European norms may contravene some basic American ideals. In Mating in Captivity, Esther Perel, a New York therapist, says that “egalitarianism, directness, and pragmatism” are entrenched in American sex lives. Her point is seconded by two recently divorced women I know who describe their husbands’ promiscuity as “sociopathic.” In both cases, the men were closeted about their behavior, and the revelation of the secret was bone-crushing.
But Vincent says that French women have to “put up with a lot” and so too do those instinctual Italians.
“I’ve heard this mythology so many times, that Italian women, they’re more mature, more understanding of men’s needs, they expect infidelity. They don’t complain,” says Tuten, who was married to an Italian woman. “I don’t know if it’s true. A lot of Italian women expect their husbands to turn into philanderers, and how do they live with it? Some live by suffering.”
Why can’t we shift American norms? We’ve transformed attitudes about premarital sex and homosexuality in the last 40 years. Why not actively change the rules here and let men and, yes, women too do what they want?
Vincent’s answer echoed the sympathy I’d seen for Mansson’s point of view at the Kinsey Institute.
“I think we’re getting into a question of social stability. The male libido is considered a very dangerous and a potentially disruptive force in society. I think that’s why there are so many religious dictums and taboos around that. The idea that one is allowed multiple partners—this is something that has to be rigidly controlled.”
David Buss also spoke of the libido’s lash. “We understand that infidelity is a great source of stress and conflict and causes a lot of marriages to break up when discovered. It causes a great deal of anguish. The Jimmy Carter model might be better. Lust in their hearts.” This is obviously an American norm. “There’s a lot more fidelity than infidelity,” Bass says. Even if adultery is underreported, as seems likely, studies show that about 25 percent of married men commit adultery, 15 percent of married women.
Nonetheless, the one strong impression I took away from interviewing peers is that American mores are evolving, especially among the affluent. An affair or two is handleable for the rich, says a friend, Jo Mango. “They’re more well read, better informed, and more tolerant. They say, ‘Get over it.’ It’s way costlier to break up. Because look what happens: You lose your living situation and your community in a divorce.” A sophisticated New Yorker made a similar point: “I don’t believe that straying diminishes your love or commitment to your partner. It’s not a zero-sum game. However, it does get complicated and hurtful when you start developing an emotional relationship with another woman.
“But it’s between the partners. Look at all the accommodations you make in a marriage. It’s individualistic. I actually think that we have made a lot of progress publicly about this.” He was referring to the Clintons, and maybe the Spitzers too. They’d been humiliated in the public square, but they’d survived it, so far. Their marriages were formal and more broadly based than their sex lives. Bill Clinton has himself pointed to the Roosevelts’ highly layered marriage as a model. So does my oldest sister. She’s true blue in her marriage, and I had expected her to be moralistic about cheating. But she says that documentaries she’s seen on the Roosevelts and all the science about homosexuality has made her shrug—about others, that is.
Ever since the sexual revolution began, dreamers have made prodigious efforts to normalize infidelity, to bring that paradisiacal planet in their minds into the ordinary world. In Thy Neighbor’s Wife, published in 1981, the prominent journalist Gay Talese got his mind blown at Sandstone Retreat, a communal retreat in the Santa Monica Mountains, outside Los Angeles, led by a charismatic man named John Williamson. It reminded Talese of Oneida and earlier American experiments in communal eroticized living, and he tried to sell it as the latest twist in a road that had begun with Hugh Hefner. But Talese’s version wasn’t convincing. The experience strained his own marriage, and life in the commune was pretty stressful. One of the husbands, still holding a day job at New York Life, said that Williamson had set it all up to give himself access to other men’s wives.
The same sordid air hovers over The Blood Oranges, by the late John Hawkes, another American novelist’s fantasy of liberated sexuality, set in a utopian Mediterranean setting called Illyria. Led by the “sex-singer” Cyril and his panty-dropping wife Fiona, two couples try to make openness work, but both end up smashed, one forever, by a suicide. Lately, the novelist Scott Spencer, who first gained notice in the seventies with the adolescent fantasy of burning desire, Endless Love, published a novel, Willing, about the ultimate male fantasy: men running away from sexless, high-pressure, Ambien-pacified life in the U.S. for sexual tourism with “body workers” in Scandinavia. It turns out to be a big downer. “Prostitutes are like psychiatrists, ambulance drivers, tutors and personal trainers; they’ve got to be used to human wreckage,” Spencer writes.