Mon. November 26
Shaming Petraeus & the ‘National Adultery Ritual’
Now that we are getting some distance from the media super storm that swirled around the Petraeus scandal, it’s a good time to reconsider two of the most common questions aroused by the behavior of our erstwhile director of the CIA. First, why do so many powerful men cheat, or, as Time once put it, why do they “act like pigs?” And second, why are Americans so puritanical about the sex lives of others? Why, even as threats of war in the Middle East, a fiscal cliff, and overcooked turkey loomed before us, do such petty sexual acts attract our attention, or our “prurient interest” as Katie Roiphe called it in a Slate piece titled “Stop Judging, You Prudes!”
For devoted scandal aficianados like me – and perhaps you, dear reader – these questions have a familiar ring. They are the same ones we heard during les affaires Clinton, Giuliani, Sanford, Edwards, Spitzer, Schwarzenegger, Ensign, Paterson, Weiner, Gingrich, Tiger Woods, etc, etc, etc. Examine this promiscuous history carefully, and you’ll see that the answers to the two questions are closely intertwined. Powerful men cheat because even when they are 60, women still want them. And we judge those men because given the temptations, how else are we going to get them to behave?
It is a truth universally acknowledged that women are drawn to powerful men. These include women who want a good story to tell their girlfriends (Monica?); women who are looking for husbands and children (Rielle?); or, alas, women who already have husbands and children (Paula). Often enough, the women in question are young, beautiful, or, in the climacteric term in widespread use, “hot,” even if the men in question are not. In this respect, the world, and likely nature itself, remains indifferent to our rules of gender equality; with rare exceptions – Madonna, say, or heiresses with an eye for their groomsmen – peri- and post-menopausal women, even very powerful ones, are not nearly so alluring to younger men.
In the Petraeus affair, the contrast between the younger mistress and the older wife painfully illustrates this injustice. Commentators have made much of the “highly attractive” Paula Broadwell’s “curvaceous” body and “sculpted” arms; they have been notably less forthcoming in describing Mrs.Petraeus, and for understandable reasons. Let me simply put it this way; by all accounts a tough, loyal, and generous woman who deserved better from her husband of 37 years, the 59-year-old mother of two does not look as if she has been fending off many suitors in recent years. Her 60-year-old husband, on the other hand, is awash in female attention.
And that difference, not prurience or prudishness, helps explain why we so avidly censure the husband and his fellow sinners. Americans are firm believers in companionate marriage, a bond based on deep affection, commitment, and something close to equality. The unfaithful spouse, whether man or woman, violates those rinciples and exposes their fragility. But given both the advantages aging men have over aging women, not to mention the physical and emotional costs of maternity, the cheating husband poses a special threat to our preferred marital arrangement.
And so the public responds to the Edwards, the Sanfords, and the Spitzers by putting them through what I have called the National Adultery Ritual: the apologetic press conference – happily avoided in the Petraeus incident – the late night jeering, the tweeting, the paparazzi, and the YouTube parodies. Unlike other cultures, even enlightened ones like France or Italy, where mistresses are testament to a leader’s virility, Americans mock their adulterers and demand respect for the offended wives. The costs to the National Adultery Ritual are high: it means violating the privacy of many innocents, as well as tolerating an obsessively crude and cruel media. But it appears to be the only way a modern society knows how to shame its powerful noncriminal malefactors.
If you have any doubt about the way all of this works, consider this counterfactual. Imagine that it came to light that Barack Obama had a mistress whom he was meeting regularly in the back of the presidential limo while Michelle was in the family quarters checking the girls’ homework. Is there any Obama supporter out there who wouldn’t feel shocked? No, not just shocked, but personally betrayed?
It’s pretty clear why. Obama’s relationship with his wife and his love for his daughters is a powerful part of his appeal, especially for women. Their joshing but loving affection and their fist-bumping equality represent a liberal ideal in contemporary life. Writing in the Washington Post, Phillip Kennicot put it this way: “The bonds of love between Barack and Michelle Obama symbolize a healthy society, what might be called the limitless possibilities of true mutuality, of marriage beyond strict definitions.” We can – and we should! – mock his panting language (I can think of some people who would fail to see how a president married to a full time First Lady and mother show us the “limitless possibilities of true mutuality”), but Kennicot’s admiration for the couple is widely shared. If Obama were to screw his marriage up by “acting like a pig,” you can be sure there would be hell to pay not just from his wife, but from a furious public.
And that would be neither a bad, nor a prurient, thing.
Ms. Hymowitz is a fellow at the Manhattan Institute and the author of “Manning Up: How the Rise of Women Has Turned Men Into Boys.”