Anthony Weiner has taken refuge in his Queens apartment and our long national nightmare is over. And so the question presents itself: Why, oh why, are Americans so obsessed with sex scandals? Is it because, as a lot of critics say, deep down we always have been and always will be Puritans at heart?
I don’t think so, and not just because the theory flies in the face of other popular American pastimes, including Lady Gaga, Bratz dolls, and The Real Housewives of New York. No, our response to the sex scandal is actually a kind of morality play in support of women.
Blame it on Darwin or blame it on macho culture, but the fact is men have never been reliably monogamous. Yes, women cheat. But men have always stepped out on their wives more than vice versa, and their behavior has been more widely accepted. In fact, the male urge for extracurricular sex has given the world polygamy (a widespread practice throughout history), the world’s oldest profession, and Internet porn, which despite a sizable female audience, remains pretty much a man’s game.
What’s unusual in the human record is not men cheating on their wives. No, what’s unusual is male fidelity. The idea that men should be lovingly faithful to a single wife emerged as a Western, middle-class ideal only in the 18th century with the rise of companionate marriage, a voluntary union defined by love and affection. The Founding Fathers believed strongly in the arrangement—though admittedly they often violated it—largely because they saw polygamy as a kind of enslavement of women and because they were appalled by the cynical arranged marriages of the ancien regime.
You can still see the contrast between American idealism about companionate marriage and French “sophistication.” In France, we now know thanks to Dominique Strauss-Kahn, men were not only allowed to stray, they earned praise for doing so. As DSK’s wife Anne Sinclair once said, “It’s important to seduce, for a politician.” Male attraction to women, particularly younger women, has been considered both natural and virile, and no one seemed especially troubled by the possible suffering of the cast aside and frequently aging wife. What did Mme. Mitterrand, wife of Francois, think of la Presidente’s mistress and child? No one asked and no one cared.
That is not the case in the United States. The public humiliation of Anthony Weiner, like that of his predecessors in sexual malfeasance—John Edwards, Chris Lee, Eliot Spitzer, Mark Sanford, and so many others—has the effect of a moral crusade against those who violate both the companionate ideal and his wife’s dignity. We subject him to weeks of derision, we debate his uncertain future, we pick apart the poor man’s psyche, we insist on public penitence, otherwise known as the press conference, and we may, as in the recent case of Chris Lee and now Anthony Weiner, take away the powerful position that he used to lure women.
Adding to the public judgment is the politician’s attraction to younger, more “unrefined” women—prostitutes, interns, porn actresses, and “videographers”—especially given the educated, accomplished, and seemingly faithful women who are their unlucky wives. With the possible exception of Mark Sanford, almost all of the fallen pols have added to their wives’ humiliation by dallying with young women who seemed more like rock star groupies. The “Big Creep” Bill Clinton was married to the brilliant Hillary and yet he still couldn’t resist the silly schoolgirl Monica Lewinsky. John Edwards cheated on the accomplished (and cancer-stricken) Elizabeth with a New Age airhead, Spitzer deceived the elegant Silda by having rough sex with prostitutes, and now the new and old media hound Weiner has betrayed Huma, whose name is always preceded by the words “glamorous” or “dignified,” with a porn star, a college coed, and a Vegas blackjack dealer.
The theory that the scandal punishes the bad boy politician helps explain why women have begun to cheer when the betrayed wife refuses to join her cad of a man at the press conference. Her absence adds to his punishment. When the ashen Silda Spitzer appeared with her husband Eliot, it was the last straw. Jenny Sanford stayed home from the media circus and she was much praised for it. Huma Abedin, so far at least, has also miraculously stayed out of the cameras’ path.
Far from a Puritanical throwback or, for that matter, simply an exercise in national titillation, the sex scandal is middle-class America’s way of shaming the powerful, wandering male. Soon, any day now I’d wager, we’ll be doing it all over again