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The Affairs of Men

Braverman pointed out that American habits, even on the Upper East Side, have a moralistic component. That affects men too. “I’m not a sociologist,” she cautioned. “But we have a history of puritanism as a very dominant sensibility in the United States. That’s not the dominant sensibility in France or Italy. My observation is that often when people are having an affair, they get very involved and they start questioning their attachment to the marriage, which becomes very threatening to the marriage’s survival. The husbands here don’t treat the affairs in the way we imagine Europeans treat their affairs.”

I told Braverman that I’d sent an e-mail to 50 married guys and put an ad on Craigslist; one of my respondents was a guy in his sixties who said that his wife was no longer interested in sex, so he just went and had lap dances and maybe a little more, and no one was hurt. “I don’t find it’s morally wrong. What’s morality—the sex taboo. This is totally private,” he’d told me. “I can’t change my wife’s point of view.” I’d asked him if he felt shame. “I do, but a need is a need. For a woman too. A woman has needs. Women are much more mysterious than men.”

Braverman was impatient with the idea that the marriage couldn’t fulfill this man’s needs. “What does it mean that she’s not interested? How long has she not been interested? We know that age does not end sexual arousal or interest, we know that’s a myth. Was there some argument about something else, feelings hurt? What happened? Did one person feel abandoned?”

I felt that Braverman was missing the point, and making me feel guilty to boot. It was the old male-female morality play. I would insist that the man’s behavior didn’t mean anything to the relationship, but she saw it as a betrayal of trust. She also said that some people have strong relationships without “physical intimacy.”

Recent science has tended to support my side of the argument. In the last fifteen years, the evidence has grown that our sexuality is hardwired, and the science is changing the culture. My sister Alice, a respectable suburban woman happily married for eons, says that she’s come to respect the fact that sexuality runs the gamut: Some people seem happy with a sexless marriage, while others aren’t built for monogamy. The only morality she hangs on to is how honest one person is with the other about their stuff going into a marriage.

My sister has been influenced by evolutionary psychology, the widely publicized theory that the sex drive is genetically programmed. One of the leaders in the field, David Buss, author of The Evolution of Desire and a professor at the University of Texas, says that men’s genes program them to seek many mates and try to monopolize the reproductive lives of those mates; think of the manners of the Fundamentalist Latter-Day Saints sect’s sprawling compound in Texas, in which the older men ran the younger men off and had as many of the girls—as young as 14—as they wanted. But women are also programmed for infidelity, Buss says. They have a drive to monopolize the economic resources of their mate, according to the theory, but also to keep a man or two in reserve, because men die earlier than women, or men go off, and women need protection. Recent analyses of genetic databases reveal that fully 10 percent of people have different biological fathers from the men they name as their fathers, Buss notes; that’s evidence of women cheating. But Buss says the difference between the genders in the desire for variety is not minor (as, say, the gender difference in height is, about 10 percent on average); it is staggering, “like the difference between how far the average man and woman can throw a rock.” Consider the Website meet2cheat, in which married people find one another for recreational sex; it charges $59 for a man’s three-month entry fee, $9 for a woman. Cheating wives are harder to come by. “Women are going to get bored, just like men, but I don’t think they have this driving constant need,” says Nancy Heneson, a science writer who’s covered evolutionary psychology since its early days.

The point was driven home to me by a transgender man who responded to my ad. Jay was a woman for nearly 50 years till he made the transformation a couple years ago. The testosterone regime he underwent produced great changes in behavior—as well as tolerance of infidelity. “There is a significant uptick in casual sex, a lowering of inhibitions, and far more interest in sexual variety, including bisexuality and fetishes, BDSM, etc.,” Jay said. “Personally, I have noticed I have a newfound ability to completely divorce sexuality from emotional commitments.”