourcing for unavailable or reluctant wives. So did men about town like Samuel Pepys or 19th-century gentlemen in New York, where “working women” could be found not just in brothels, but also in the many venues where gentlemen hung out—restaurants, clubs, and theaters.

And what did Mrs. Pepys and her wifely comrades make of all of this? Funny, we never heard much about that. The humiliation of cuckolded men launched a thousand Shakespearean jokes, but the two-timed women? In most cultures, the wives of polygamous or cheating men were supposed to accept Big Love without jealousy or complaint, to treat it as so much “meaningless ejaculation.” The European approach that Hari approves of is no different really. Mark D. White, a psychologist writing on the Psychology Today website, unwittingly evokes the indifference toward wives implicit in the model; “François Mitterrand, who was president of the republic for 12 years toward the end of the 20th century, had a mistress and a love child whom everybody knew about; in fact they both marched in his funeral procession, behind his official wife. Nobody gave a merde. The centrist presidential candidate in the last presidential election openly consorts with his longtime honey, while his Catholic wife stays home with the kids. It’s the arrangement they have.” It was the arrangement they had, see?

What is unusual in the human record is not men stepping out on their wives. What is unusual is the model of faithful monogamy, a model that takes for granted the importance of women’s experience, not just men’s. Before the 18th century and outside of Western Europe, marriage was a social and economic as well as sexual arrangement; it had little to do with love and companionship, and no one much cared about whether women were fulfilled or not. But with the emergence of what sociologists and historians refer to as companionate marriage, intimacy became the marital ideal. Instead of arranged unions, the young made their own choice of mate based on shared interests and deep affection rather than on social requirements. Fidelity followed naturally, or so it was hoped, and it meant that, yes, people gave a merde.

Companionate marriage was a remarkable moral advance in social history, particularly for women. The American founders understood this. Rejecting the cynical, paternalistic arrangements of the ancien régime, they saw in the intimate, quasi-egalitarian relations between husbands and wives a reflection of democratic ideals. The model found its perfect expression in the relationship between John and Abigail Adams portrayed in the PBS series a while back. We don’t see John cavorting with prostitutes in his many months in Philadelphia away from his wife, his dear friend, though surely his fidelity was something unusual.

To be sure, the model was often little more than a nodding tribute from vice to virtue. Even in the mid-20th century, and especially outside the middle class, men strayed and women knew it. JFK’s Camelot, for instance, was a land of male sexual privilege, as Jackie Kennedy well understood. So did the reporters and aides who kept her husband’s affairs—and those of his brother, FDR, Eisenhower, and Martin Luther King Jr. among others—under wraps. It wasn’t until 1987, in response to a growing feminist sensibility as well as to an increasing female presence in the press corps, that the media headlined presidential candidate Gary Hart’s relationship with a young woman named Donna Rice and adultery became legitimate news. The rest is Clintonian history.

Far from a vestige of American prudery, then, the National Adultery Ritual is best understood as a modern protest in behalf of women against the persistence of male infidelity in an age of equality. In the early 1960s JFK could get away with it; in the 1990s WJC would not. Though he remained in office, Clinton paid a heavy price for his roguish ways. He became the second president in the nation’s history to be impeached and stayed stuck in the laughing stocks for years. His chief offense was not oral sex; it was the humiliation of his wife and daughter. People—women especially—cringed at Hillary’s embarrassment, as they would at all of what Tina Brown called the “downtrodden political wives called to genuflect before their husbands’ outsize egos.” More recently, commentators have hovered protectively over Huma Abedin, the unfortunate wife of Anthony Weiner. Abedin, it was universally agreed, was “glamorous,” “dignified,” and “intensely private,” even though the man she chose to spend her life with was combative, grandstanding, and intensely preoccupied with college coeds, dirty-talking Vegas blackjack dealers, and porn stars.

In fact, the National Adultery Ritual is an indictment of male lust for younger women. The “other” woman is almost always dewier, sexier, and a deeply bitter reminder to the middle-aged wife and her peers of their declining allure. No matter how impressive her achievements, depth, or wisdom, the wife is an aging female, the least enviable of human beings. Monica Lewinsky vs. Hillary Clinton. Rielle Hunter vs. Elizabeth Edwards. In a just world, would there be any contest? The bottle-blonde Rielle commenced her seduction by whispering to the candidate, “You’re hot”; she passed out business cards inscribed with the words—in caps, of course—“being is free. truth seeker”; she came on to every man she met; and she appeared in a photo shoot lolling on a bed revealing a naked midsection once full with Edwards’s child, now bikini-ready. That’s what men prefer? Then they must be shamed for it.

The ritual’s pro-wife rationale is the reason why debate swirls around the question of whether women should appear at press conferences with their husbands. Until recently, they generally did, probably because handlers wanted to dramatize the forgiveness they hoped the public would extend to their bosses. The pathos of Silda Spitzer may have been the final straw. The Los Angeles Times ran an article, on the front page no less, disputing the wisdom of Silda’s appearance. Is a man’s ambition more important than a woman’s dignity? the paper wondered. Ridley Scott, the honcho Hollywood producer, even designed a successful, and remarkably nuanced, television series around the dilemma aptly entitled The Good Wife. Jenny Sanford, though, may have transformed the ritual forever. Sitting tight with her girlfriends at her beach house, she left her husband to twist in the wind of media attention all by his rambling, lonesome self, and so earned the title “The Savviest Spurned Wife in History” from Time. “The cheated-upon spouses of the world have a new hero and her name is Jenny Sanford,” announced the magazine in praise of her choice. She has since filed for divorce.

A few male writers have begun to suspect the real meaning of the National Adultery Ritual. Mulling over the aftermath of the Spitzer scandal in New York, Philip Weiss waxed sympathetic about “married men tormented by their sexual needs”—a compassion he described trying, unsuccessfully, to convince Mrs. Weiss to share. Vanity Fair critic Michael Wolff speculated that the country’s interest in the topic reflects “revulsion towards middle-aged white men. . . . To the degree that, for 50 years, boomers have been expressive about their sexuality, we now have this population of middle-aged showboats helplessly dramatizing theirs.” Both men are a lot closer to understanding the moral drama behind the ritual than those who view it as the reproach of busy-body virtuecrats.

So, for all its tawdriness, our adultery obsession has its purpose. Alas, it’s unlikely to do much to stem the nation’s sorry trends in marriage. As divorce filings from wives—said to outnumber those from husbands—suggest, it’s not just men who struggle with long-term monogamy. Nor can infidelity by itself explain the fragile condition of the institution in the United States today. Still, for now and to their credit, Americans continue to believe that there is meaning in those extramarital activities.

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