This post first appeared in 2008, before Tiger Woods and Schwarzenegger’s love child. But the same arguments keep coming up. And I’ll keep pushing back.
Amber Rhea gets the hat tip for this article in New York Magazine: The Affairs of Men: The trouble with sex and marriage. That’s the title in the magazine, anyway, but when you click on the link, the title that comes up is What Makes Married Men Want to Have Affairs?, which is a very different sort of question. Asking why men want what they want is never, ever, the same question as why men do what they do.
The author, Phillip Weiss, gets us off to a depressing start:
When the Eliot Spitzer scandal broke in March, I had only sympathy for him: another middle-aged married guy tormented by his sexual needs. I’m 52 and have always struggled with the desire for sexual variety. Everyone gets an issue, and that’s mine; it’s given me pleasure and pain, and jolted my marriage. I’d only talked about my issue with any honesty over the years with about six or seven people, and when you leave out my wife and a therapist, they are all men.
So the conversation had a conspiratorial male character. When people at dinner parties cried out, “What was Spitzer thinking?” I whispered to a friend that I knew damn well what he was thinking: He wanted some “strange”, to quote the old Kris Kristofferson line. Or we passed around JPEGS of Spitzer’s date, Ashley Dupre, and commented on her luscious body. The governor’s plight had the effect of outing me. When I told one married friend about my torment, he cut me off. Everyone in our situation has had one or two episodes. Straying, wandering eye, a blowup. If you have a pulse
What situation is that, I wonder? The situation of the middle-aged married male, caught between his promises and his urges? Apparently. Here’s Weiss’ stunner:
An article of faith among the men with whom I discussed these issues (and an idea ignored, if not contested, by most of the women I know) was that the hunger for sexual variety was a basic and natural and more or less irresistible impulse. I haven’t ever seen anyone who doesn’t deliver on every single demand their sexuality makes on them. We make the mistake of thinking some people have a stronger will, they don’t, says a forward-thinking friend. There is no more unnatural principle of social organization than sexual exclusivity. But like other of my male sources, he didn’t want me to use his name. Don’t get me divorced! was the refrain. All of these guys nursed a fantasy, as quaintly surreal as an old tinted postcard, of a perfectible world in which we might have sex outside our primary relationships and say that it doesn’t mean anything.
Yikes. Let’s just say, the piece goes down hill from there. The bold emphasis above is mine; it illustrates the classic fallacy of what I call the “myth of male weakness”. Here’s how the fallacy works:
1. Men naturally desire sexual variety.
2. That desire for sexual variety is very strong.
3. That desire is, in fact, so strong that it can never be resisted, and in the end, will always trump the will. It’s only a matter of time.
I’m not an evolutionary biologist, but just for the sake of argument, I’ll happily concede that monogamy is not a “natural” state for either men or women. Then again, neither is using the toilet rather than peeing down our legs; from about age three on, each of us has been trained to master (most of us with constant success) what is a frequent, imperious urge. Saying that something is “natural” is only a compliment when it refers to organic food — it tells us nothing about the capacity for human beings to exercise control over their behavior. #1 and #2 may, for the sake of discussion, be true — but it’s absurd to conclude that #3 “naturally” follows.
Weiss’ friend makes an extraordinary claim, one he seems to back: I haven’t ever seen anyone who doesn’t deliver on every single demand their sexuality makes on them. We make the mistake of thinking some people have a stronger will, they don’t. That’s a succinct argument that what I’m calling the “myth of male weakness” is in fact reality. And what’s so infuriating about it is that it’s nearly impossible to disprove, particularly in light of revelation after revelation about the falls from grace of which Eliot Spitzer’s is only the most recent and most spectacular.
I can’t prove I’m faithful to my wife. I can’t prove that there isn’t a whopping disconnect between what I write on this blog, what I tell my spouse and my students, and how I behave when no one is watching. One of the reasons why so many men do cheat, I think, is because they live in a culture that expects them to be unfaithful. They might conclude: why be accused of something you didn’t do, when you might as well be accused of something you did? That way, at least, you had some transitory pleasure before the condemnation that seemed inevitable anyway. Trying to prove a negative, that one hasn’t been unfaithful, is more or less impossible. That’s a difficult reality for many folks to face.
So you’ll have to take my word for it when I say that I’m faithful to my wife, that I don’t use porn, that all of my sexual and romantic energy flows towards one person. Let me say also that I know what it is to be unfaithful; I cheated on my first two wives. (In my first marriage, I was serially unfaithful, beginning days after returning from the honeymoon). I remember the sense of shame I felt the first few times I cheated, and I remember that the cheating got progressively easier with repetition. The second betrayal is, usually, ten times easier.
