Question: what act requires two people but is permissible (outside politics) for only one of them? Answer: Adultery.
Think about it. A married man who has an affair is considered normal, healthy, even; perhaps even rather attractive because of it. Sure, we get annoyed with him, but only in a way that blames the gods for men’s nature and behavior, a way that says, “boys will be boys” and “men are all alike,” a way that implies a man can’t really help it if he commits adultery—he’s just giving in to what comes naturally. Yes, he blew it, but he’s really just a lover of women, a Don Juan, a conquistador. At the mercy of his biological urges, he must follow his penis wherever it may take him. And since we don’t really blame the man, we have no derogatory word for him. Indeed, the worst I can think of is a cheat.
Now consider the married woman who has an affair. She is blamed for having done the worst thing in the world—and we do have language for her. She’s called a slut, a tramp, a whore. Labels slapped on her behavior range from the nymphomaniacal to the sociopathic, depending on whether we decide she is merely immoral or totally amoral. She is, in the annals of psychology, defective—a bad wife, a bad mother, a bad woman. She is not a real woman at all; she is a thing.
And now look at the consequences. For a man, there rarely are any. His wife probably won’t divorce him for doing something she’s taught to feel is unpleasant, perhaps, but the kind of betrayal that is nevertheless a fact of life. If he’s prominent politically, there will be a scandal, and he may step down, but hold on: His wife will rarely leave him and a few years down the line his reputation as a cocksman will simply be enhanced, and he’ll run for office again (often, after finding God). The woman he is having an affair with, on the other hand, will often be blamed for trying to steal him away from his wife. In a perverse twist of moral logic, the woman who has sex with a married man—even if she herself is unmarried—is held more responsible for the affair than he is. Some women will say she betrayed the man’s wife—a woman she has probably never met.
But wait, it gets worse. Back at home, the man’s wife will readily blame herself for his affair: She isn’t think enough, pretty enough, sexy enough, loving enough, smart enough, cheerful enough; she was too busy with the kids, with her job, with herself. He was ignored. He needed love. He’s having a mid-life crisis. He’s stressed out. He’s cracking up. No wonder! Get it? The fault, in a man’s affair, can always be traced to the women: The seductive, manipulative mistress; the fading, haggard wife. The women will blame not only themselves for the situation they’re in, but each other!
And that’s nothing compared to the blame we heap on married women who have affairs. Right now, in more than half of the forty-eight cultures in the world that were studied by American anthropologist Suzanne Frayser, the husband of an unfaithful wife has the legal right to murder her. In some societies, a wife might be branded or speared in the leg or stoned. In our own civilized, liberated society, we condone metaphoric murder: Men hurl unfaithful wives out of the marriage without a thought; judges routinely declare adulterous women unfit mothers and take away their children, their home, and often, their entitlement to financial support.
Certainly the association of women’s adultery with death is a long one. Western literature is filled with glorious, passionate, desirable heroines who lose their lives for doing the same thing the heroes are doing with impunity. Tolstoy, Flaubert, Hardy—all felt compelled to kill off their heroines, as if adultery could have no pother possible ending (Anna Karenina hurls herself under a train, Madame Bovary takes poison, Tess of the D’Urbervilles is hanged). And if they aren’t killed outright, they’re marginalized, alienated and discredited, sent to the fringes of society like so many grains of salt on the rim of a margarita, as was Hawthorne’s poor Hester Prynne, forced by her Puritanical New England townsfolk to wear a scarlet letter A on her breast.
The very notion of female adultery consumes and poisons the male imagination. In Shakespeare, even wives NOT guilty of adultery are sentenced to die or actually do lose their lives because of the husband’s jealousy—and in a miraculous feat of group persuasion, these men manage, as Othello does, to convince us that the murder of an innocent partner is just part of loving, albeit of loving “not wisely but too well.”
You can see why it’s almost impossible even to imagine a successful adulteress—a woman who has an affair, enjoys it, learns something important about herself or about life, and returns to her life relatively unscathed and unpunished. Shouldn’t her life be ruined? Shouldn’t she spend the rest of her life overwhelmed by guilt? We are outraged, as if she’s committed murder. The message, in life as in literature, today as yesterday, is clear: A real woman is not like that. A real woman wouldn’t do that. This woman should die.
So of course women have historically kept their affairs a secret. And their silence on this issue leads many people to believe not only that men talk more about their affairs than women do (Kinsey’s point), but that men alone have affairs. It is hard to convince some people that women actually have affairs—as if only men do; as though it’s an act committed by one person. I’ve been thrown off conservative talk shows for suggesting that this isn’t the case. It always leaves me wondering: With whom do these people think married men have been sleeping all these centuries? A handful of very tired, very tawdry, very single women?
So my question to women is this: Can you listen to a woman who has had an affair? Are you willing to hear her story without judging her, without leaping in to moralize, without telling yourself she is not like you, that you would never do what she has done, that she must be a bad woman, a bad wife, a bad mother? What will it take for us to become as responsive to our friends’ behavior, our mothers’ and daughters’ behavior, our own behavior….as we are to men’s? When will believe that our own sexuality is as forceful, that our own emotional needs and foibles and failures, are as compelling as men’s? Why must we continue to blame women for entering an experience that is deeply human, that requires the consent of both genders?
As long as we prohibit women from talking about infidelity and as long as we can’t listen to what they tell us, we’re colluding with a culture that still believes women are less sexual, less vulnerable, less human than men. As long as we blame ourselves and other women for passionate involvements, as long as we declare ourselves the sole moral guardians of relationships and marriages, we are complicit both in infantalizing men and in perpetuating a blame cycle that excludes an entire gender. Surely it’s high time we overturned the cultural norm that connects women’s sexuality with severe punishment.