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How We Really Feel About Fidelity

A new poll suggests America hates the sin, not the sinner. But only to a point

By Bruce Handy

TIME magazine

(TIME, August 31) -- As yet, some Americans may not have figured out what they think of relationships that are "not appropriate," as President Clinton put it the other night. But most people know what "infidelity" means and what they think about that. According to a TIME/CNN poll of Americans' sexual attitudes conducted this summer, 86% of respondents believe that adultery when committed by men is "morally wrong." A statistically indistinguishable 85% of Americans also feel that adultery is morally wrong for women. The significant increase in these numbers since TIME conducted a similar survey in 1977--in the so-called jiggle-show era only 76% of Americans thought infidelity was morally wrong--should calm those who fear the recent White House scandals have weakened the nation's virtue.

But what may seem clear cut in the abstract can become more complicated in real life. For instance, what exactly is infidelity? This is a question that in slightly different form--How does one define "sexual relations"?--continues to dog the President. According to the TIME/CNN poll, 95% of Americans, which is about as unanimous as we ever get, agree that "having sex with a prostitute" counts. On the other end of the survey's scale is "casually flirting with someone else," considered adulterous by a (hard to live with?) minority of 35%. Somewhere in the middle are "having a sexually explicit conversation with someone on the phone" (69% define that as cheating), "having a sexually explicit conversation on the Internet" (67%) and "holding hands with someone else" (44%). Perhaps regrettably, the survey's list of offensive conduct did not include "having some sort of as yet undisclosed physical contact with a person admittedly less than half one's age."

Of course, a nation's opinions about adultery may be affected by its familiarity with the practice. America is not yet France, but neither is it Monogamydonia nor Nosleazysexistan. According to the 1994 University of Chicago study titled The Social Organization of Sexuality, which is generally considered the most accurate report on Americans' sexual practices to date (this is the report that famously announced that Americans are having less sex and with fewer partners than our popular culture would have us believe), as many as a quarter of married men may have been unfaithful. This number dovetails intriguingly with the TIME/CNN poll, which found that 23% of married men agree with the statement that "infidelity is an unavoidable part of married life today."

Is this statistical confluence a mere coincidence, a reflection of hard-won marital wisdom or an indication of the sorts of rationalizations relied on by husbands who can't deflect blame onto a "politically inspired lawsuit" or an investigation that has "gone on too long"? The matter awaits further study. The numbers for women are less synchronous: while upwards of 15% of wives may have been unfaithful, according to the Chicago study, 22% agreed with the statement in the TIME/CNN poll that infidelity is unavoidable. Whether this is a function of charity, resignation or some other phenomenon also awaits further analysis.

Whatever the state of their own relationships, most Americans have some personal experience with infidelity. According to the TIME/CNN poll, 69% say they know at least one husband who has strayed; 60% say they know at least one wife who has been unfaithful. Of those respondents, 62% said they "thought less" of the adulterous husbands, while 56% "thought less" of the adulterous wives. These numbers are significantly lower than the previously cited condemnations of adultery in the abstract, suggesting that Americans tend to follow the dictum of hating the sin, not the sinner.

"Knowing someone who commits adultery puts flesh on a morally abstract situation," says John H. Gagnon, a sociologist who was a co-author of the Chicago study. "It's morally wrong, but if I know someone who did it, I know maybe they had a bad marriage; maybe it was an accident. Maybe there's a compelling narrative to explain why they strayed." In other words, familiarity breeds moral relativism. While President Clinton has yet to offer a compelling narrative of his own, this phenomenon may help explain the consistent findings in polls that while Americans don't like the idea of the President's cheating on his wife, they are not inclined to punish him for doing so. Welcome to the club, as Frank Gifford might say.

When the TIME/CNN responses are broken down by gender, however, there may be more danger signs for Clinton, who has traditionally found his greatest levels of support among women. Men tend to be as forgiving of other men as they are of women: 43% said that adultery hadn't lowered their opinion of the straying husbands they knew; 41% said it hadn't lowered their opinion of straying wives. Women, on the other hand, go easier on their own sex while training a harsher eye on men: 39% said adultery hadn't affected their opinion of unfaithful wives, compared with only 27% who were as understanding of wandering husbands they knew--70% had lowered their opinions of the men in question.

Others have noted a similar gender gap. "If a man cheats," says Gagnon, "women think less of him. If a woman cheats, they think she must have been provoked." Rufus Griscom, the editor in chief of Nerve, the online magazine of "literate smut," agrees: "My cocktail party polling has yielded the same results. A lot of women I've talked to definitely feel that women sleeping around is kind of retribution." Be that as it may, a TIME/CNN poll following Clinton's speech showed that women haven't yet deserted him, but there may be trouble in this: when asked, "If you were about to go on vacation with your husband and he had just admitted having sex with a 21-year-old intern, would you still go?" 68% of women said no.

Some Poll Questions


--Is infidelity and unavoidable 
part of marries life today?

YES 26%
NO  72%

--Do you know any married men 
or women who have committed
adultery?

PERCENT WHO KNOW

ADULTEROUS   ADULTEROUS 
MEN          WOMEN
69%          60%

--Did you think less of those 
men or women because of their
adultery?

THINK LESS OF 

ADULTEROUS   ADULTEROUS 
MEN          WOMEN
62%          56%

--Does this constitute cheating 
in a marriage?

                        ANSWERED YES

                        Married  Married
                        Men      Women

Kissing someone 
else                    59%      75%

Having a sexually 
explicit
conversation on 
the phone               64%      74%

Having a sexually
explicit
conversation on 
the Internet            62%      72%

Holding hands with 
someone else            39%      43%

Casually flirting with 
someone else            32%      38%

--Which of the following activities 
do you feel are morally wrong?

Infidelity among         Infidelity among
married men              married women

76%    86%               79%       85%
1997   1998              1997      1998

--Do you agree that permissiveness 
has led to a lot of the things that 
are wrong with the country these days?

76%      86%
YES      YES
1977     1998

--Is it a lot better to have more 
openness about things like sex, 
homosexuality, premarital and 
extramarital relations than to 
keep it all private and hidden?

68%     75%
YES     YES
1977    1998
In TIME This Week

Cover Date: August 31, 1998

"I Misled People"
Leading By Leaving
Blowing His Stack
Justice Should Come Before Closure
The View From Congress
Lies, Tight Spots
How We Really Feel About Fidelity
Is This What We Expect?
Can We Get On to Something Serious?
Finally, the Telltale Lie
That's Where He Lost Me
The Notebook: Clinton Loses Touch
Lies My Presidents Told Me
President Gantry Addresses The Flock


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