Souvent les femmes ne nous plaisent qu’à cause du contrepoids d’hommes à qui nous avons à les disputer bien que nous souffrions jusqu’à mourir d’avoir à les leur disputer; le contrepoids supprimé, le charme de la femme tombe. Proust
You are a delusion, said roundly John Eglinton to Stephen. You have brought us all this way to show us a French triangle. Do you believe your own theory? James Joyce (Ulysses)
En 1974, un accident de la circulation impliquant le président Giscard d’Estaing, qui conduisait lui-même une voiture aux côtés d’une conquête, au petit matin dans une rue de Paris avait fait les titres de la presse satirique. (…) Mitterrand, entre deux dossiers, consacrait beaucoup de temps à son harem. Chirac nommait ses favorites au gouvernement. Ses disparitions nocturnes entraînaient l’inévitable question de Bernadette : « Savez-vous où est mon mari ce soir? » C’est ainsi: en France, sexe, amour et politique sont indissociables. Sexus Politicus
J’ai eu plus de femmes par accident que lui exprès. Lyndon B. Johnson (sur Kennedy)
Les politiciens (ou journalistes) américains redécouvriraient-ils les supposées vertus du « French triangle »?
Candidat à une liaison et un divorce (McCain), candidat à deux liaisons et un divorce (Giuliani), candidat à deux divorces et deux liaisons (Newt Gingrich) …
A l’heure où, des podiums de la haute couture aux chambres de nos adolescentes et aux pistes de nos stades, des individus et des nations entières s’affrontent …
Où recommencent à circuler des rumeurs d’infidélités sur l’un des potentiels vice-présidents du candidat démocrate, l’ex-candidat des primaires et colistier de John Kerry, John Edwards …
Et où, jusque de l’autre côté du monde dans la Malaysie de l’islam triomphant et des valeurs asiatiques, s’étalent examens rectaux et révélations des préferences sexuelles d’une maitresse sauvagement assassinée à la veille d’une élection législative particulièrement serrée entre Anwar Ibrahim (qui en est à son deuxième procès pour sodomie) et Najib Razak …
Retour, avec un intéressant commentaire d’une journaliste américaine résidant à Paris et auteure d’une enquête internationale sur l’adultère (Pamela Druckerman, « Lust In Translation: The Rules Of Infidelity from Tokyo to Tennessee », 2007), sur l’évolution de l’attitude des Américains (ou de leurs journalistes?) par rapport aux infidélités de leurs responsables politiques.
Où, loin de l’image traditionnelle d’indécrottable puritanisme et contrairement à ce qu’eux-mêmes disent aux sondeurs, on retrouverait en fait le simple reflet de l’évolution de l’attitude des gens ordinaires par rapport à la question dans leurs propres vies.
On passerait ainsi des années 50 et 60 où, séparation des rôles et relatif enfermement des femmes à la maison aidant et à l’instar de leurs dirigeants à la Kennedy, les hommes pouvaient apparemment se permettre bien des incartades et même s’en vanter (entre eux).
Aux années 70 et 90 où, avec l’indépendance économique des femmes entrant massivement dans le monde du travail et l’assouplissement des procédures de divorce (mais aussi l’arrivée du sida), la tolérance pour l’infidélité, au niveau des gens ordinaires comme à celui de leurs gouvernants et journalistes (comme, dès 1987, le comprit vite le candidat démocrate Gary Hart) commença à se réduire.
Pour arriver enfin, plus récemment, avec la procédure de destitution contre le président Bill Clinton suite à l’Affaire Lewinsky en 98, mais surtout ses excuses publiques et la décision de sa femme de rester à ses côtés, à une forme de tolérance plus grande (mais éclairée cette fois) pour la faillibilité humaine …
Our Ready Embrace of Those Cheating Pols
Sunday, July 15, 2007
Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham Clinton were a picture-perfect couple as they campaigned in Iowa recently. In between political remarks, they held hands, hugged and exchanged intimate whispers. And yet even some supporters were surely wondering: How on Earth can they still be married? And could his philandering ways keep her from reaching the White House?
Hillary Clinton’s legendary endurance of her husband’s extramarital trysts haunts her presidential candidacy. But then, there’s no shortage of adultery hovering over the current race: Rudy Giuliani’s awkward transition into his third marriage, John McCain’s overlapping relationships with his first and second wives and potential candidate Newt Gingrich’s acknowledged « periods of weakness. » Mitt Romney seems to be one of the few major candidates without marital baggage — save for a great-grandfather who was a polygamist.
The poll numbers would seem to be ominous for adulterers. In a Newsweek survey taken earlier this year, 43 percent of Americans and more than half of Republican evangelicals said they wouldn’t vote for a candidate who had an extramarital affair. In a 2006 Gallup poll on moral issues, Americans said that adultery was worse than human cloning.
So why is Giuliani a front-runner for the Republican nomination, with strong support from evangelicals? Why is Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa muddling through an adultery crisis with his aspirations for higher office apparently intact?
