As everyone in America knows, unless you've been enjoying an unseasonal summer hibernation, Mark Sanford, the Republican governor of South Carolina, after having gone missing for a week, turned out to be in Buenos Aries, Argentina, having an affair and not taking an adventurous walk on the Appalachian trail as he had told his staff. And as everyone also knows, Sanford is only the latest in a long and growing list of politicians who have cheated on their wives, lied about their sexuality, and generally been publically humiliated by having to offer weeping apologies to all the people they let down, including the voters who entrusted them with high political office. His scandal follows hard on the heels of the revelation that Senator John Ensign of Nevada had carried on an affair with a married staff member. And it wasn't long before that that we heard of New York Governor Eliot Spitzer's dalliance with a prostitute, Senator Larry Craig's notorious "wide stance," and New Jersey Governor Jim McGreavey's secret gay sex life.
The data on U.S. sexual behavior is notoriously unreliable. Studies over the past several decades have produced diverse estimates of male infidelity, ranging from 25 percent to 75 percent of men cheating on their wives. Statistics on female infidelity are even more difficult to pin down. According to a recent survey conducted by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, 25 percent of men have had extramarital affairs, while 17 percent of women have committed adultery. It's fairly easy to understand why these figures are so unreliable: people lie about infidelity, and will continue to lie about it so long as it remains possibly the greatest social taboo. The most recent Gallup poll on "American morality" conducted just this past May shows that 92% of Americans feel that infidelity is morally wrong, and Gallup notes that that figure has changed very little over the past decade, ranging only from 89 to 93%. Why would anyone ever tell the truth about having fallen in love with someone other than one's spouse, when virtually all his fellow citizens, including the pollster taking the information, would see him/her as immoral?
I purposely used the phrase "fallen in love" rather than "cheated" because I was struck by a recent poll, unfortunately taken only among 20-29 year olds, in which 48 percent of respondents told an AOL Personals Survey that they believe you can be in love with more than one person at the same time. I suspect the figure might be even higher among older people because more life experience is likely (hopefully) to throw more possibilities of "love" your way. So if you love two (or more) different people equally, is it morally right to repress your love for one of them? Society says yes, but individuals often say no. Hence, infidelity.
I recall writing a Letter to the Editor of my local paper way back in 1988 when the era of the contemporary sexual scandal began. This was the notorious Gary Hart/Donna Rice/Monkey Business affair that derailed Hart's front-running Presidential campaign. In the letter I said that if everyone who had ever had sexual relations with someone other than their spouse in the whole course of their marriage voted for Gary Hart, he would win in a landslide. Some of my friends saw this as a cynical attitude, but I regarded it-and still regard it-as a basic human truth.
The reason the Sanford and Ensign affairs have aroused such enmity is not only that these men were unfaithful, but that they were also hypocritical. Both preached traditional Christian values and in fact made a political issue of fidelity, "family," and biblical truths. Hypocrisy sticks in our craw even more tenaciously than infidelity. But shouldn't we consider our own hypocrisy as a nation on this particular issue as well?
If so many of us, over the course of a lifetime, have strayed from the monogamous path, how hypocritical of us to be so judgmental about others who have. In fact, we are-in a broad general sense as a nation-as guilty of hypocrisy as Sanford and Ensign are. Pornography continues to be a major US industry, sex is everywhere you turn, TV reality shows celebrate betrayal and lust, and we pretend it is only "other people" who are tempted and follow their passions.
In San Diego, where I live, my friends have very different sorts of marital or sexual relationships. A close friend of mine had an affair with a married man for nearly two decades but ironically is adamant about infidelity and is currently in a monogamous relationship living with a man who is the ex-husband of one of her best girlfriends. One couple that I know have had an "open relationship" for many years and have been involved with multiple sex partners at swinger's clubs and elsewhere. Yet another lesbian couple has recently married in the short window of time when same-sex marriage was legal in California. Other friends have various kinds of marital arrangements-some of them monogamous for life, some of them serially monogamous, and some of them even living with a couple of different partners. (The actress Tilda Swenson recently revealed this as the nature of her own marriage.) Isn't it time that the entire country adopt the "different strokes for different folks" attitude that is so prevalent in California?
The word "polyamory" has come into fashion over the last few years, although the concept has been around for a very long time. Literature, films, art, and history are rife with accounts of individuals having multiple sexual relationships-or, as I prefer to put it-love affairs. Are these fictional and actual people less "moral" than those of us who stay in loveless, lifelong marriages? Or even loving, lifelong marriages? Gustav Flaubert, the great French novelist speaks for many who have discovered a new love while married in Madame Bovary. After Emma Bovary falls in love with a man who is not her husband, Flaubert describes her inner life in this way:
At last she was going to know the joys of love, the fever of the happiness she had despaired of. She was entering a marvelous realm where all would be passion, ecstasy, rapture: she was in the midst of an endless blue expanse, scaling the glittering heights of passion; everyday life had receded, and lay far below, in the shadows between those peaks.
While I hesitate to compare his prose to Flaubert's, Governor Sanford's emails are clearly those of a man in love with the kind of intensity Emma Bovary feels:
I have been specializing in staying focused on decisions and actions of the head for a long time now - and you have my heart. You have oh so many attributes that pulls it in this direction. Do you really comprehend how beautiful your smile is? Have you been told lately how warm your eyes are and how they softly glow with the special nature of your soul.
Further on in the emails, Sanford reveals more of this fissure between his heart and his head. After continuing to wax eloquent about the power of the love he feels for Maria and how "unconditional" it is, he takes us to the crux-his "bottom line" (a business phrase he seems inordinately fond of:
I better stop now least this really sound like the Thornbirds - wherein I was always upset with Richard Chamberlain for not dropping his ambitions and running into Maggie's arms. The bottom line is two-fold, my heart wants me to get on a plane tonight and to be in your loving arms - my head is saying how do we put the Genie back in the bottle.
Who of us living on this earth has not felt a similar conflict between our heads and our hearts? Is Sanford the hypocrite? Or are we?
Federico Moramarco is Professor Emeritus at San Diego State University and the Founding Editor of Poetry International.