May 6, 2007
Okay, the title is stolen, but it was such a grabber I couldn't resist. It's a new book by a woman named Pamela Druckerman, and, although I haven't read it, I've read a couple of reviews and feel qualified to discuss the topic.
The book is about adultery around the world. It's about attitudes, practices, and national character. In it, we find -- no surprise -- that the most puritanical country in regard to extramarital sex is the United States. No other even comes close, although our national attitude toward premarital coupling (and pregnancy), and homosexual alliances, and just about every other sexual possibility are on a par with the rest of the world. Where most other cultures take a little dabbling for granted, with us it's the one sin for which we'll be expected to beg forgiveness for the rest of our married lives, and probably never receive it.
From the description of the book, it's based on broad research and is an entertaining read. A survey Druckerman cites reveals that while only six per cent of Americans find the idea of a spouse's one-time fling permissible (after due penance), 40 per cent of Russians would be willing to accept such a situation. The French, I hardly have to tell you, consider an outside dalliance little more than a rite of passage.
What it makes me wonder is why we are so strict on this topic. On Oprah's show, I have seen many wronged wives weeping that finding out about a husband straying absolutely ruined their marriage and their lives -- and from Winfrey and her psychologist-in-residence the wife received only sympathy and the husband was regarded as depraved. This appears to be the norm in American culture, although I suspect that there are a number of American men who occasionally seek an adventure and are just as circumspect and cautious as their French counterparts. Who are these guys having sex with anyway, if not women -- some of whom are likely to be married too? It seems a bit hypocritical to me, and you know how I hate that.
Let's just say I'm a reasonably happily married woman in my 20's, and I find myself in a position to receive the advances of a reasonably happily married man of roughly the same age. We have an exciting lunch date, say, talking of many things, all completely intellectual, none sexual, none what we or either of our spouses would consider dangerous. We have such a good time that we decide to do it again. We have lunch once a week for several years, and lunch is all we ever have, except a great regard for each other, and a nagging what-if that we don't even discuss.
My hypothetical husband and my friend's hypothetical wife would not begrudge us this relationship, apparently. They might be a little jealous, but since "nothing happened," they allow it. However, if we crossed a line into a physical relationship once or twice, that wife would be in a shrink's office, or on the Oprah show, awash in tears and heartbroken. (That is, if she found out. The advice in Russian Cosmopolitan Magazine for those enjoying extramarital relations is "Try not to look too happy. If you never sing the the shower, don't start now.")
According to Druckerman, the culture dictates attitude. You do what your friends do (or what you assume they do). While I do not advocate being overtly promiscious and ignoring what is known as family values, I'm certain that a little leniency in this area is overdue. With great regard to others' feelings, even if it were to mean to keep a secret, adults sometimes deviate from what is expected of them. It's their own responsibility to deal with it.
Even in America.