In the 90's, infidelity sparks more outrage than it did a few decades ago. And More of the cheaters are women.
It was a familiar washington story, of a powerful man brought down by a woman. But although human nature doesn't change very quickly, even in Washington, society does, sometimes in ways that can surprise even the best pollsters. When political consultant Dick Morris fell last month to a tabloid story about his yearlong affair with $200-an-hour call girl Sherry Rowlands, the crash shook the capital's notion of what constitutes a proper sex scandal, and shed new light on America's changing attitudes toward adultery in the not-so-naughty '90s.
One of the biggest surprises came in the public reaction, not toward Morris but his wife, Connecticut lawyer Eileen McGann. McGann did what wives have almost always done in such situations, which was to announce that she was sticking with her husband, and erect a shield of privacy to deflect more detailed questions. But what was widely regarded as the decent and considerate thing to do in years past now struck many American women as letting down the side in the gender wars. For the first time, McGann explains her reactions and reasons in an exclusive interview with Newsweek's Eleanor Clift (box).
The Morris scandal also illuminates a shift in how many Americans view issues of marriage and fidelity. In carnal terms, it was hardly the most lurid of affairs, despite reports that Morris had enlivened his hours with Rowlands by sucking on her toes. There were no reports of orgies, no drunken scenes (Morris, in fact, deserves at least a shred of credit for passing up the favorite defense of the pre-baby-boom scoundrels, that he was driven to his shocking escapades by alcoholism). Rowlands was, at 37, only 11 years younger than he. But in the eyes of many women, Morris did something worse than frolic with a bimbo--he carried on a long-term relationship with another woman that went beyond sex into the realm of intimacy. He fell afoul of the new understanding of adultery, that it is a sin of the heart and mind as much as--or even more than--the body. Earlier this year, as it happens, a New Jersey man sued his wife for divorce, alleging that her racy computer messages to a man she had never actually met amounted to adultery. A judge didn't see it that way, but eventually the law may catch up to the common wisdom of marriage counselors, newspaper advice columnists-and prostitutes--that sometimes adultery is not just about sex.
Naturally, sometimes it really is just about sex. But most affairs, says Atlanta psychiatrist Dr. Frank Pittman, the author of a book on infidelity, "are conducted primarily on the telephone rather than in bed. Affairs aren't as intensely sexual as you'd think. It's not like in the movies." The essence of an affair, Pittman says, is in "establishing a secret intimacy with someone"--a secret that, necessarily, must be defended with dishonesty. Infidelity, he writes, isn't about "whom you lie with. It's whom you lie to." This is an important point. To think of infidelity mainly in terms of sex is actually the first step toward rationalizing it. This view -- infidelity equals sex equals liberation--had a.considerable following among young Americans a generation ago, as Bill Bennett and Bob Dole frequently remind their audiences. In 1974 the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) at the University of Chicago surveyed attitudes toward extramarital sex. The view that adultery was "always wrong" won majorities in every age group, but the margin was smallest among 18- to 29-year-olds: just 59 percent agreed with the proposition.
But since then attitudes have undergone a remarkable shift. Twenty years later this same cohort, now in their 40s, condemned adultery by a much more resounding 74 percent. And people now in their 20s, who may have seen in their own families what happens when couples take adultery too lightly, show up in this survey as statistically the most sexually conservative group in America, tied with people in their 60s in their overwhelming rejection of marital infidelity. "The great experiment of my generation was that people tried to abolish jealousy," says Erica Jong, the siren of sexual liberation in the 1970s, now older (54) and, she believes, wiser. "It never worked. The desire to be monogamous is more pragmatic than ethical... We renounced the idea of sexual freedom because it doesn't work."
There are two interesting qualifications to this trend of the '90s.
One is that some of the same people who condemn extramarital sex do not necessarily think it should disqualify someone for high office. A NEWSWEEK Poll last week found that of five hypothetical shortcomings one could imagine a politician being guilty of (including taking drugs and cheating on income taxes), an extramarital affair was the least likely to cause people to vote against the offender; only 35 percent considered it a reason to choose someone else. The high-water mark of recent public disgust with official philandering was probably reached in the 1995 vote to expel Sen. Bob Packwood, though his sins apparently involved more sexual harassment than actual sex. The continued success of Bill Clinton, who still faces a sexual-harassment suit by a former Arkansas state employee, is a better illustration of the current public mood. "There is a fair amount of forgiveness," observes Suzanne Garment, who has written a book on Washington scandals, "partly because the scandals are so numerous." Three decades of increasingly lurid revelations about the antics of men in high places has apparently persuaded voters to look elsewhere for role models.
