America’s Fidelity Crisis
.Leanna Wolfe, Ph.D.
How it Began
American culture is a culture of contradictions. We are a nation founded by Puritans—people who sought the freedom to practice a very restrictive and god-fearing brand of Christianity. Meanwhile, there existed a huge, wild and amazing frontier filled with hundreds of Indian tribes whose practices regarding family, marriage, gender and sexuality differed much from the first Pilgrims. Related Iroquois women lived together in long houses with their husbands (who were members of other kin groups) and wielded so much domestic authority that they freely expelled objectionable men. The Cheyenne allowed men to marry two spirits, transgendered men who dressed and lived as women. Amongst the Arctic dwelling Inuit, males shared their wives with visiting clansmen as a means to further alliances and cooperation in hunting. A central concern of missionaries through the 1800s was to Christianize the Indians so that they’d give up pre-marital intercourse, polygamy, public nudity and cross-dressing.
The early colonists did, however, enact courtship and marriage practices that would have been condemned by the Church of England. After an extremely harsh first winter many of the settlers at Plymouth Rock lost their spouses. To make the best of these hard times widows and widowers married each other. Amongst colonists in the 1700s “bundling boards” were devised so that gentleman callers could safely spend the night since streetlights had not yet been invented. A barrier board would be laced between the courting couple to insure that no untoward activities would occur. In that around 30% of bundled sweethearts did reach their marriage altars a bit pregnant, perhaps their true function was to absolve parental blame for facilitating immoral activity!
Many of the Europeans who set sail for America in the 1600s – 1700s were landless folk who were driven by promises of wealth and power. They believed a better life might be accessed in the untamed American frontier than in a countryside in which the first-born sons of the wealthiest families had claimed every parcel generations before. America attracted dreamers, experimentalists and otherwise hapless souls. In the mid-1800s the Oneida community was founded in upstate New York in which upwards of 500 freethinking members, calling themselves “perfectionists,” engaged in a group marriage.
Today’s Morality Crisis
Today our nation continues to be at odds with itself over morality—over what constitutes proper family, marriage, and sexuality. We want what we shouldn't have. We feel guilt-ridden when we indulge and trapped and tormented when we don't, admonishing those who make our fantasies their realities. In combing through our past, it’s clear that there have always been contradictions and improprieties in our family, personal and sexual lives. What’s different today is that we have a fast paced media that preys on every movie star and political figure that engages in improper social and sexual behavior. The media is no longer inhabited by an old boys network of reporters who maintain station and decorum by keeping secrets secret. Until the late 1970s the sexual affairs of those in power were kept private. While certain members of the press may have been privy to this information, it was never exposed. Then, the extra-marital romances of Thomas Jefferson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson and Dwight Eisenhower were indelibly concealed from the general public.
As we entered the 1980s, the clash of sex and politics fueled the media. Several U.S. congressmen were exposed for paid liaisons with pages and mistresses, often resulting in the loss of their credibility and power. Papandreaous, the President of Greece, like most men of his stature, had a mistress. When the European press exposed this, his wife, who was fully aware of the existence of this other woman, was forced to denounce her husband and ask for a divorce. She was expected to defend her pride to the public even though privately her husband's mistress never detracted from her own marital relationship. The public appetite for sex scandals grew as even straight-laced Jimmy Carter admitted in Playboy Magazine that he lusted in his heart.
It all blew open when Colorado Senator Gary Hart gave up his 1988 bid for the U.S. presidency after being exposed for having an affair with Donna Rice. The media had changed; it was no longer the media from the days of Kennedy and FDR. Now there were a larger cadre of women journalists who had no sympathy for the old boys' network. The voraciousness in which this affair was reported paled in comparison to what Bill Clinton would subsequently weather…
Bill Clinton may have been buoyed into the lead during the 1992 Democratic Primary because of the name recognition he achieved for his (then) alleged adulterous affair with Gennifer Flowers. Suddenly there was an interesting man running for President and Americans wanted to know who he was. The daytime soaps and talk shows had already made the discussion of clandestine liaisons normal fare for Middle America; prime time was just around the bend. When Bill and Hillary appeared before the nation on "60 Minutes," viewers got their first look at a real couple with real life dilemmas. Bill Clinton became “every man;” or better yet, every man’s fantasy of what he might do if he had a bit more wealth, and a lot more power. That act and that dilemma may have enabled Clinton to stand out from the crowd and ultimately be elected as the first baby boomer President of the United States.
Sex, money and power drew women to Clinton and triggered the media to chase titillating (and mindless) stories. Paula Jones and Monica Lewinsky attained worldwide name recognition and substantial profits from their association. If the President’s alleged sexual proposition in that inimitable Arkansas hotel room had truly offended Paula Jones, and she had truly wanted to remain anonymous, she would have best kept that memory to herself. Her handlers, however, fueled with resources from Clinton’s political enemies’ coffers, strategized her into an $850,000 settlement and a psychic phone line network.
