Cheating is public image enemy no 1. But why are we so obsessed with adultery, asks Judith Ireland.
Barely a week goes by without some celebrity, politician or sports star being tarred with the infidelity brush. Whether they are family men, leading ladies or sporting legends, there is a media storm so morally indignant that nothing is left in its wake except tattered reputations and a pile of screaming headlines.
Tiger Woods may have had the biggest bang but there's no shortage of sinners lining up behind him, from TV mechanic Jesse James and England footballer Wayne Rooney to Labor politician John Della Bosca and US Senator John Edwards. Yet while public figures can survive drug busts (Kate Moss), weird sex tapes (Paris Hilton), punch-ups (Russell Crowe) and blood diamonds (Naomi Campbell), woe betide anyone who is caught wandering into infidelity town. Cheating is public image enemy No. 1.
According to psychologist and writer Dr Kylie Ladd, infidelity is a "hot-button issue". "We love it, we can't read enough of it and yet there is such condemnation of it," she says. Cooking author Julie Powell discovered this first-hand with the release of her latest book, Cleaving: A Story of Marriage, Meat, and Obsession, which explores her affair with an old college flame. "What I was not prepared for was the depth of the anger … commenters on my blog called me a 'soiled, narcissistic whore' and accused me of defiling the institution of marriage,'' she wrote in The Guardian.
We certainly place a high premium on faithfulness. In the 2005 Australian Longitudinal Study of Health and Relationships, some three-quarters of the 19,000 people surveyed viewed affairs in committed relationships as "wrong". A 2007 Gallup poll found Americans are more accepting of polygamy, suicide and the death penalty than adultery. Monogamy, we are told, is not only morally right - it's the way nature built us. As Sydney University sexologist Dr Patricia Weerakoon and her son, Presbyterian minister Kamal Weerakoon, told a recent Melbourne conference on religion: "Our bodies are wired to operate best with one sexual partner for life."
But if we are honest with ourselves, do such strong stances against infidelity belie a less monogamous reality? Doth the lady protest too much? And should she even be protesting in the first place?
It's not as though Tiger is the only one doing it. Statistics on the rate of infidelity are notoriously varied, but research indicates it is far from a fringe activity. The 2009 Great Australian Sex Census, based on some 9000 responses, found 47 per cent of male and 44 per cent of female respondents had been unfaithful in some form. The National Opinion Research Centre at the University of Chicago suggests that between 15 and 18 per cent of marriages experience infidelity but other polls put the figure as high as 70 per cent.
You only have to look at the rise of dating sites for married people to see how popular infidelity is. Earlier this year, website Ashley Madison launched in Australia with the slogan: "Life is short, have an affair." With more than 6.5 million users worldwide, as of August there were more than 312,000 Australian members, of which about 40 per cent were women. "I am not sure there is any topic as conflicted as this one," says founder and chief executive officer Noel Biderman.
The hypocrisy pot has been stirred anew by research suggesting life-long monogamy is not the status quo for human beings. In Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality, psychologist Christopher Ryan and psychiatrist Cacilda Jetha (who are married to each other) argue we aren't as far removed from those randy apes as we like to think. For 2 million years, casual sexuality was the norm for our ancestors, who also shared food, shelter and protection. The advent of agriculture 10,000 years ago meant sexuality became associated with property, turning our natural sexual inclinations on their head.
According to Ryan and Jetha, "deep conflicts rage at the heart of modern sexuality". Using evidence from archaeology, anthropology and biology, they argue that sex has been thoroughly mixed up with concepts of love and marriage, resulting in sky-high divorce rates, passionless unions and an overreliance on porn, relationship counselling and Viagra to prop up the whole thing. Ryan notes that since the book was released in July, he has received 15 to 20 emails a day from relieved individuals who always thought there was "something wrong" with them because their eyes (or hands) wandered elsewhere.
It's certainly a sociologically interesting time to be committed. In one sense, the concept of one all-consuming, committed love runs right through our cultural consciousness. "We assume we're going to live happily ever after," says Kate Figes, author of Couples: The Truth. "We look at [marriage] to make everything OK." In another sense, there's never been more incentive or opportunity to stray. For the first time in history, human beings are easily living into their 80s and beyond. A marriage today, kicking off at the average age of 28 or 30, should technically last about 50 years - a long time to maintain happily ever after. At the same time, Western culture is hell-bent on encouraging everyone's individual destinies and happiness. We spend huge swathes of our lives at work, away from loved ones, while technology connects us to different ideas, worlds and people in clicks.