THE SECOND POINT IS THAT though more Americans say they reject adultery, there is no reliable evidence that there's any less of it going on. In fact, reliable statistics are practically non-existent before 1988 because most surveys on intimate matters had tended to be flawed, often wildly so. Figures for the percentage of Americans who have ever had an affair range as high as 66 percent for men (from a study by author Shere Hite, using a questionnaire printed in Penthouse and other adult magazines) and 54 percent for women (a readers' survey by Cosmopolitan magazine). The 1994 NORC survey, which used more reliable sampling techniques, found that 21.2 percent of men and 11 percent of women admitted being unfaithful to their spouses at least once in their lives. Within the past 12 months, 3.6 percent of men and only 1.3 percent of women reported an infidelity.
These figures haven't changed much since 1988. Marriage counselors haven't detected any general upsurge in morality, although there does seem to be more interest in not getting caught. Family therapist Jean Hollands reports that in Silicon Valley, where she practices, for a man to be caught with a female colleague or hooker "is not a sign of virility anymore, but a sign of stupidity." In Chicago, psychiatrist Jennifer Knopf sees a "renewed commitment to conservatism and family values" among her patients, adding: "I'm seeing less of the kind of affairs or flings that are wild and unpredictable and who cares. They're appearing to be more thoughtful. If there is such a thing."
Knopf and other authorities also believe there's a new calculus that affects people's decisions on whether to stay with a partner after an infidelity. Couples who might once have been quick to divorce are now having second thoughts, for the oldest of reasons-they think it's better for the children if they stay together. Even when there are no children, Knopf says, "people are trying to weather it more now. They know what it's like to be out there and single," in a world rife with both germs and creeps. Sexual betrayal is painful, but divorce is also painful, Knopf tells her clients, recommending a monthlong cooling-off period after the first discovery of infidelity. There's another significant trend at work. While older women today are much less likely to have had affairs than men the same age, among women in their 20s the pattern is reversed: in this age group women are more likely to stray than the men. Anecdotally, therapists say that adultery among women seems to be increasing, which many regard as an unintended consequence of the women's movement. "Sex roles are changing as women have asserted their right to sexuality and sexual pleasure," says Eli Coleman, director of the human-sexuality program at the University of Minnesota Medical School. A more prosaic explanation is offered by Marlene Casiano, a psychiatrist in the Chicago suburb of Hoffman Estates. "I think it's because more women are in the work force now," she says. "They have more access to men." Along with equal employment has come equal opportunity to screw up one's life.
THE NEW FIELD OF EVOLUtionary biology purports to offer a scientific explanation why men stray: it enhances their evolutionary impact. Males can leave more offspring by mating with many different females. Human females, on the other hand, can conceive only about once a year, and have less to gain, in evolutionary terms, from promiscuity. But complete fidelity might not be to women's biological advantage, either. It's a cruel world out there, and a male who is bigger, stronger, richer or just gets on TV more often can offer selective advantages to the off-spring of a female lucky enough to run into him at a dinner party. "Women around the world gravitate toward men who have status, money, class and rank," says Helen Fisher, who has written extensively on human sexuality.
What's more, men who accumulate status, money, class and rank show an increase in the male hormone testosterone-which may be why Washington was regarded as a sinkhole of immorality even in the 19th century. The sexual temptations open to famous, powerful men like Jack Kennedy or even Dick Morris are literally beyond the ability of science to comprehend, says Bernie Zilbergeld, author of "New Male Sexuality." "My guess is that they have high testosterone levels and are risk takers. . .high-energy, seductive people surrounded by groupies. Their marriages resemble nothing we understand."
And it's not just in Washington. The business world has, to a great degree, assumed the power and allure that seem to be flowing away from the nation's capital. For every lonely Iowa housewife who has a guiltless fling with a ruggedly handsome itinerant photographer, there are hundreds of women who experience adultery the way it's depicted in the new movie "The First Wives Club": they're ditched by sleazy husbands who take up with the likes of Sarah Jessica Parker when they strike it rich.
Technology is perhaps the newest factor for fidelity to contend with; it has facilitated adultery in some ways, but also complicated it. A spouse who doesn't answer his pocket phone when his wife calls raises the suspicion that he has taken his pants off. The listing of numbers called on cell-phone bills has been the undoing of more than one adulterer. The online chat room may open up the way to a furtive hotel room.
