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Despite what we have all heard, married folks in America are actually wildly monogamous. In 2004, only 3.9 % of married men and 3.1% of married women engaged in extramarital sex in the past year (62). The figure that is often heard – that more than half of married men, and a quarter of married women will cheat on their spouses over their lifetime – turns out to be both highly problematic and overestimated. These later figures come from Alfred Kinsey's studies in the 1950's, and they are based upon badly unrepresentative samples (46). This was exacerbated by later studies by Shere Hite and Cosmopolitan magazine which placed adultery figures as high as 70% for both men and women. It turns out that in the U.S. only about 20% of men and 10% of women have extramarital sex over their lifetimes (50), although, as Druckerman notes, statistical evidence in this area is strangely hard to come by.
Why there should be such a dramatic difference between reality and perception is interesting. Part of it clearly has to do with the fact that some segments within our society who receive a disproportionate amount of media coverage – such as sports and movie stars, famous politicians and, one wants to add, but probably shouldn't, evangelical ministers like Jim Bakker, Jimmy Swaggart, and Ted Haggard -- do commit adultery in numbers much higher than the norm. Druckerman also suggests that part of our idea of ourselves as more adulterous than we actually are may have to do with the fact that an entire industry – the "marriage industrial complex" -- has established itself in America to deal with the 'exploding' numbers of adulterers and their damaged marriages. This is, I believe, part of a larger trend: stated baldly, North America has become 'addicted' to therapy. In Canada, e.g., the number of licensed psychologists increased 52% from 1982 to 1997 (McLaren, 2000). Similarly, while there were only 3000 marriage and family therapists in the U.S. in 1970 (98), that number had risen to 50,000 by 2004 (100), a staggering 1600% increase!
Far more problematic than their mere rise in numbers, however, is what many of these therapists are advising their clients to do. Beginning with the very plausible moral claim that what makes adultery morally wrong is that it involves lying and deceit (see, e.g., Wasserstrom, 1975), therapists have gone on to suggest that the therapeutic cure for adultery is complete (perhaps even obsessive) truth-telling. Some 'therapists' suggest that couples "should expect to spend 'thousands of hours' discussing the affair" (97). This time might well be spent combing through thousands of emails, text and phone messages, and credit card receipts in order to establish a time line of exactly what happened when, and where, often in lurid, graphic detail (102-103). Given America's history as a puritan settlement, discussion of adultery and recovery from it has a distinctly religious tone. Indeed, in America, adulterers often suffer such feelings of guilt that it is hard to fathom why they engage in the activity. (At this point, religion mixes curiously with the secular, and reference is often made to adulterers suffering from an "addiction" to sex (103).)
The French, who surprisingly commit adultery about as little as Americans do, view the situation quite differently. In order to protect their spouses from the pain of their adultery, French cheaters rarely reveal the truth of their affair to their spouse, even when the affair has come to light. And they rarely feel guilt over living their double life. Indeed, one man says that he was able to leave therapy about a year after he began having an affair. "'I solved my problems,' he explains. 'The problems were marriage and sex'" (123).
These cross-cultural comparisons of adultery constitute some of the most fascinating parts of Lust In Translation. Other intriguing examples include that Russians, despite suffering from sexual as well as other forms of oppression during the Soviet era, were then (and continue to be now) some of the most adulterous people in the world. One Russian expressed the rationale behind this as follows: "Sex was the last thing they couldn't take away from us, and that's why we did it so much. Everyone had affairs with everyone. Moscow was the most erotic city in the world" (151). Though Russia has now eschewed its communist system, they continue to cheat. Ironically, for attractive young women, it has become the quickest way up the socio-economic ladder, and for the vast majority of people who have been left behind in the new economic order, sex in general and affairs in particular make their bleak lives seem less so.
Like Russians, many Africans engage in lots of extra marital sex. This is particularly noteworthy because sex is extremely risky in HIV and AIDS ravaged sub-Saharan Africa. Why, then, does it continue? Why doesn't the risk of contracting a deadly disease fundamentally alter sexual practices, as it did with gay men in North America and, interestingly, as it has recently in Uganda (203). Unfortunately, the answer to this isn't lack of information since, according to Druckerman, South Africa is filled with messages about the dangers of unsafe sex. Moreover, a study showed recently that in one town unsafe sex continued relatively unaltered after a two year HIV education program (205). As was the case in Russia, the very bleakness of life seems to be an integral factor in explaining such behavior. As one study has shown, "richer people with long life expectancies changed their behavior more than did poor people with shorter expected lives, whether they be African or gay men in America. These results suggest that a man ... weighs the risk of seducing the lovely women in front of him against his joblessness and the fact that men around him die in their early forties. Give that same man a better-paying job and more years to live, and he's less likely to invite her for a tryst out back" (219-220).
In its own way, Japan represents a completely different view of marriage, sex, and adultery than the one current in America. According to Druckerman, Japan continues to be extraordinarily male dominant and married men tend to look outside the marriage for sex. One Japanese researcher maintains that "There are certain [Japanese] men who believe you don't bring sex or work into the home" (173). Hence, many wives move into their baby's room and sleep there until the child is five or six years old. The father is mostly absent anyway as his days are filled with work followed by late night revelry with his work mates, much of it spent in a dizzying variety of sex clubs. Oddly, neither popular opinion nor the law in Japan considers sex with a prostitute to be an instance of adultery.
Druckerman's book offers us a fascinating glimpse into the world of adultery (and, concomitantly, of marriage as well) as it exists in various parts of the world. She writes well, with a breezy informal style that makes Lust in Translation a joy to read despite the fact that she manages to raise as many questions about sexual behavior as she answers. But, this is not unexpected given the complexity and, at times, the sheer irrationality of the subject matter.
McLaren, Leah. 2000. Growing up on therapy. Globe and Mail (May 27): R1-R2.
Wasserstrom, Richard. 1975. Is adultery immoral? In R. Wasserstrom, ed., Today's Moral Problems. New York: MacMillan.
© 2007 Robert Scott Stewart
Robert Scott Stewart, Professor of Philosophy, Cape Breton University