Spitzer, Edwards, Sanford, Letterman. Not since Clinton rolled a Cuban in Lewinsky has our country so gorged itself on the scurrilous details of extramarital dalliances. Thousand-dollar hookers. The predilection for doing it "raw." The secret love child. The back entrances at the Beverly Hills Hilton. Those e-mails about "magnificently gentle kisses" and "tan lines." It's as if some evil scientist had activated a microchip in all of us that made us behave like goats. One click, one maniacal cackle, and Gomorrah is upon us.
As a nation, we did our part in each instance by exhibiting the requisite outrage and disgust. We devoted airtime and newsprint to lengthy discussions about the libido of the powerful male, his insatiable appetite and subconscious propensity for self-destruction. We wanted answers. We wanted justice. Most of all, we wanted to believe that this was the exception and not the rule—when, in fact, everyone from the club-prowling playboy to the Similac-smeared Dad of the Year is prone to—likely even wired for—this behavior.
What none of us want to consider when we get to that "forsaking all others" clause in our marriage vows is that infidelity is more common than obesity in this country. According to a recent University of Washington study, 28 percent of men will cheat on their wives at some point in their lives. By comparison, only 25 percent of Americans qualify as fat, according to a 2008 report by the Centers for Disease Control. And when you lower the stakes, adultery seems to become even more attractive: 74 percent of men say they'd have an affair if they knew they'd never get caught, reports InfidelityFacts.com. Somewhere between "I do" and "Be sure to leave the light on," we became the men we said we would never be—the kind who kiss their wives good night and then fantasize about the redhead who was on the next elliptical that morning. We've spawned a cottage industry with our bad behavior: from private investigators and reality-TV shows dedicated to nailing the cheaters to AA-style support groups, weekend retreats, and crisis centers committed to healing the victims.
"A lot of people are coming to terms with the unnaturalness of monogamy," says David P. Barash, coauthor of Strange Bedfellows: The Surprising Connection Between Evolution, Sex and Monogamy. "But there's a difference between the public persona—what we like to think of each other—and what we all know goes on." Barash, a zoologist and psychologist, has spent years debunking the notion that we have it within ourselves to remain faithful for long stretches of time. Turns out it's just as unnatural for man as it is for almost any other member of the animal kingdom. One notable exception is Diplozoon paradoxum, a tiny parasitic worm that inhabits the intestines of fish and mates for life—but really, what are your options in there?
We've been sitting on the evidence for years. We know now, for example, that many U.S. presidents—Jefferson, FDR, Eisenhower, JFK—have engaged in some form of extramarital action; the press just didn't report it. Mad Men makes rampant infidelity seem like a throwback to a bygone era—one in which you could still pinch your secretary's ass with impunity—but the infidelity isn't the relic, the tacit acceptance of it is. What's amazing to those of us reared after the phrase sexual harassment entered the workplace is how guys like that got away with this shit. These days, the POTUS can't even glance at a hot piece of junior-G8-delegate ass without getting called out for it in the national media.
"We're incredibly idealistic about monogamy in this country," says Pamela Druckerman, the author of Lust in Translation: Infidelity from Tokyo to Tennessee. "At this point, it's as if we're willfully naive." Maybe that's because infidelity continues to wig us out in an oddly disproportionate way. While everyone from Poughkeepsie to Santa Cruz has become more tolerant of lifestyle choices that three decades ago were widely condemned—homosexuality and premarital intercourse, for instance—we've actually grown less tolerant of extramarital affairs. According to a recent Gallup poll, Americans find adultery more repugnant than polygamy and human cloning. This is in stark contrast to views in, say, France, where fooling around on your spouse appears to be only slightly more offensive than pairing red wine with shellfish.
There is evidence that we might be turning a corner. Consider the way we reacted to Letterman's confession on Late Show, as he sat at his desk and earnestly recounted his indiscretions to nearly 6 million viewers—atop the same soapbox he'd used to hurl punch lines at Spitzer and Sanford: The studio audience applauded. As the New York Times reported, not even Disney pulled its advertising from the program—even though the host had banged an intern only a hair removed from the company's target demo. Mark Sanford, as of this writing, was still running South Carolina, probably hanging a picture of dogs shooting pool in his governor's mansion turned bachelor pad. And Eliot "Likes It Raw" Spitzer? He's currently a high-class prostitute for the pundit circuit. What is this, fucking Paris?
"We had our climactic moment with Clinton," Druckerman says, "and I think everybody decided that we'd gone too far. We still publicly chastise, but, famously, Clinton's popularity was never higher than it was after he was impeached—and I think that's because we were ashamed at the way we'd treated him." Ashamed, it's safe to say, because we all have blood on our hands. Or a history of wide stances in the men's room. Or secret "stimulus packages" in Argentina. Whatever the case may be, it has always been human nature to lash out at others for displaying the traits we most loathe in ourselves. Perhaps we'd all be better served by adopting a more realistic attitude about our pretty-much-guaranteed-to-be-wandering eyes. We might be snakes, but at least we're not parasitic worms.