When the Eliot Spitzer scandal broke in March, I had only sympathy for him: another middle-aged married guy tormented by his sexual needs. I’m 52 and have always struggled with the desire for sexual variety. Everyone gets an issue, and that’s mine; it’s given me pleasure and pain, and jolted my marriage. I’d only talked about my issue with any honesty over the years with about six or seven people, and when you leave out my wife and a therapist, they are all men.
So the conversation had a conspiratorial male character. When people at dinner parties cried out, “What was Spitzer thinking?” I whispered to a friend that I knew damn well what he was thinking: He wanted some “strange,” to quote the old Kris Kristofferson line. Or we passed around JPEGS of Spitzer’s date, Ashley Dupre, and commented on her luscious body. The governor’s plight had the effect of outing me. When I told one married friend about my torment, he cut me off. “Everyone in our situation has had one or two episodes. Straying, wandering eye, a blowup. If you have a pulse.”
When I decided to write about it, the novelist Frederic Tuten offered a warning about the sanctity in which Americans hold monogamy in marriage. “You can go against it in life, but don’t speak against it. It makes you a monster. Who speaks against it? And this creates a dichotomy, between what we live and what we profess.”
The challenge for me was to explore the dichotomy, of which Spitzer, with his hot wife and public moralizing and complicated secret life as Client 9, was the most flagrant recent example. Then there was his successor, David Paterson, and his affair, or two affairs, or—we lost count. And then Congressman Vito Fossella and his two families. What did it mean about men—and marriage—that this kind of duality was possible?
Even sexologists aren’t clear about issues of sex in a long-term relationship. “There is all this political and social commitment to marriage, yet this is what our news is made up of, these infidelities,” said the first person I called, Jennifer Bass, communications director for the Kinsey Institute at Indiana University. “This is something we don’t understand. There’s research on relationships and research on sex, but putting them together is not so easy.” The result is that our understanding of married sexuality tends to be a rich mix of gossip, statistics, and cliché. “One week it’s ‘everyone’s having sex,’ and the next week it’s ‘the sexless marriage,’ ” Bass said. Having visited many of those clichés myself, I could look back and say that baby-boomers had changed a great number of sexual mores and traditions, from premarital sex to naming the G-spot. In his book on the history of sodomy laws, Dishonorable Passions, the law professor William Eskridge Jr. has shown how non-procreative sex had slowly but surely gained a place in American life, a cultural tide pushed by nonconformists and artists—not to mention enlightened affluent boomers. But monogamy has so far withstood the revolutionary impulse. Consider that Fossella is being pilloried for having an affair, while his sister Victoria Fossella, according to published reports, is openly gay, lives with a partner, and has adopted children that her partner has borne. No, these are not the same thing, and Victoria’s choice doesn’t yet have a place of honor—but it’s taken for granted, as it wouldn’t have been 50 years ago.
An article of faith among the men with whom I discussed these issues (and an idea ignored, if not contested, by most of the women I know) was that the hunger for sexual variety was a basic and natural and more or less irresistible impulse. “I haven’t ever seen anyone who doesn’t deliver on every single demand their sexuality makes on them. We make the mistake of thinking some people have a stronger will, they don’t,” says a forward-thinking friend. “There is no more unnatural principle of social organization than sexual exclusivity.” But like other of my male sources, he didn’t want me to use his name. “Don’t get me divorced!” was the refrain. All of these guys nursed a fantasy, as quaintly surreal as an old tinted postcard, of a perfectible world in which we might have sex outside our primary relationships and say that it doesn’t mean anything.
Housed in a handsome townhouse on the Upper East Side that might contain a huge and happy Tolstoyan family, the Ackerman Institute for the Family is a leading center for couples therapy, and when I met its president, Lois Braverman, I brought up the point that Alan Dershowitz and many others have made re Spitzer: Aren’t Europeans more evolved about marriage?