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.