Throughout history men have courted women who were not their wives and I believe that even among women there was always considerably more adultery than was acknowledged. The fictional heroines, the wives on trial, the irate peeresses arguing to protect their rights to lovers, all give the lie to the dream that in some long-ago happy time all women stayed forever loyal to their husbands. Adultery has persisted—unacceptable—but as human as passion itself.
Still, it seems more in the air today, and certainly more women are talking about it or about having experienced it. This is not a mere matter of happenstance; it is part and parcel of a great change among all of us, men as well as women.
Longer lifespans, greater leisure, freedom from many of the medical and economic ills that once plagued us, have encouraged many people to raise the levels of their emotional aspirations. More of us pursue more education; we go to psychotherapists not just for mental illnesses but for crises of identity or chronology; we divorce in droves; remarry readily; and, curiously, even in marriage report high levels of sexual satisfaction unknown among people in the past. Extramarital sexual experience is simply another one of the innumerable activities engaged in by people preoccupied with personal happiness. This happiness is our society’s prime ethic.
I know it is fashionable now to decry the current worship of self-fulfillment with its attending handmaidens of love and sexuality. It is tempting to look back and pronounce the past more glorious or at least more secure. But there is no returning to the past. And moreover, those who speak and write longingly about it and particularly those who express disdain for our current mode of marriage and periodic divorce seem to me to be indulging in mere wishful thinking. The past wasn’t really so glorious or even so secure.
Certainly it was not for women. Indeed, Simone de Beauvoir has suggested that women’s adultery is in itself a response to the inequities of the female condition, an angry time-tested response. Woman, she wrote in The Second Sex, is “fated for infidelity; it is the sole concrete form her liberty can assume.… only through deceit and adultery can she prove she is nobody’s chattel and give the lie to the pretensions of the male.”
Yet despite the fact that women are clearly as subject as men to the climate of the times, despite sympathetic voices like de Beauvoir’s and those of a host of female fictionalists, women’s adultery continues to be judged in our society in a more pejorative way than is that of men. In part this is a holdover from the days when a male-dominated society made the rules concerning adultery. Wives were property and the privileges of a property owner were of course more generous than those accorded to chattel; additionally, men wanted to be sure of the genetic heritage of their heirs and, in the absence of birth control, women’s sexual fidelity was essential if this was to be accomplished.
But these arrangements between the sexes have changed, and still we are more pejorative about women’s adultery than about men’s. It has to do with the fact that we consider men to be more sexual than women. Thus, when men are adulterous we tend to explain their experience in terms of their biologically-ordained needs for physical variety or their manly inability to control the passions of their bodies. By granting them such physiological urgencies, we also grant their adulteries to be personally imperative and not therefore directed against their spouses. But when women are adulterous, we do not ascribe to them the same physiological necessities or indeed, any clearcut personal urgencies. Instead we make do with a different—and subtly more demeaning—explanation. We tend to view women’s adultery as rising out of reaction rather than self-propulsion. Thus a woman’s adultery becomes retaliatory, directed against rather than prompted from within.
I don’t mean to suggest that the prime cause of women’s adultery is uncontrollable physical urgency. I don’t even believe that this is the prime cause of male adultery. But I do believe that because we do not admit that there are impulsions and imperatives in women, we therefore view women as meaner than men when they are adulterous. We see them as passive-aggressive and thus we condemn their adultery more pejoratively.
During the course of my research on this book I have come to see that women have many non-retaliatory, urgent personal reasons for their extramarital affairs. I met some women who were indeed angry at their husbands, whether for their emotional remoteness, their sexual inadequacy, or their own non-monogamous inclinations. These women did seem to seek affairs in reaction to their husbands. But I met others whose marriages were sound and even successful, who bore no grudges toward their husbands, and who acted out of imperative personal longings for adventure and variety.
There were no universals, there was only a wide variety of patterns. I met women who engaged in extramarital activities because they were trying to wend their way out of unhappy marriages and women who engaged in them because they believed such activities would help them hold on, help them preserve their marriages. I met those who followed the romantic tradition and fell in love with their lovers, and others who had sexual relations quite casually, totally in opposition to the myth of the sexually cautious woman. It became clear to me that women are as disparate in their motivations and capacities for extramarital sex as they are in their appearances, and that affairs, like thumbprints, have whorls and markings and histories that are absolutely unique and individual.
Because of my own personal biases and upbringing, I did believe that most of the adulterous women I spoke with had turned to extramarital sex because there was something lacking in their marriages or in their own self-esteem. But here and there I met women who defied me to view them in this way, who claimed to have marriages and egos which were perfectly intact, and who felt that when I judged them as deficient I was merely clinging to something long-ago learned and not sufficiently re-examined, to a mindset that would not yield to fresh perception.
Listening to the personal testimony of these diverse women seemed to me to have many values. One was that it enabled me to evaluate some of the prognostications concerning the future of marriage which are so often linked to the statistical evidence of increasing extramarital sex among women. The linkers, usually sexual utopians, tell us that in view of the statistics, it is clear that women no longer want to live in sexually-paired relationships. They prophesize that the marriage of the future will undoubtedly consist of partner-sharing or group arrangements and urge us to prepare by ridding ourselves now of jealousy. But their conclusions are based on misinterpretation, on palm-reading of statistics. Extramarital sex, at least as I encountered it among an urban and suburban group of well-educated, middle-to-upper-class women, was only minimally the province of sexual radicals. For most of the women I met it had far more to do with holding onto or obtaining a partner—with living in pairs, albeit sequentially—than with living in threes and fours and at sixes and sevens.
But no matter how one prophesizes the future, it is the present that is our biggest concern. And it is in helping us to sense the temper and tone of our own times in regard to extramarital sex that the personal testimony of women who have had the experience is most important. It enables us—men and women—to see that women are, after all, the same kind of animal as men, as prone as men to feel compelling sexual and emotional drives. We respond as intensely as men do to inadequate marriage, to feeling ignored, to starting to age.
There seems to me little point in bemoaning the fact that women’s fidelity in marriage seems to be weakening, in tilting at social windmills. This is the way it is, where we are now. Rather, I think there can only be service and not disservice to marriage to admit what is happening and examine as closely as possible how, why and for whom fidelity cracks. Whether the prevalence of extramarital sex makes us nervous or cheerful is clearly a highly individual matter, but I can’t see that sweeping it under the rug or hanging it up in the back closet or restricting its examination chiefly to the pages of fiction has ever done much for anyone, or any marriage, or, for that matter, for marriage itself.