After spending a year as a mistress-for-hire and experiencing infidelity in her own life, Holly Hill, the author of Sugarbabe, thinks we need to rewrite the monogamy rule-book. Arguing that men in particular "need to get their rocks off", Hill suggests it would be healthier to be upfront about it and negotiate infidelity with our partners. "It's better to walk the dog on a leash than let it escape through an unseen hole in the back fence," she says.
While recently promoting the US edition of Sugarbabe, Hill managed to incense both sides of the political fence by arguing we can't take infidelity so personally. While advocating that couples start having a "conversation" about their sexual and emotional needs, she has been successfully practising what she preaches for two years. Both Hill and her partner can sleep with other people, provided he doesn't spoon his lovers and she doesn't wear the outfits he buys her in front of other men.
Despite the fact that there's nothing particularly new about infidelity (as Helen of Troy and King David can attest), our discussions about it tend to proceed along narrow lines. As in the cases of Woods or James, the offending parties are seen as some sort of romantic Antichrist and the whole affair is viewed as an unmitigated disaster. However, there is a growing body of writing and research dedicated to examining what an ambivalent world infidelity can be.
Motivated by an interest in why people make the choices they do and how they live with them, Dr Kylie Ladd has explored infidelity in the essay collection Naked: Confessions of Infidelity and Adultery and the novel After the Fall, about two couples dealing with the aftermath of an affair. Imagining Naked would be a fairly salacious book, Ladd and co-editor Leigh Langtree were surprised that many of the 500-plus stories they received weren't predominantly about sex; tales really revolved around themes of self-esteem, happiness and boredom, "about who they were as a person and what they needed".
While Naked was a sadder book than Ladd expected, there were also many positive stories. One man told of reconnecting with his creative spark through an online affair; another woman discovered new aspects of her personality; another acknowledged that her and her husband's affairs saved their marriage.
Great literary representations of infidelity, such as Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary and The English Patient, might like to resolve things in a dramatic tragic act, but Ladd says, "I do believe there is a lot [of infidelity] going on and it's not all ending in planes and trains crashing and poisoning.''
Similar nuances are also explored by Figes in Couples, based on 120 interviews with couples of varying ages, stages and persuasions. Figes notes that even though some relationships don't survive the blast of an affair, others emerge out the other side, with "a deeper intimacy". She suggests our "sanctimonious" stance on fidelity belies an insecurity about our relationships. With people today able to have sex, kids and a material life without marriage, "all the old reasons for [it] don't exist any more". With nothing else left, fidelity is held up as the prime symbol of marriage, to try to assure its survival in a world of raunchy temptation and easy divorce.
But maybe we should relax a little. With writers such as Lori Gottlieb arguing in Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr Good Enough that we need to lower our partner-selection standards, Figes wonders if we should lower our expectations once we're actually in the relationship. Perhaps the idea that we get all our physical, emotional and intellectual needs from one person all the time is setting ourselves up to fall. Ryan similarly questions the modern-day romance narrative. After living on and off in Europe for 20 years, his American homeland seems incredibly "adolescent". The French might have affairs without too much ado but America's Hollywood-ish idealism about coupling makes it impossible for people to think outside the square of monogamy.
So every time we fly into paroxysms of outrage over high-profile infidelity, we are backing ourselves further into a corner. For many of us, promoting full-time fidelity is also the sexual equivalent of the brassiere calling the knickers lacy.
Apart from good, old-fashioned guilt, Ladd wonders if tall-poppy syndrome is at play in our condemnation. "Do we love it that Sandra Bullock got brought back to earth [by her cheating husband]? Does it reassure us that our lives aren't so bad?" For Figes, the public reaction serves to reassure us we're on the right track.
"It's a way of shoring up the social norms," she says. "This outrage helps people believe what they're trying to do is right."
Contemporary reactions to infidelity suggest we are extremely uneasy about the gold standards we are attempting to live up to in our romantic and sexual lives. We want the monogamous fairytale, but remain fascinated with the concept of our own individual destinies, wherever that might lead. All the while, biology lurks somewhere just below the surface, waiting to turn it all upside down.