Beyond the Bad Boys
Baird, Julia, Newsweek
Byline: Julia Baird
A quiet revolution in male behavior.
infidelity is one thing between a man and his maker, declared the English author Samuel Johnson, but between a man and his wife it means nothing: "Wise married women don't trouble themselves about infidelity in their husbands." Ha! Those were the days before women discovered YouTube and golf clubs. When Johnson was writing, in the late 18th century, cheating was not just rife, it was acceptable. Husbands who slept with other women were barely considered to have strayed; they even bragged about bedding lovely strumpets in memoirs and letters to their wives' families.
Today we clearly think poorly of those who cheat. Ninety percent of Americans who responded to a 2006 Pew survey thought that adultery was morally wrong. Historian Stephanie Coontz, author of Marriage: A History, says disapproval of infidelity has risen markedly in the past century--and believes there is strong evidence that the incidence of male infidelity has actually decreased. She cites the high ratio of female prostitutes to men in the late 1800s, and the corresponding prevalence of venereal disease among respectable middle-class women. Can this be true? Are more men actually keeping their pants on? Or have women just caught up? Fidelity is notoriously difficult to document--the data are slippery, and most people lie. One study found that people are having fewer affairs than they did in the '70s, others that they are having more--especially women. But my point is this: the bountiful stories about unfaithful, creepy guys who have been embroiled in scandal recently seem to be continually reinforcing the stereotype that men don't change. In recent months we have been saturated with stories of husbands who lie, pathologically, to their wives; absent fathers who fumble furtively with tattooed strippers and send obscene texts to hard-faced porn stars, who bonk waitresses in parking lots and impregnate mistresses while their wives wrestle with cancer, work, or care for their children. When discussing the behavior of guys like Woods, Edwards, and James, we use the words "typical": men are bastards, men don't change, men always put their own desires before their families.
But a survey of recent family research, called Unconventional Wisdom, prepared by the Council on Contemporary Families for its annual conference in Illinois, contains fascinating new data that show how subtly and surprisingly male behavior has shifted. …