But human passion and jealousy have been strangely unaffected by advances in microchips. A NEWSWEEK unscientific sampling of three affairs that wound up in the hands of therapists shows that people are still being caught in the same old ways: by private detectives, by phone bills or notes left in pockets, and by the classic mistake, confiding in a friend. And the consequences remain very much the same. The betrayed spouse blames herself for her gullibility, is overwhelmed by rage, fantasizes about murdering her rival. "While the affair is going on, your world seems crazy and things don't make sense, but you don't pick up on it," says a woman who wants to be called "Stephanie," who lives in Washington although her husband is not in government. He had been carrying on a four-year romance with his secretary, and when she found out she ordered him out of her house; they have been separated for 18 months now. Her reaction? "I fantasized stripping her naked, taking her clothes and leaving her in the rush-hour streets of Washington."
The time between a spouse's discovery of an adultery and an angry confrontation can range from weeks to approximately zero. "He was getting his hair cut and I called him immediately and said, 'I know your dirty little secret. So you better get home now'," says another woman, who is actually a highly educated scientist, but whacked her husband right in the chops as soon as he walked through the door, just like Roseanne would have. This happened several years ago, when she discovered that her husband had been playing around with his 24-year-old jogging partner. They had been married for 10 years and had three young children. "It was very scary. I used to think terrible thoughts. I live near a park with a running path. I used to think, 'If I see them running by the road, I'm going to turn the wheel, run them over and kill them'."
It might seem, from those accounts, that there is something to be said for the institution of prostitution--if nothing else, the wife is unlikely to run into her husband's hooker at a PTA meeting. Men sometimes use just this justification, says Baltimore-area psychologist Shirley Glass: "The man believes 'If I pay for it I have no obligation and it won't hurt the marriage.' But I doubt the wife would see it as a favor. Most of my patients who engage in this do it compulsively and have a lot of shame about it." "A prostitute shows a woman there's something wrong with her husband," agrees University of Washington sociologist Pepper Schwartz. "An affair suggests that maybe something's wrong with herself."
California therapist Marty Klein identifies six different kinds of infidelity. In three of these, the person who strays is seeking something: better sex, the feeling of being attractive and desirable, or the kind of respect and admiration that wives may find it hard to give their husbands after watching them fall asleep in front of reruns of "McHale's Navy" for the last 20 years. Some people start affairs for no other reason than that they're angry at their own spouse, and some people just have a habit of winding up in strangers' beds, generally with a bad hangover and not much memory of what went before. And sometimes a person will glom on to an outsider as a soul-mate, a piece of his or her destiny, and begin a relationship that is just like an affair, except they may never actually get to bed.
In only one of these instances, in fact, is sex the primary goal of the relationship, and that's not surprising, says British sociologist Annette Lawson, who has written on adultery. It is no longer acceptable for men to feel they own their women's bodies, she says, so the commodity exchanged in romance is no longer sex, but intimacy. Today the deepest betrayal is not of the flesh but of the heart.
Men Still have more extramarital affairs than women, but the gap may be closing. In fact, young wives seem to be unfaithful more than young husbands.
INFIDELITY, LIFETIME: Gender Men 21.2% Women 11.3 Men by age 22 to 33 7.1% 34 to 43 20.5 44 to 53 31.4 54 to 63 37 Women by age 22 to 33 11.7% 34 to 43 14.5 44 to 53 19.9 54 to 63 12.4 INFIDELITY, LAST 12 MONTHS: Gender Men 4.7% Women 2.1 Church attendance Rarely 3.9% Occasionally 3.7 Regularly 2.3 Marital status One marriage 2.8% Multiple marriages 4.9 Household income Less than $10,000 5.9% $10,000 to $19,999 5.6 $20,000 to $29,999 3.4 $30,000 to $39,999 2.3 $40,000 to $59,999 2.9 $60,000 or more 3.0 Community type Top 12 central cities 5.6% Top 100 central cities 2.8 Suburbs of top 12 3.4 Suburgs of top 100 3.0 Other urban 3.5 Rural 2.6 Education Less than high school 4.5% High-school graduate 3.1 Assoc. college degree 3.6 Bachelor's degree 1.9 Graduate degree 4.4 Source: National Opinion Research Center, 1994 Survey