Meanwhile, Gennifer Flowers, who apparently had gotten to know Bill Clinton’s proclivities inside and out, profited little from her liaison. In 1998 she published Sleeping with the President, with a small publisher and realized little of the financial success that Monica Lewinsky garnered the following year with Monica’s Story.2
What I Wanted to Imagine Was Going On
Here in my Southern California subculture, when we first witnessed Hillary covering for then presidential candidate Bill Clinton about his ten-year affair with Gennifer Flowers, we presumed they had an “understanding.” Perhaps they’d faced that each of them savored the passion, stimulation and attention of outside lovers and they perhaps had a “don’t ask, don’t tell” agreement. They seemed to have the friendliness and conviviality of many of today’s swingers and we speculated they might be swingers as well. When Bill called in a cadre of religious leaders to publicly repent for his sinful behavior with Monica, we presumed that this was all staged for all the Middle Americans who weren’t ready to hear that the President and First Lady embraced an alternative lifestyle. Some of us fantasized that he’d take the opportunity (like former Colorado Governor Roy Romer3 did when his opponents “caught him” in a limo with another woman) by letting it be known that he and his wife have an open relationship. Incidentally, in Colorado, the scandal dissipated when the “shameful” exposure had no sticking power.
Now it seems that Bill and Hillary’s relationship may be much less open than we thought. Swingers who know them affirm that they do not swing.4 While Hillary’s tell- all-book discusses the “special” men in her life, the Clinton marriage seems clearly ensconced in its own fidelity crisis. Advisor/friend Dick Morris5 observes that every time Hillary rescues Bill she then accesses his love and attention and renews his focus on her. In order for her to experience the intensification of their romance, she needs him to stray and then return home to her open-armed rescue. So, each time Hillary stood by Bill following a “bimbo eruption,” (e.g. Gennifer, Paula, Monica), she accessed love and appreciation that had begun to slip away…When I first heard this, it troubled me. I wondered why did the First Couple need to play out such a soap opera drama?
Then I reconsidered. Truthfully, all human love relationships go through cycles – and often certain events trigger the rekindling of fading passions. Of course we might hope the First Couple wouldn’t need to entertain such a risky drama. Then again, their private matters really ought to be theirs alone. Moreover, high profile people are likely to savor high stakes dramas. And certainly the media-primed public makes presidential infidelity a pretty high stake.
Monica Lewinsky’s affair with the President captured the imagination of America. Inquiring minds wanted to know how they met, how she accessed the Oval Office, how she captured his interest, what they did in private, what they saw in each other and what went on with that infamous cigar. America got a look into the psyche of a 20-something woman whose sensuality was inimitably tied to her self-confidence. When Barbara Walters interviewed her, we listened intently to a woman who values her feelings, strong passions and excitement. What she exuded was a very far cry from what those of us who came of age with feminism and its austerity campaign, had ever accessed. To me, her sensual confidence was enviable. In my early 20s, during the height of feminism, I typically wore thick glasses, baggy jeans and work shirts to insure that the men I attracted were drawn to my brain and that my body would be at most an after thought. Part of me shudders to think that feminism made it safe for young Monica Lewinsky, who is clearly not a dumb wit, to flash her thong underwear at the president. (A giddier part of me was intrigued by her zaftig sexiness and did consider buying that cool shade of lipstick.)
While the Starr Report and the subsequent congressional investigation focussed on ways in which the President had deceived the country and was thus was unfit to be a world leader; the public consumed a very different story. As far as the public was concerned, “every man Bill” had been set up to lie about something that just about every mainstream American man would lie about. The more he was harassed by Kenneth Starr and the congressional investigators, the higher his approval ratings rose. When the President gave lip service to being contrite, including commissioning a team of spiritual leaders to offer him guidance, his approval ratings probably dropped. When Penthouse publisher Larry Flynt offered up to a million dollars to anyone who’d be willing to divulge the sexual secrets of the nations high ranking Republicans, the phones rang off the hook. American sexual hypocrisy was finally being exposed. Former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who spearheaded the campaign to impeach Clinton, quickly dodged the scandal filled limelight when his own long time dalliance with Calista Bisek, a 30-something congressional aide was about to be exposed. When elder statesman Henry Hyde sat on the House Judiciary Committee investigating Bill Clinton’s indiscretions, those who remembered his mid-1960s affair with beauty stylist Cherie Snodgrass saw him as an absolute hypocrite. Snodgrass recalls that when they first met he presented himself as single while he was in fact married. Moreover, in recent years he has attempted to brush off what she remembers as a passionate nine-year romance off as a “youthful indiscretion.”
