Born To Cheat, Or Born Not To Be Monogamous?
MICHEL MARTIN, host:
Two-thousand nine, of course, as we said, is now a memory. But among other things for which the year might be remembered, infidelity scandals involving public figures could be one of them. Last year saw embarrassing revelations about Nevada Senator John Ensign, South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford, and perhaps most spectacular, the revelations that golf great Tiger Woods had not one but numerous liaisons with women not his wife, the ramifications of which continue to unfold. Last week, AT&T became the latest company to drop its sponsorship agreement with the golf legend.
Now, this has caused some commentators to wonder whether infidelity is on the rise, or are we just talking about it more? And what does fidelity mean in this era? Journalist Farai Chideya recently wrote an article for the online publication theroot.com, titled �The M Word: Talking Marriage and Monogamy in the Time of Tiger Woods.� Also joining us is Pamela Druckerman. She is the author of �Lust in Translation: The Rules of Infidelity from Tokyo to Tennessee.� Ladies, welcome to the program, and happy New Year to you both.
Ms. FARAI CHIDEYA (Journalist): Happy New Year, Michel.
Ms. PAMELA DRUCKERMAN (Author, �Lust in Translation: The Rules of Infidelity from Tokyo to Tennessee�): Happy New Year to you, too.
MARTIN: Pamela, when we see stories like the Tiger Woods story, which was such big news, you know, in many areas - you know, the sports world, the business world, not to mention sort of the tabloids - which was preceded by South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford, which was preceded by the Nevada governor and, of course, Eliot Spitzer and then before that, of course, President Bill Clinton, it's hard not to feel like there's more cheating going on than in the past. Is there any basis to believe that that might be true?
Ms. DRUCKERMAN: Well, if you look at the sex statistics that we have in America going back about 25 years, you see that reported levels of infidelity, which is all we have to go on, have not changed really significantly at all. But what has changed is, it's much easier now to catch people when they cheat because they leave this trail of evidence through text messages and cell phone records. So, part of what we're seeing is just the fact that people get caught more.
Another reason why we're having all these sex scandals is because, of course, we care more about politicians and athletes and celebrities cheating on their spouses. And 25 years ago, the American public just couldn't be bothered nearly as much.
MARTIN: I found that fascinating. In your book, you wrote that Americans are, in fact, more disapproving over the last 30 years. And I just found that fascinating.
Ms. DRUCKERMAN: It's amazing because on all these other issues - on divorce, on homosexuality, on premarital sex - we're becoming more and more tolerant. But there's something about infidelity that we just have seized on as a kind of national issue. And if we're making predictions for the future, I don't think for 2010, but probably for 2025 or 2030, I think we're going to look back on this era of kind of invading the private lives of public figures and demonizing them for not being monogamous as a kind of period when we - like a witch hunt. It's going to be this embarrassing episode, and we're going to say, I can't believe we used to treat people that way.
MARTIN: And briefly, Pam - I haven't forgotten you, Farai - Pamela, and this is a sensitive question, but I'm going to ask it. You did a transnational study of infidelity and how it's viewed across the world, which I think many people will find interesting, but did you note differences among ethnic groups about how infidelity is viewed, particularly within the United States?
Ms. DRUCKERMAN: Yeah. For married, black Americans, 7.4 percent - this is men and women - said they had more than one partner in the last year, compared to 3.1 percent of married, white Americans. So from these, you know, very broad statistics, which cover 1988 through 2004, so it's an average of all those years, it looks like there is, you know, more than twice as much infidelity among people who identify themselves as African-American.
MARTIN: That is a rich topic. And Farai, it kind of leads to the piece that you wrote, where you ask: Are we inherently monogamous, or hardwired to cheat? And you say, in the first line of your piece, it's time to put a stop to the lies and irresponsibility and start being honest with each other, no matter what we're really up to. What made you want to write this piece?
Ms. CHIDEYA: One of the things that really crystallized it was that I was at the NABJ Conference, National Association of Black Journalists, and I led a panel of journalists in talking about how to report on the black AIDS crisis.
Forty-six percent of American AIDS cases are in the African-American community. That is a result of a number of different factors, including incarceration and poverty. But a lot of it, I deeply believe and certainly the statistics show, has to do with not just overlapping partners but layers of irresponsible behavior.
If you have multiple partners, and you are not incredibly safe as you have these multiple partners, that's what spreads epidemics. And, you know, just from the perspective of a reporter, a black American, a woman, I felt like the thing that we were missing in this dialogue about Tiger dating white women and this, that and the other, was really a focus on our own sexual health, specifically.
MARTIN: You know, you ask the question in your piece: Are we hardwired to cheat? But if that were the case, then you would expect that across ethnic groups, there would be similar - if it was just a matter of biology, there would be similar behavior across groups.
