How Marital Infidelity Became our Final Taboo

At the Atlantic today, I look at the new Gallup poll that shows a record number of Americans disapprove of infidelity, a figure up substantially since the 1970s. Why has sexual dishonesty become the last remaining taboo?


We expect couples who marry young to “struggle”—a common euphemism that encompasses everything from fights over money (of which there is almost invariably not enough) to extramarital flirtations and affairs. The cornerstone model presumes, optimistically, that men and women are transformed for the better by sticking it out through the “tough times” that everyone concedes will attend the marriage of the young, the poor, and the naïve. The expectation of struggle doesn’t condone infidelity so much as it concedes its near-inevitability.

The “capstone” model presumes, as one of my friends puts it, that you only should get married “after you’ve got your shit together.” Capstoners believe that marriage is something you enter into only after you’ve finished sowing your proverbial oats—and come into possession of the financial, emotional, and professional sophistication you’ll need to blend your life with another person without becoming dangerously dependent upon them. The capstone model is much less forgiving of sexual betrayal because it presumes that those who finally get around to marrying should be mature enough to be both self-regulating and scrupulously honest. The increased unacceptability of adultery is linked to the rising age of first marriages. The evidence suggests, however, that the capstoners are more than a little naïve if they imagine that a rich set of premarital life experiences will serve as an inoculation against infidelity.

The same Gallup poll that found near-unanimous disapproval of cheating also found rising acceptance of many other non-traditional, consensual sexual relationships. The new ethical consensus that you can do whatever you like as long as you’re not hurting anyone—and as long as you’re being rigorously candid—reflects a thoroughly modern mix of tolerance and puritanical censoriousness. We’ve become more willing to embrace diverse models of sexual self-expression even as we’ve become ever more intolerant of hypocrisy and the human frailty that makes hypocrisy almost inevitable.

Read the whole thing here.

Defending Monogamy at Jezebel

My column last week at Jezebel looked at the increasing number of books and articles calling into question the viability of monogamy. Excerpt:

Talking about a “War on Monogamy” can come across like Fox News lamenting the “War on Christmas.” Monogamists still seem to dominate the cultural debate, and those who are open about wanting alternatives still get shamed. The problem is that very few people are making the brief for monogamy (with or without state-sanctioned marriage) as just one among many equal goods. Either monogamy gets held up as an ideal to which all ought to aspire, or it gets denigrated as an “unhealthy” and “unreasonable” straitjacket that we would do well to avoid. It often seems as if the only people defending the viability of monogamy are the ones who insist it is the only morally legitimate (or at least the psychologically healthiest) option. Their sanctimony is an easy target. But there’s an obvious problem in confusing the hypocrisy and self-righteousness of monogamy’s traditional advocates with monogamy itself. The former deserves to be rejected. The latter, perhaps not.

Writing in the Guardian this week, Jill Filipovic makes sense: “Marriage should simply be one model among many for human kinship and a strong family. ” The problem, of course, is that we haven’t yet found a way to talk about monogamy (and marriage) as “one model among many.” After so many years of being told that monogamy is the only legitimate option, we’re now facing a barrage of books and articles suggesting that lifelong sexual exclusivity is something to which no rational modern man or women ought to aspire. “Let people do what they want,” says Filipovic. She’s right: we should let people do what they want. The problem is that as long as we make the case for monogamy’s alternatives by denigrating monogamy as unreasonable, we’re a long way from giving people the full range of options they deserve.

Beauty is No Prophylaxis Against Infidelity

This Genderal Interest column would have run last Friday, but was rightly postponed due to the Connecticut tragedy. Just Because You’re Hot Doesn’t Mean He Won’t Cheat looks at popular assumptions about looks and infidelity, and features a short interview with Autumn Whitefield-Madrano, whose writing on beauty is endlessly fascinating.


Betsy’s “calculus” had two flaws. First, it assumed that male infidelity is largely a function of opportunity. She assumed that a good-looking mate would be more likely to stray merely because he could, and that a less-desirable dude wouldn’t because he couldn’t. Second, she didn’t consider the particular way in which less attractive men may crave a sexual affirmation that they very rarely get. A man who knows he’s hot may be a narcissist, but the hotter he is the more likely he gets validated for it. The good-looking guy knows that fidelity is a choice; he’s presumably aware of his options. When faced with temptation, he can tell himself “I know I could if I wanted to, so why bother proving it, risking this great thing I have?”

On the other hand, the man who doesn’t see himself as good-looking is supposed to judge himself astoundingly fortunate to have ended up with a beautiful woman. That can lead – as Betsy assumed it would — to gratitude, but it can also lead to a destructive, ego-driven curiosity. Is this woman who has fallen for me an anomaly, or am I really more attractive than I imagined? Can lightning strike twice? Who else can I pull?