Social scientists have observed for years that powerful men frequently have much appetite for multiple partners and kinky practices.6 And the impact these appetites and proclivities have on the ability to govern seems miniscule. (The main one these days is weathering the consequences of investigations and retributions.) It is likely that serotonin, a hormone that is produced in relatively large quantities by high achievers, also produces a greater lust for sexual variety. The wealthy powerful lords and kings of medieval Europe would dominate all the fertile women in the region, making them into their wives and concubines. Men of wealth and power in the Middle East keep harems and in nearly 85% of the world’s cultures, prestigious men have the option of polygyny (marrying more than one wife.) We might easily surmise that for many leaders there are clear connections between lust, lasciviousness, adultery and political acumen. Certainly, male wealth and power function as aphrodisiacs to many women.
We are a culture obsessed with making monogamy work…and in constant fear of infidelity. We fear untoward impulses in ourselves, fear actualizing these impulses and getting caught, and we tremble at the thought of discovering our own partner’s infidelity. We measure goodness/morality by staying faithful. Then when faithfulness leads to boredom, some of us devour repairing-your-relationship books and workshops. Perhaps being “faithful” is really a spiritual act…. And committing to fidelity becomes a test of our spirituality.
The Monica-Bill zippergate scandal became a lens for the dissection of America’s ambivalence about sexual infidelity. While Monica proclaimed that she would never again have an affair with a married man and Bill solicited the help of a cadre of religious leaders to keep him “faithful,” many Americans continued to engage in multiple partner connections. Perhaps the biggest moral hypocrite was Clinton’s principle spiritual advisor Reverend Jesse Jackson. During the very time Jackson was praying with the President he was also fathering a love child with Rainbow Push Coalition aid Karin Stanford. Unlike Clinton who attempted to deny and Hyde who tried to diminish their indiscretions, Jackson refreshingly admitted, “This is no time for evasions, denials or alibis… I love this child very much and have assumed responsibility for her emotional and financial support since she was born."
During much of summer 2001 both tabloid and mainstream media were literally parked outside the Modesto home of Congressman Gary Condit when it became clear he was more than “just a good friend” to missing intern Chandra Levy. While it was never established that he had anything to do with her disappearance, his reluctance to openly discuss the extent of his involvement with Levy made him fair game. Ultimately, Condit’s lack of both candor and contrition figured strongly in his failed bid for re-election. What finally caused the media vans to leave Modesto were the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Ironically, much of what motivated Osama Bin Laden’s network of hijackers to destroy what they could of America was their utter discomfort with our blasphemous ways. Suicide bombers dreamed of a hedonistic afterlife replete with plenty of attentive goddess-virgins. As for multiple partners, the Qur’an allows Muslim men up to four wives only if they can establish that they will be fully responsible for them and all of their children. In their minds in order to make the world safe for Islam, America’s immoral and free wheeling sexual culture needs to be destroyed.
From a Middle Eastern Islamic perspective, American’s do look wildly free. Our Internet abounds with pornographic sites where images of barely legal sexy young women are available at the flash of a credit card. The Lifestyles Organization annual convention for swingers (adults who seek extra-marital erotic connections) regularly attracts 4,000 attendees. Statistics documenting partner infidelity range from a careful 10% to a bacchanalian 70%. Despite these temptations, our marital culture tells us that the “moral monogamous” way is to channel our wanderlust impulses into work, parenting, sports and dancing. And for the most part we do.
Zippergate became a stage for America to expose her contradictions. Powerful men, who had themselves taken mistresses, were scrutinizing the extra-marital affairs of the President. A man, who was about to become Speaker of the House, bowed out because his many affairs were about to be exposed. Clinton’s personal political strategist, Dick Morris, stepped aside when his own tryst with a call girl was documented by a tabloid newsmagazine. Nonetheless, Morris had earlier ascertained that Americans would accept presidential adultery more than they would presidential perjury. Still, the President went ahead and perjured himself over adultery and suffered the consequences of Impeachment by the House of Representatives. The President contended that he was too ashamed to tell the truth. He was embarrassed for his wife, his daughter and his country to reveal what had really happened in the recesses of the Oval Office. Even his closest associates were kept in the dark, which to his benefit, revealed that he’d created no conspiracy to cover things up. The Senate ultimately vindicated him which seemed right to the majority of Americans in that he certainly he did not compromise national security by these lies about clandestine sex with young intern Monica Lewinsky.