So I just want to ask, you know, what did you come to when you thought about this? I mean, I know one of the things that you're saying in the piece is that people need to be more honest about what they're doing and act accordingly. But what about that?
Ms. CHIDEYA: Well, yeah, I mean, I start out with the question of being hardwired to cheat. I asked - to a psychiatrist in New York City, who basically analyzes it from an evolutionary perspective and says that, you know, multiple partners are the biological norm for humans.
But then I go to a woman who is a dating and relationship expert, and she talks about values, which is that we may want to do a lot of things. Whether or not we do them is a choice, and that's the dilemma of being human.
And so ethically, on a values level, you know, even if you may want to cheat, it doesn't mean that you have to cheat. But I think beyond that, the piece that I wrote for The Root is trying to do is ask: Is there something other than cheating and monogamy? Is there a third way, which is ethical multiple-partner relationships, safe sex in the context of multiple-partner relationships?
And that's something that I think gets talked about a lot less because it's transgressive, and I think that the biology is only one part of it. In many cases, you know, repressive cultures produce a backlash. And I think that the pressure that some people in the African-American community feel to uphold certain norms, for example, of the black church and its focus on, you know, heterosexual, normative, monogamous behavior.
Well, you know, it's like there's always that joke about the person who's out at the club on Saturday and rolls straight into the church on Sunday. And what were they doing last night? You know what I'm saying?
Ms. CHIDEYA: It's like - I think that a lot of the cultural differences have to do, paradoxically, with moments where people feel like they have to hide their behavior rather than acting in their own best interest.
MARTIN: But, you know, Pam, you live in France for much of the year, and whenever we have these public scandals around cheating and infidelity of married public figures, invariably somebody will say: Well, they don't care in France. Is that true? I mean, as a person - not just in France, but around the world, the way people react to infidelity. Is that true?
Ms. DRUCKERMAN: Yeah. They care a lot in France. The French are just as curious about reading Tiger Woods's text messages as we are. What they don't do is confuse what's interesting with what's relevant, and they also don't demonize people for being unfaithful. They consider it sort of a normal issue that especially very powerful, attractive, wealthy men are going to have to face.
MARTIN: One of the things I'm curious about, ladies, in the few minutes that we have left is to my knowledge, there has not been a scandal involving a female public official having outside relationships, and I wonder why that is.
Ms. CHIDEYA: I think that's still a third rail, in the United States especially. I mean, I think that for women in public positions, infidelity, which does happen, it's considered shameful in a different sense than men's behavior is treated as shameful. And one thing I talk about is, you know, in the piece is really how some men are caught up in the whole idea that wealthy people or athletes should get a hall pass, that it's their prerogative, you know, as Bobby Brown might say, that it's just their prerogative to have whoever they can pay for, or whoever wants to be with them.
I don't think that even powerful wealthy women get that same prerogative. It's just not viewed in the same way.
MARTIN: Pam, you sort of offered a prediction, saying that you wonder in years forward whether we'll look back on the year of infidelity and think, well, what were we thinking? Do you really think that's true? Do you think that our attitudes might change about this going forward?
Ms. DRUCKERMAN: Yeah, no, I'm really shocked - I think we can't remain this willfully naive about infidelity for very much longer. Right now, we're at a point in America where, you know, there's an explosion of divorce. There was a seizing onto, sort of family values and a crisis about, you know, what is happening to the family, and you see that in the crisis about gay marriage. And we're going to move on to something else because it's just not sustainable to keep up this fever pitch.
And I think Americans know, in the backs of our minds, that life is complicated, and we're all going to want as a nation to move on - just like, you know, 30 years ago, 40 years ago, things were very different.
MARTIN: Farai, what about you?
Ms. CHIDEYA: I think that things will evolve over time. But to the AIDS crisis, I mean, it remains a crisis. If anything, for black America, it is more of a crisis than it was 10 years ago because people don't care with the same passion, you know, about staying safe.
And if we're not going to change our sexual behavior in the sheets, we might want to at least protect ourselves as we go adventuring. You know, it's simply a matter of survival. So I hope that people take that away.
MARTIN: Farai Chideya is a multimedia journalist and the author of many books. Her latest book is a novel, "Kiss the Sky." But if you want to read the piece that we've been talking about, published in The Root, we'll have a link on our Web site. Just go to npr.org. Click on programs, then on TELL ME MORE. Farai joined us from our New York bureau.
We were also pleased to be joined by Pamela Druckerman. She's a former staff reporter for the Wall Street Journal and the author of "Lust in Translation: Infidelity from Tokyo to Tennessee." She joined us from WLRN in Miami. Ladies, happy New Year, and thank you both for joining us.
Ms. DRUCKERMAN: Thanks, Michel.
Ms. CHIDEYA: Happy New Year to you, too.
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