As even the evolutionary psychologists will tell you, though, life isn’t just chemicals. “Cultural and social attitudes come in and sweep everything off the table,” Heneson says. Society is far more judgmental about women who cheat than men; just read Anna Karenina. Anna Hammond, an arts executive who has written on feminist subjects, points out that infidelity is more costly to a woman than a man: It tends to end a marriage when a woman is discovered, while a marriage “absorbs” it in the man’s case.
“Men have more freedom to act. It’s not because men have more desire or are genetically programmed. It’s because the social and economic ramifications of it are so much more severe for women.” Hammond told me of women friends who have had long affairs and only told one or two close women friends about them lest word get out. The women got a lot from the affairs, she said, passion and a sense of themselves as sexual. “Women do these things, too, but they do them completely in secret.”
Marital passion—and its absence—was a major theme in the responses to my e-mail. “I think that marriages in which both parties are members of the meritocracy seem to be especially vulnerable,” said one friend in Los Angeles. “I see in the [Spitzers] something of what I see in other well-educated power couples—a career trajectory that excludes passion and lust. I know a lot of guys who seem trapped in sexless marriages.”
A New York friend expanded the point. “My wife tells me that none of her friends are interested in sex … Do middle-aged, married women who are no longer interested in having sex with their husbands expect them to remain faithful? They don’t want it thrown in their faces, but if they think about it for a bit, they have to realize that that intense need is being met somehow.”
There is today an extensive literature on revitalizing sexuality in marriage. Lois Braverman at Ackerman had recommended Passionate Marriage, by David Schnarch, which counsels couples to try to have orgasms with their eyes open, along with techniques of “differentiation” to cut boredom. My wife has a copy of the book, but when she saw me on the couch reading it, she mocked me. “That’s chick lit,” she said. “How much of it really works?”
Certainly, I recognize in Schnarch’s work and another Braverman suggestion, Mating in Captivity, by therapist Esther Perel, some of my own techniques to keep my marriage sexual—an important aim, even if I fall a little short of the national average for frequency of intercourse in marriage (about 66 times a year). Sexlessness in a marriage is defined as intercourse fewer than ten times a year.
The common answer married men come up with for the deficit seems to be something everyone’s now wired for. “[P]orn is the norm,” Mark Penn, CEO of Burson-Marsteller—and Hillary Clinton’s former chief strategist—said in his book Microtrends. Penn reported that the marketplace for porn is gigantic, dwarfing the national pastime of baseball. “And when women realize it, will it change the way they view their colleagues, bosses, husbands, and boyfriends?” It’s not just men. Erick Janssen of the Kinsey Institute has written, “Relatively large numbers of married men and women indicate using the Internet for sexual purposes … but the impact of this on marriages has, as yet, not received much research attention.”
One friend had lamented the Internet’s effect on his life. “There has got to be an outlet outside of marriage. I think that’s pathetic what I do, a healthy, successful, upbeat kind of guy. Am I consigned to that lonely pleasure?”
His wife has some idea of his sexual needs, and doesn’t really want to know more. One man told me that when his wife wasn’t available, he snuck out to massage parlors in a “primal state” or watched porn. He felt no compunction about this; it was part of the never-ending battle of the sexes.
“Porn captures these women [its performers] before they get smart,” he said in a hot whisper as we sat in Schiller’s Liquor Bar on the Lower East Side. Porn exploited the sexual desires, and naïveté, of women in their early twenties, he went on, but older women had come to terms with that. “The most one can expect is that women will cede that area, in porn, a period when you can observe us before we have power, because it ain’t going to happen again.” He spoke of acts he observed online that his wife wouldn’t do. “It’s painful to say, but that’s your boys’ night out, and it takes an enlightened woman to say that.”