When I was cheating (and these affairs ranged from the purely sexual to the intensely emotional), I always described myself as being in the grip of a compulsion I couldn’t control. I wasn’t consciously lying; I genuinely believed that in the face of my desire for what my father called “everlasting novelty”, I was helpless. A budding feminist, I never claimed that the inability to be faithful was uniquely male — rather, I tended to say (to my closest confidants, anyway) that none of us, men or women alike, had sufficient will to resist the sudden, brutally strong demands of eros. It was a neat trick; like most philanderers, I convinced myself that I was a victim rather than a volunteer.
The sense of being “weak” was fairly accurate. The will, after all, is a muscle: it can be built and strengthened, or it can atrophy. People aren’t born with strong or weak wills any more than a body builder is born with bulging biceps. Like a rock-hard physique, the will is strengthened through repetition and discipline. When someone who has never lifted weights walks into a gym, looks at a pair of 30-pound dumb bells, and says “I can’t do curls with those”, that person isn’t lying! Because he hasn’t yet built the muscle, it’s true that he isn’t yet strong enough. But if that same fellow walks in and says “No one can do curls with 30-pound weights, and I am sure I never could”, then he’s buying into a myth about weakness. The problem with the Weiss article is exactly that: it confuses what men don’t believe they can do with what they haven’t yet been adequately trained to do.
I learned, over time, what it took to be faithful. The answer is not “meeting the right person”; no relationship alone is enough to guarantee fidelity. Infidelity is always about the person who chooses to cheat, and rarely about the person being cheated upon. My wife is beautiful, strong, and I love her with all my heart. Her looks and my devotion to her are not the foundation upon which my commitment to monogamy is built. I don’t cheat on my wife because of a commitment I’ve made to myself. In the end, if I’m unfaithful to my spouse, she might not find out. But I will know that I am a cheater; I will have betrayed not only my wife, my family, and the community that trusts me but also the man I have worked so hard to become. Polonius is a fool, but his most famous line, “to thine own self be true” resonates for me here, even if I quote it out of the original context. Love alone is not reason enough to be faithful. Fear of being discovered isn’t sufficient either. In the end, the strongest and best reinforcement for the will is the profound desire I have — that I think everyone has, deep inside — to be a person of radical integrity. In a strange way, it’s radically selfish. (It’s also, I think, consistent with Aristotle, but that’s for the philosophers to deal with.)
Of course, I don’t just want to have integrity in order to flatter my narcissistic self-concept. While sexual fidelity alone is not the foundation of all other virtues (I’d rather have the philandering Clinton as my president than the apparently monogamous current occupant of the Oval Office), our suspicion that men are incapable of fidelity is at the root of our profound cultural mistrust of all things male. The men’s rights advocates are right: we live in a society that places little faith in men. The MRAs fail to see, however, that men have gleefully, willfully, often pathetically and repeatedly done all they can collectively to destroy that faith. We are the architects of our own adversity, and the chief way in which we perpetuate the problem is by convincing ourselves that we are, in the end, helpless victims of testosterone or eros or what Coetzee calls the “rights of desire.”
Whether marriage has any meaning in the modern world is not the subject of this post. Whether monogamy is the ideal state, or whether we’d all be happier in polyamorous communities is not something I feel like writing about today. But what I do believe is this: monogamy can be one particularly satisfying and challenging vehicle for personal and collective growth. I also believe, as the Greeks did, that dishonesty and betrayal are guarantors of future unhappiness. Exercising the will, building the will, using the will, is often hard work. But the great reward is to be able to say to oneself, at the end of the day, “I have been today who I longed to be”. And no “new skin” or “strange” can compete with that.
UPDATE: Let me be clear that this is one of those areas where private moral satisfaction and communal good are coherent with each other. I realize that the last couple of paragraphs here seem to imply that the only reason to be faithful is to continue to hold oneself in high esteem. That’s not a bad thing, mind you, but it’s an incomplete reason. Our families and our culture at large also desperately needs men and women whom they can trust and upon whom they can rely. Marriage may not be, as the conservatives allege, the bedrock of society. But infidelity and deceit do do real damage to hearts and hopes. And while our greatest loyalty may be to a God, and then to ourselves, we also obviously have a responsibility to others. Men can be who we need them, wish them, long for them to be.