The end result is that “less attractive” men may have additional incentive (but of course, not justification) to cheat. It may be a pathetic excuse for dishonesty, but the unlovely dude’s particular set of potential insecurities do deserve to be factored in to the algorithm of infidelitousness. And whatever constellation of factors you use to pick a partner, leave out the false presumption that a homely guy will never stray.

Read the whole thing.

Two Genderal Columns on Men and Sexuality

Because I didn’t have a column at Jezebel last week, I’ve had two up in the past four days.

The first is based on the great research on male promiscuity by my friend Andrew Smiler: Why Do We Think Guys Just Want Sex? Excerpt:

In Challenging Casanova, Smiler notes that heterosexual young men tend to fall into three categories: a small percentage of “players” with a high number of sexual partners; an equally small percentage of young (almost always devoutly religious) dudes who are determined to remain abstinent until marriage, and a much larger third group whom he argues want to follow “a reasonably traditional, romantic approach to dating.” Even when they’re “hooking up” (a practice that is neither as novel nor as ubiquitous as wistful and censorious aging pundits imagine) these guys are engaging in the gateway behavior into what they hope will be a relationship.

These findings contradict most of our received wisdom about what young men really want. “I’m constantly told that the ‘boys are lying’ to me about what they really want,” Smiler says in a phone interview. “The Casanova myth is so deeply ingrained that people are convinced that boys who claim to want relationships rather than casual sex are either incredibly rare or full of crap.” The small number of genuinely promiscuous boys is explained away by absence of opportunity rather than absence of desire; the myth that most young men would be Casanovas if they could is as tenacious as it is unfounded. There seem to be few other aspects of human sexual behavior where the disconnect between reality and perception is so vast.

In the second piece, Why We Still Fall for the Myth of the Uncontrollable Boner, I look at the way the “myth of male weakness” still functions to excuse infidelity:

Wachs’ suggestion that “every man’s fantasy” is to cheat on an “aging” wife (who doesn’t appreciate him) with an “adoring younger woman” reframes an individual act of betrayal as an unavoidable male failing. This recasting is comforting. It’s a lot more pleasant to believe that your husband is weak than it is to believe that he had the capacity to resist temptation, but made a conscious decision not to do so. This is what makes the “myth of the uncontrollable boner” so seductive; it’s preferable to think that a painful betrayal was the result of irresistible evolutionary imperatives rather than choice. “My man is so manly that he gets urges that trump his very real love for me” is ever so much prettier than “In the end, he didn’t care about me enough to keep it in his pants.”

Talking Petraeus at Jezebel and on Current TV

In response to the David Petraeus sex scandal, I wrote a piece at Jezebel: ‘I Know You Better Than You Know Yourself:’ Why Men Cheat With Their Biographers.


It’s hard not to suspect that that same lack of self-awareness drove General Petraeus. Men whose lives are defined by public action and attentiveness to image are vulnerable to “imposter syndrome.” They may be keenly aware of the disconnect between how they are perceived and the messy reality of who it is that they “really ” are. Married to women who are under no illusions as to their shortcomings, plenty of middle-aged men make the mistake of turning to the women who “understand.” An affair with a journalist or documentarian offers a double bonus: not only the chance to be validated as privately worthy by a star-struck lover, but the promise of being presented to the public in the most favorable possible light by a woman whom you like to imagine knows you better than you know yourself.

Sex scandals are rooted in male narcissism, as Irin Carmon wrote for Jezebel when the Edwards scandal broke. Rielle Hunter famously first got John Edwards’ attention with a blunt “You’re hot!” But we make a mistake when we assume that male narcissism is only about being validated for being sexually attractive. It’s also about the longing to be seen as worthy by a woman who is presumably in a position to know the truth about his goodness. Men who froze their own capacity for introspection when they were young are particularly likely to seek out the affair with the woman who promises to peek underneath the uniform and pronounce that what she sees is hot, fascinating, and noble. This is a narcissism driven as much by a specifically male lack of self-awareness as it is by preening, anxious vanity.

Last night, I appeared on Current TV’s The War Room with Gov. Jennifer Granholm to talk about this issue. The five-minute clip is here.

Cheaters Prosper, and We Wish Them Well

I’m off a late summer hiatus (one that involved moving house as well), and back to writing new things. My column at Role/Reboot is up this morning: Should We Be Happy for Cheaters Who Find Love Again?


Infidelity hurts. The fact that cheating is invariably banal and terribly common does little to soothe the shock that comes with learning that a partner has been unfaithful. It’s axiomatic that sexual betrayal causes ripples of damage; children are often devastated, family members deeply hurt, friends confused and disappointed. Few reading this come from families completely untouched by the trauma of extramarital affairs. And whether we regard cheating as the inevitable byproduct of our absurd insistence on monogamy or as a grievous sin against the sacred institution of marriage, we’ve read about, gossiped about, and devoted acres of bandwidth to writing about the devastating impact of marital infidelity on our lives.