Considering the steep consequences, it is no surprise that most Americans readily lie about sex and relationships. We lie to preserve the status quo in our lives. We lie when telling the truth would make things messier than they need to be. We lie when we tell someone they look good when they really don’t. We claim we are “involved with someone else,” when we’re truthfully not interested. And it’s a standing joke that married women claim headaches when they’re not interested in sex with their husbands.
Lying is deeply embedded in our culture. We wrap gifts to disguise (and possibly enhance) their true nature. Women routinely apply make-up with names like “concealor,” “mask” and “rejuvenator.” Girdles that hide large tummies and padded bras that make small breasts look larger are routinely sold in lingerie departments. Plastic surgery, a more permanent means of lying about the state of one’s body has so grown in popularity that it is no longer a secret. Plastic surgeons stage botox and collagen parties where groups of women friends gather to collectively smooth away the signs of chronological age.
Meanwhile, we enculturate our children with the veneer of truth telling. Nonetheless, beginning about age three, children learn the survival value of lying. They learn to lie about sweets they were not allowed to eat but did, messes they made and could be punished for, and zillions of other things that they weren’t supposed to break and weren’t supposed to do. Soon they learn that to access good things like toys, attention and candy, they need to give adults the impression that they are obedient, well behaved and truthful. To function in our society children quickly learn to distinguish between real and “make believe.” They easily understand that their favorite cartoon characters can survive crashes and bangs that live action characters can’t. Even after they come to realize that there is no Santa Claus and no Easter Bunny, they still relish the fun of “making believe.”
Our country’s “moral crisis” over pardoning the President for lying about his personal conduct was a bit absurd. When Congress was in a quandary about setting a bad example for the children, they weren’t considering the range of ways we save face for the benefit of our loved ones. Ultimately, truth telling is something our culture celebrates publicly through our justice system, but dismisses privately to smooth the wheels for normal social intercourse.
Anthropologists know every culture has a huge gap between what one ought to do and what one actually does. Our country has a mythology about moral social heroes. Somewhere along the line we began to expect our political leaders to be moral leaders as well. As the (undocumented) legend goes, George Washington admitted he chopped down a cherry tree…and proclaimed “I cannot tell a lie.” Of course in his day there weren’t satellite communication systems and zillions of reporters trying to make a name for themselves by exposing the private activities of men with power. Still, some Americans were troubled by the loss of the dignity of the office of President. To them presidential station ought to be a living example of impeccable behavior personal conduct. Ever since Gary Hart taunted some wily reporters to catch him with Donna Rice, that mythology was doomed.
What American is actually suffering from is a reality crisis. We are hypocrites. We expect the “Truth” (with a capital “T”) even though to successfully survive in our multi-dimensional culture, lying is de riguer. There are capital “T” Truths and there are truths. No one wants to hear they look like shit, though we all want to know that our money is safe, our air is breathable and our water is drinkable.
Zippergate ultimately forced America to come full circle with another piece of our moral hypocrisy. Now we must accept (and openly admit to our children) that there are many moralities. In l992 we witnessed the freeing of the police officers that beat up Rodney King, despite what the public came to believe was convincing videotape evidence. In 1996 OJ Simpson was freed from criminal prosecution despite a preponderance of implicating DNA evidence. And in 1999 we watched Bill Clinton be pardoned by the Senate despite the telltale evidence on Monica Lewinsky’s semen stained dress. We have been forced to accept that there are many truths, some more believable and some more relevant than others. And Zippergate informed the children of America that there are many kinds of sex, some closer to a legal definition of sexual intercourse than others.
Moral hypocrisy aside, American men and women still battle a fidelity crisis. While our church and state expect monogamy, we know that this is an ideal rather than the nature of our real lives. We witness men in power ride the waves of temptation, get caught, proclaim contrition and eventually catch more waves. Advertisers brashly use the possibility of sex with someone other than our own spouses to sell products and anyone whose taken Anthropology 101 knows humans are not by nature a monogamous species. Long time couples readily agree that the thought of sex with the same person year after year isn’t as interesting as sex with someone new. Thus our internal non-monogamous “demons” duke it out on a regular basis with what our culture tells us will keep our families intact and our reputations secure.
Flowers, Gennifer, Sleeping With the President: My Intimate Years With Bill Clinton, Anonymous Press: March 1998.
2 Morton, Andrew, Monica’s Story, New York: St. Martins Press, March 1999
3 This is the same Roy Romer who in 2000 he became the superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District.
4 Gould, Terry, The Lifestyle: A Look at the Erotic Rites of Swingers, Random House, 1999, p. 304
5 Morris, Dick, Behind the Oval Office: Getting Reelected Against All Odds, Renaissance Books, 1998
6 Janus, Sam, Bess, Barbara and Saltus, Carol, A Sexual Profile of Men in Power, Prentice Hall, 1977