The prostitutes cost Eliot Spitzer as much as $80,000, not to mention the governorship of New York, his possible ascent to the White House, and the belief of millions that he was a white knight in the muddy field of politics. No sooner had Spitzer fallen than his successor, newly sworn in Gov. David Paterson, confessed to his own host of infidelities. This week, Paterson was knocked off the front pages by Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, who has refused to resign his office despite being indicted for allegedly lying under oath about his own affair with a staffer.
The cascade of high-profile hanky-panky by those who claim to embody American values has jump-started a new round of breast beating over sexual proclivities. Does monogamy still matter? Why do people cheat? What does this say about American society?
According to experts, the fact that sex scandals—which date in this country to at least Thomas Jefferson—can still trigger public fury speaks volumes about American society. And it reveals what many people still don't know, or like, about sexuality. "We hold sex to a really high standard because I think we got really deep shame about being sexual beings," says Jean Koehler, assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Louisville Medical School. "American society has a tradition of being very scared and highly regulated about their sexuality."
Indeed, such is anxiety over discussion of sex issues that researchers don't even know how many Americans cheat. Numbers like 50 percent of married men and a third of married women are bandied about. Those numbers are supported by some respected public figures, such as Joyce Brothers, who posited in 1990 that even half of all women were sleeping around. Clinical research, however, reveals something far different. In 1994, the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago upended the conventional thought of general licentiousness (generated in large part by sex study pioneer Michael Kinsey). It showed 15 to 18 percent of "ever-married people have had a sexual partner other than their spouse while married." And just 3 to 4 percent have cheated on their spouse in any given year. In 2000, another team of researchers, led by Judith Treas, a sociologist at the University of California-Irvine, concluded that 11 percent of adults have cheated on their spouse or cohabitating partner. "There isn't any evidence of an infidelity epidemic," she says.
But even the clinical research is fuzzy. A follow-up to the Chicago study showed that people interviewed without family members around had higher rates of infidelity. It stood to reason that many people simply weren't honest when there was a chance a loved one could overhear. Meanwhile, a growing number of swinger societies, Internet liaisons, and prostitution rings of the sort that snared Spitzer seem to provide anecdotal evidence that cheating is on the rise. "The bottom line is we really don't know accurately what the statistics are today," says Joy Davidson, a New York City psychologist and author of Fearless Sex. "We can only surmise from our experiences in the world."
Sex therapists tend to believe there's more fooling around than the studies suggest, but they're also overexposed to those people with sex and/or marital troubles.
What is known: More Americans today (80 percent) say infidelity is "always wrong" than in 1970 (70 percent). And a full 99 percent of Americans say they expect their spouse to be faithful. Monogamy, at least as an ideal, is stronger than ever in this country even as it slips elsewhere.
Most people would consider that good news. But some sex therapists are having doubts. In Mating in Captivity, author and family therapist Esther Perel argues that the grip of fidelity may be doing more harm than good. She asks if a decades-old marriage should be scrapped because of a one-night moment of weakness. Noting record divorce rates, she writes "despite the fact that monogamy is a ship sinking faster than anyone can bail it out, we continue to cling to the wreckage with absolute faith in its structural soundness."
That may explain the public outcry when our political leaders fail not their constituents but their spouses. Spitzer committed a crime by hiring a prostitute, but it was the infidelity to his wife that led the tabloids. It's still unknown whether or not Spitzer will face criminal charges.
Monogamy worship is leading some experts to think that expectations are exceedingly unrealistic and, probably, hypocritical. "As a society, we are privately more forgiving and publicly often more judgmental," Davidson says. "We're very hard on public figures. We expect them to be superhuman."
While not necessarily advocating open marriages, Perel does believe that monogamy should be a topic of conversation among couples. Furthermore, monogamy should not mean that one's sexuality belongs to the other. Allowing room for flirtation and fantasy—which often feels out of bounds among monogamous couples—can strengthen marriages, experts argue. That means a slight adjustment of attitudes toward monogamy might go a long way to saving the institution of marriage—and it may save some political careers along the way.