Not all extramarital affairs lead to divorce, and far fewer still result in re-marriage between the cheaters. Sometimes, these new marriages are disasters; other times (as appears to be the case with Charles and Camilla) they are far happier unions than their predecessors. While in the case of public figures we’ve never met, their private lives are none of our business, if we’re dealing with a loved one who has married their illicit paramour, it’s almost impossible not to have conflicted feelings. As all the songs go, cheaters often wonder, “how can something so wrong feel so right?” The family and friends of cheaters who end up marrying may wonder, “how can something that started so wrong ever turn out right?” When and how should folks segue from expressions of disappointment to proffering congratulations and best wishes?

The Philandering Perfectionist Papas of Park Slope: UPDATED

My latest Genderal Interest column is up: The Cheating Dads of Brooklyn. I look at the recent revelation that the Brooklyn neighborhood of Park Slope, infamous for perfectionistic parenting practices, is also the home to the greatest number of users of the adultery service Ashley Madison of any community in New York City. Excerpt:

If the wealth of Park Slope’s residents enables cheating by reducing moral inhibitions, the notoriously perfectionistic parenting ethos of the community elevates child-rearing to the sine qua non of marriage. In her novel Prospect Park West, Amy Sohn describes the Slope as a place where “marriage is a vehicle for procreation” and little more. “It’s a very undersexed neighborhood,” she claimed in an interview. Ashley Madison begs to differ. Park Slope may not be home to much in the way of marital fucking, but it is the City’s most fertile habitat for philanderers.

Whether Ashley Madison’s statistics are scientifically sound or total bullshit, the evidence is that entitlement drives male infidelity. Madison CEO Biderman opines that men start cheating after they become fathers because “they spend so much time working for others, they now want something for themselves.” This is the classic middle-class male martyr complex, in which men imagine themselves as helpless, hapless servants to the demands of bosses, children, and spouses. Cheating becomes justified compensation for a lifetime of labor to make other people happy. In that sense, the more conspicuous the care that’s lavished on the children, the greater the opportunity to rationalize stepping out on the marriage. (This sets the the kids up for one hell of a guilt trip when they grow up and learn that daddy stepped out on mommy because all his noble focus on their needs deprived pops of a chance to get his much-needed man food. Congrats, pumpkin, it’s all your fault.)

The news here is not that people cheat. The news is that we can see more clearly than ever that male infidelity is correlated with the conjunction of affluence and hyper-competitive parenting. The blame here doesn’t lie with cosseted kids or man-food withholding wives. The blame lies with privileged men who confuse their own choices with the chains of obligation, and who use their own sense of self-sacrificing heroism to excuse the inexcusable.

UPDATE: A moderately critical response by KJ Dell’Antonia in the New York Times: Does Helicopter Parenting Drive Dads to Cheat?

“Sin Boldly”: the trap of the emotional affair

From February 2009. I thought I’d have two Potter Stewart references in as many days.

A friend of mine with whom I’ve had many conversations about feminism and older men/younger women relationships wrote me a note last week about a close acquaintance of hers, a young woman of 21 who is having an “emotional affair” with a man of 44.

I’ve blogged enough lately about age-disparate relationships, and I intend to do much more writing on the subject. Today, I’m interested in writing about this strange and troubling beast called the emotional affair, a phenomenon enormously abetted by modern technology.

I’m not treading on new ground when I remark that when it comes to love and sex, humans are generally very good at deceiving themselves. We are particularly good, as a rule, at justifying certain kinds of betrayals because they don’t meet our own contorted and legalistic definitions of what constitutes genuine infidelity. The paradigmatic example, of course, is that of Bill Clinton. A great many of us believed, and still believe, that our 42nd president was absolutely sincere when he denied an adulterous relationship with Monica Lewinsky; he had constructed for himself a moral calculus in which only intercourse constituted authentic infidelity. In 1998, as the nation watched the Clintons’ all-too-public agony, a great many folks were challenged to think about their own little webs of deceit and justification. If the politicians we elect are mirrors for our best and worst aspects of ourselves, then President Clinton — a man of extraordinary gifts and extraordinarily banal frailties — reminded us of our own capacity for duplicity.

Most people have no trouble labelling oral sex with an intern behind your wife’s back as adultery. Bill Clinton is easy to admire, and easy to ridicule. But lesser men than he — and a great many women too — have shown a similar capacity for self-deception. And we are particularly prone to this sort of self-deception when it comes to affairs that don’t have a physically sexual component. For those of us who define fidelity in terms of what actions we don’t undertake with other people, it’s all too easy to slide into an emotional affair.

