11 April 2010

Infidelity in the News

I'm so tired of the endless media circus about infidelity. Yes, cheating on a spouse is terrible; but what is really the subject of the debate hidden behind outrage over infidelity? I argue that society uses infidelity as a way to talk about other subjects. Witness the different coverage of Tiger Woods' and Jesse James' infidelities. In one case, infidelity becomes a way to talk about the impudence of a black man marrying and then disappointing a white woman. In the other case, the topic turns from the actual infidelity to speculations on whether a woman's career can provoke her husband to cheat. Two cheating spouses, two very different stories.

What is also exasperating about our fixation with following the infidelities of others is that it centers on The Sanctity of Marriage. Marriage is fine, same-sex marriage should be legal, trusting and caring partnerships (in or out of marriage) are amazing. However, marriage simply is not as important as the social discourse around infidelity would have us believe. And since it's the people who believe that Marriage Is The Foundation of Society who pose one of the biggest threats to civil liberties in this nation (abortion rights, gay rights, women's rights are all under threat from these Sanctimonious folk) it's even more important to reject the cultural memes that further promote the idea that Marriage is the Most Important Part of Society. Peace, justice, friendship, loving-kindness. Much more important.

Therefore, I was particularly struck by this article from Women on the Web, which makes the startling claim that "It’s almost as bad as discovering your father is a child molester — the person you thought you knew the best in the world turns out to be a stranger." Um, no, I'm sorry -- infidelity and child molestation are very different degrees of criminality/betrayal. Yes, I know Norris Church Mailer wrote "it's almost as bad" so she wasn't really equating them ... but still, the comparison rings completely false and bringing it up is offensive to survivors of molestation. Yes, infidelity is a violation. But it is a very different kind of violation.

What kind of violation is it? The author provides this answer:
Nothing has changed since the caveman days, when the man hunted the giant mammoth and the woman cleaned it and cooked it and took care of the kids. They were a team, they needed each other. If some other woman came sniffing around the man, it was to take him away from his woman so he could provide for her, and that was life threatening because the wife’s food source was taken, as well, and she and her children likely might die. It’s still the same. There is always some woman who wants what you have, who wants your man, your house, your car; your life. If the door is opened a little bit, a predatory woman will not hesitate to kick it in, and let’s face it — there is a bit of the predator in all of us, as well as the good and decent woman we are.
Oh, evolutionary psychology! How right you are. Infidelity poses a risk to a woman's very livelihood!!! She and her children will die if her husband is unfaithful!!! And yes, in parts of the world and in certain situations, this is still true. However, for many Western women, thankfully, we have more support from the law than we once did. If anything, we need to work to make the laws and social conventions even more supportive of women who are divorced, single parents, etc. But I'm sorry, I don't accept the logic that women are emotionally scarred by infidelity because a cavewoman ancestor would have feared starvation if another predatory woman stole her man. The emotional scars are there, but this is not where they come from. (Also, a bit of a predator in all of us? Please. I've been attracted to plenty of men who were in relationships, and I never made the slightest move to "steal" them away from their partners. I reject and resent the stereotype that all women are catty man-thieves.)

More EvoPsych follows:
It’s often said that men in happy marriages don’t cheat, but that’s not true. Pretty much all men will cheat, given the right circumstance and the right woman. They are wired differently than us, at least my husband was.
Are they wired so differently? Just like proposing that all women are predators, this generalization sells the honest men short, and ends up like most of these "my experience explains the world" pieces (see the Atlantic!) by admitting that the generalization is based on a very small sample. And since Norris Church Mailer was married to Norman Mailer ... yes, I'm sure she had a pretty awful time of it. But the conclusion is that Norman Mailer was a CPOS, not that all men are.

And then the plot thickens, as Mailer reveals that she was Norman Mailer's 6th wife. I would never blame her for his infidelities, but I do question why anyone would choose a partner who has demonstrated that he/she has traits that the potential partner deems to be problematic. (And again, this is a perspective from which the cheating spouse / child molester father are totally different. We can't choose our parents and we can't really "divorce" them.) However, it's none of my business why she married him and why she decided to stay with him -- until she makes it public by using her own story as a framework for understanding all men and all women and all relationships.

I have a lot of respect for the conclusion of her piece, in which she points out that sometimes more complicated relationships can be better than the high-school-sweethearts-never-touched-anyone-else model that Sanctity of Marriage folks endorse. However, the article doesn't really lead up to this conclusion effectively; it jumps out at the reader at the end, reversing much of the earlier arguments. And as noted above, the earlier arguments tend to be tedious, EvoPsych infused justifications of both infidelity and our hysteria over infidelity.

All men are wired to cheat. And a cheating spouse is The Worst Thing That Can Happen to a Woman or Society.

Oh, please. Let people work out their relationship issues between the two (or three or four or five or ten) people concerned, and let's put more of our time into ending female genital mutilation, preventing child molestation, and eliminating domestic violence.

(Note: this is not meant to be an argument that women who are concerned about or hurt by infidelity should "get over it" and "focus on the real issues." This is addressing the media coverage of infidelity, which tends to elevate it to an importance granted to very few other issues -- an importance which I believe is undeserved and which is detrimental to society because it reinforces the ideas of the Sanctity of Marriage movement.)

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