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The Affairs of Men


I went on to Janssen’s office. There were pictures of erections on his wall and erotica. Janssen has tried to come up with a model for predicting who will cheat, based on two curves: one for sensitivity to sexual stimuli, the other a curve of risk-taking. These traits he calls rather prosaically “gas pedal” and “brake pedal,” though the questionnaire he offers touches on the tremulous drama of being a sexual person in an everyday world. Here are statements designed to measure sensitivity.

“When a sexually attractive stranger looks me straight in the eye, I become aroused … [Agree/disagree?]” “When a sexually attractive stranger accidentally touches me, I easily become aroused.” Even among people who would strongly agree with those statements, some are more capable of overriding those feelings. These are people with a strong awareness of risk, which Janssen measures with statements such as these: “If I can be heard by others while having sex, I am unlikely to stay sexually aroused.” “If I feel that I am being rushed, I am unlikely to get very aroused.”

I told Janssen about my friend’s comment: “There is no more unnatural principle of social organization than sexual exclusivity.”

When I told my wife some of the ideas about about male sexuality, she got agitated. “Okay. Let’s have an open marriage,” she said, adding that she’d be spending the evening away on Wednesday. I said, No thanks.

Janssen made a face. “Infidelity is not just a social issue. It is a problem of trust and intimacy in a relationship. You have responsibility toward your partner. Why don’t men make sure they have open relationships? Let them be gutsy to stand up and tell their wives.” He shrugged. “If you can handle that—” I spoke of sexual passion and the way it makes social attitudes seem like so much debris on the ocean of real experience. A friend of mine was married for fifteen years to a woman with whom he came to understand he was incompatible, values-wise. Women had always flirted with him; finally, he made a date. “I thought the world was going to collapse when I did it,” he said. “When I was growing up, people would say they were such sinners they thought the church would collapse if they just walked inside. Well, it didn’t collapse.” He had complete pleasure; he could not accept that something that felt so good was wrong. His marriage broke up a year later, and then he met a nurse who also worked as an escort and who loved sex and loved the fact that he loved it. “Everybody’s different … She taught me I could have sex without a relationship. I didn’t want to talk to her, I didn’t want to go to the movies. I would knock on her door, and that was it. This went on for years.”

Janssen heard me out and nodded. “Underneath it all is this issue, if there is some divide between the sexes overall in how important sex is, how often you have it and with whom, and whether biological or not, how do we deal with that? We institutionalize things. We create institutions like marriage. For most people, it seems to work. That seems to be the issue we’re dealing with. Should that change?”

“Well, New York was just deprived of a really smart governor because he had a need for an illicit but consensual relationship,” I said.

“Consensual relationship, yes. But not to the person you’re cheating on,” Janssen said. “If indeed this is an essential part of you—”

“A friend calls it core.”

“Well, core could still be learned behavior. Essential means ‘part of my biology.’”

The distinction is crucial. Our core has many components, and even the evolutionary psychologists say that there is an evolved desire for pair bonding, for love.

The obvious question is whether we can import a European understanding. The stereotype is that in Europe, they have got this figured out, and every time they snigger over our scandals, they seem more superior. A gay friend tells me that gay European friends laugh at him because even gay relationships here tend to follow a bourgeois, monogamous model.

David Buss points out that in the U.S., it is very difficult for a candidate to be elected who has no professed religious belief, while this is not the case in Europe. In Germany, prostitution is legal. “It’s cleaned up and taxed, and the prostitutes get health insurance and benefits that they couldn’t get if it was illegal.” And German husbands and wives take separate vacations with the understanding that romance might ensue. “You could argue that European sensibility is more civilized and natural.”

I asked Glyn Vincent, a New York writer on social and cultural matters who is half-French, about norms.

“Marriage is more of a formality; sex is not the most important thing,” he said. “From the time I was small, I was led to understand that people have affairs. C’est la vie. This is just going to happen. You’re not going to make a big deal out of it when it does happen. You shouldn’t be hurtful about it. You’re going to be discreet. Don’t shove it in people’s faces.” While Vincent sees young Americans experimenting with new norms—“fuck buddies,” friends with benefits, etc.—those innovations don’t seem to have rubbed off on their elders. New York divorces continue to involve sexual infidelity as a breaking point. “When I make a comment about infidelity in social situations, there’s always a little element of mistrust in people’s eyes,” he said.

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