For the purposes of this post, I’ll define an emotional affair as a non-physically sexual relationship characterized by mutually intense psychological intimacy, accompanied by words or gestures that traditionally are reserved for one’s romantic partner. That’s a vague definition, of course; emotional affairs are notoriously difficult to define. (One thinks of the perhaps apocryphal Potter Stewart remark about knowing obscenity when he saw it.) The slipperiness of the line between “good friend” and emotional “lover” allows those involved in these affairs a great deal of plausible deniability, both to themselves and to those around them. “We’re just friends”; “It’s totally innocent”; “You’re reading too much into this” are the sorts of things that can be said with genuine sincerity in response to suspicious queries from others. Continue reading

Can Handsome Men Be Faithful?

My Tuesday column is up at The Good Men Project: Can Handsome Men Stay Faithful? Excerpt:

…I identify a bit with Anthony Weiner, as I suspect quite a few men do. I was a bright, nerdy kid in high school with grades as high as my dating prospects were low. The girls on whom I had crushes considered me the dreaded “nice guy, but”—the sort in whom they felt comfortable confiding their own stories of heartache over sexy, tough, bad boys. As the pop psychologists would say, I had low social/sexual capital.

In college, things changed. I lost a little weight and got a more flattering pair of glasses. I also found a confidence that honestly seemed to materialize out of nowhere. I remember the shock I felt at 20, standing at a party, clutching a red cup of beer in my hand, and realizing that the pretty girl standing in front of me was flirting with me. Like so many guys who bloom a bit late, I went through a lengthy and regrettable period where my main focus was on seeing just how much my growing social capital could get me.
I was married and divorced twice before I was 30, and chronically unfaithful through both marriages. I wouldn’t call myself a sex addict, but like Anthony Weiner, was hungry—even desperate—for validation. The actual sex I had with women was less important than the thrill I got from knowing that someone new was willing to sleep with me. I was chasing affirmation more than orgasm. The thrill wasn’t in getting close to new naked skin, the thrill was in knowing that yet another person found me desirable. It was as if I were trying to collect evidence that I wasn’t that nerdy, awkward boy whom everyone had teased in high school.

Just as Anthony Weiner was more interested in having women praise his naked body than in seeing their nudie pics, I cared as much about being told I was “hot” as I did about sex itself…

Read the whole thing.

Weinergate, penis pics, and the longing to be hot

In response to Anthony Weiner’s press conference yesterday in which he admitted using the internet to send semi-nude pictures of himself to young women, Irin Carmon suggests at Jezebel that this latest scandal is — like many others before it — rooted in male narcissism.

All over the Internet, men are photographing their own bodies and sending the shots to women who are maybe not their wives and girlfriends. It’s a risk for most any non-professional, but it’s one that predictably costs male politicians like Anthony Weiner — and the men before him — so much more. So why do they do it?

“Hottttt.” That’s the Facebook comment on a video of Weiner speech that launched Meagan Broussard’s Internet flirtation with the Congressman, complete with cockshots clothed and maybe less so. “You’re so hot,” was Rielle Hunter’s opening line to John Edwards; eventually, he thought it was a good idea to make a sex tape with her.

In the Venn diagram of narcissism, the overlap of men in political office and men whose sexual narcissism verges on self destruction is increasingly visible. If you want to blame the Internet for anything, blame it for manifesting — and giving an outlet to — what surely must have always been present: Men (and they are still overwhelmingly men) who not only want your votes but for you to adore their waxed pecs. And they think they can get away with it.

Carmon isn’t entirely off base. But she misses the key point, though it’s one she hints at. “Hot” has such extraordinary power in these men’s lives not because they are all narcissists (though some may meet the clinical definition of that term) but because they so rarely hear the word. Powerful men who risk everything to send pictures of their penises or pecs to strange women aren’t filled with cocky self-regard. They’re filled with a desperate hunger for a very specific kind of validation.

In a piece I wrote for the Good Men Project in March, I suggested:

So many straight men have no experience of being wanted. So many straight men have no experience of sensing a gaze of outright longing. Even many men who are wise in the world and in relationships, who know that their wives or girlfriends love them, do not know what it is to be admired for their bodies and their looks. They may know what it is to be relied upon, they may know what it is to bring another to ecstasy with their touch, but they don’t know what it is to be found not only aesthetically pleasing to the eye, but worthy of longing.

I’ll bet Anthony Weiner doesn’t doubt his own intellectual or political abilities. Like many men who are good at what they do (and Weiner has been one of the most able members of the Democratic caucus for years), he exudes a confidence that borders on arrogance. I don’t think that’s feigned. But like so many men sliding towards middle age, there’s an unmet hunger for sexual validation. Men like Weiner know women may be attracted to their power or their status, but they want more — they long for validation that their bodies aren’t gross and disgusting. They want to be “hot.” Continue reading