Magazine article Newsweek

Adultery: A New Furor over an Old Sin

Magazine article Newsweek

Adultery: A New Furor over an Old Sin

Article excerpt

IT WAS A FAMILIAR WASHington story, of a powerful man brought down by a woman. But although human nature doesn't change very quickly, even in Washington, society does, sometimes in ways that Can surprise even the best pollsters. When political consultant Dick Morris fell last month to a tabloid story about his yearlong affair with $200-anhour call girl Sherry Rowlands, the crash shook the capital's notion of what constitutes a proper sex scandal, and shed new light on America's changing attitudes toward adultery in the not-so-naughty '90s.

One of the biggest surprises came in the public reaction, not toward Morris but his wife, Connecticut lawyer Eileen McGann. McGann did what wives have almost always done in such situations, Which was to announce that she was sticking with her husband, and erect a shield of privacy to deflect more detailed questions. But what was widely regarded as the decent and considerate thing to do in years past now struck many American women as letting down the side in the gender wars. For the first time, McGann explains her reactions and reasons in an exclusive interview with NEWSWEEK'S Eleanor Clift (box).

THE MORRIS SCANDAL ALSO illuminates a shift in how many Americans view issues of marriage and fidelity. In carnal terms, it was hardly the most lurid of affairs, despite reports that Morris had enlivened his hours with Rowlands by sucking on her toes. There were no reports of orgies, no drunken scenes (Morris, in fact, deserves at least a shred of credit for passing up the favorite defense of the pre-babyboom scoundrels, that he was driven to his shocking escapades by alcoholism). Rowlands was, at 87, only ii years younger than he. But in the eyes of many women, Morris did something worse than frolic with a bimbo--he carried on a long-term relationship with another woman that went beyond sex into the realm of intimacy. He fell afoul of the new understanding of adultery, that it is a sin of the heart and mind as much as--or even more than--the body. Earlier this year, as it happens, a New Jersey man sued his wife for divorce, alleging that her racy computer messages to a man she had never actually met amounted to adultery. A judge didn't see it that way, but eventually the law may catch up to the common wisdom of marriage counselors, newspaper advice columnists--and prostitutes--that sometimes adultery is not just about sex.

Naturally, sometimes it really is just about sex. But most affairs, says Atlanta psychiatrist Dr. Frank Pittman, the author of a book on infidelity, "are conducted primarily on the telephone rather than in bed. Affairs aren't as intensely sexual as you'd think. It's not like in the movies." The essence of an affair, Pittman says, is in "establishing a secret intimacy with someone"-- a secret that, necessarily, must be defended with dishonesty.

Infidelity, he writes, isn't about "whom you lie with. It's whom you lie to." This is an important point. To think of infidelity mainly in terms of sex is actually the first step toward rationalizing it. This view -- infidelity equals sex equals liberation--had a considerable following among young Americans a generation ago, as Bill Bennett and Bob Dole frequently remind their audiences. In 1974 the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) at the University of Chicago surveyed attitudes toward extramarital sex. The view that adultery was "always wrong" won majorities in every age group, but the margin was smallest among 18- to 29-year-olds: just 59 percent agreed with the proposition

But since then attitudes have undergone a remarkable shift. Twenty years later this same cohort, now in their 40s, condemned adultery by a much more re sounding 74 percent. And people now in theft 20s, who may have seen in their own families what happens when couples take adultery too lightly, show up in this survey as statistically the most sexually conservative group in America, tied with people in their 60s in their overwhelming rejection of marital infidelity. …

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