The answer isn’t in the polls, where people say what they think they should say. It’s in American bedrooms. The changing way we treat politicians’ infidelity reflects the changing way we handle such affairs in our own lives.
Back in the days when John F. Kennedy took women for a dip in the presidential pool without a peep from the press, Americans didn’t automatically assume that cheaters had personality defects. To the contrary, their behavior could be seen as glamorous or as evidence of a passionate streak. In 1973, slightly less than 70 percent of Americans said that adultery was « always wrong, » compared with 82 percent in 2004. Though Americans generally agreed that infidelity was bad, it was an offense they could live with. « We didn’t have guilt then, » a retiree in her 70s now living in Florida told me, reflecting on the affairs she and her married girlfriends had in the 1960s.
When gender roles were more distinct — most husbands went to work while their wives tended house — Americans were more comfortable with the idea that married couples might keep secrets from each other. In « President Kennedy: Profile of Power, » Richard Reeves wrote that a few members of Kennedy’s inner circle had moral qualms about helping to arrange the president’s romps, but most considered philandering a harmless hobby (« It took less time than tennis, and partners were often easier to find. »). Younger aides were in awe of the president’s sexual prowess. Few people questioned why Jacqueline Kennedy soldiered on.
Back then, a man could safely boast about his extramarital exploits. Lyndon B. Johnson so detested being in Kennedy’s sexual shadow that he reportedly said, « I’ve had more women by accident than he’s had on purpose. »
The fidelity rules, for presidents and for ordinary people, began changing in the 1970s. Most states adopted no-fault divorce, transforming marriage from a durable container for all kinds of transgressions into a disposable one. Indiscretions that once were tolerated suddenly became grounds for dismissal. And Americans increasingly had the means to walk away, because more women worked. As tolerance for infidelity fell, the national divorce rate doubled between 1967 and 1979. A generation of brides and grooms read one another the one-strike rule: Cheat, and it’s over.
These new demands on marriage fanned the fledgling industry of couples therapy. Psychologists had once assumed that only one fragile psyche could be dealt with at a time, but in the 1970s, they decided that « the relationship » was itself an entity that could be studied and prodded. The ranks of couples therapists quickly multiplied, creating an army of people preaching that an affair isn’t just about sex; it’s a symptom of other problems.
Thus by 1987, when presidential candidate Gary Hart was found to have spent the night with a blonde who wasn’t his wife, the senator lasted only one more week in the race. A cheating politician, like a cheating husband, was thought to be capable of any manner of other sin.
It was no accident that the movie « Fatal Attraction » — in which a married man’s affair spirals into murder — came out a few months after Hart withdrew. Hollywood embraced the new thinking about affairs and added its own dramatic twist: There’s no such thing as a harmless affair, because adultery unleashes a torrent of chaos that threatens the family and leads to death. AIDS was picking up velocity around the same time, sharpening the message that « promiscuity kills. »
Americans took these ideas to heart. In a 1994 survey of 24 countries, we disapproved of adultery more than people anywhere but Ireland and the Philippines (our former Cold War foe Russia was the most permissive). And more than 25,000 marriage and family therapists — up from 3,000 in 1970 — were teaching us that recovering from infidelity was an all-consuming process that could take years. Many believed that healthy couples didn’t keep secrets, so the « offending spouse » should tell the « betrayed spouse » every detail. America’s new mantra on affairs became: « It’s not the sex, it’s the lying. »
By the late 1990s, Americans increasingly viewed infidelity not just as a relationship problem but as evidence of a physical disorder or a larger societal problem. Support groups for « betrayed spouses » and straying « sexual addicts » began appearing nationwide and on the Internet. As the topic came out of the closet, infidelity experts arose; the chief qualification some of them offered was having cheated or been cheated on.
When Bill Clinton’s dalliances with a White House intern became public in 1998, the president’s antagonists in Congress tried to play a primitive game of gotcha. Clinton wisely followed the therapeutic playbook that Americans were following at home. First he came out of denial and admitted to « a critical lapse in judgment and a personal failure. » Then he went on tour to apologize for having « wronged » his supporters. Ironically, the detailed disclosures in the Starr Report mirrored the confessions Americans were offering in their own therapists’ offices and may have helped the nation trust its president again. Soon after the Republican-led House voted to impeach Clinton, his approval rating jumped to an all-time high of 73 percent.
Not everyone was satisfied with Clinton’s disclosures. Therapeutic thinking had infiltrated the White House, too, with colleagues playing the role of betrayed spouse. In 2004, David Remnick wrote in the New Yorker that the relationship between Clinton and Al Gore « collapsed nearly into silence » after it became clear that Clinton had initially lied to his vice president about the affair. According to Remnick, this distrust contributed to Gore’s decision not to enlist Clinton in his 2000 bid for the presidency.
The American public was satisfied on all points but one: Hillary Clinton appeared to tolerate her husband’s repeated infidelities. That’s not part of the script. Marriage experts were flooded with phone calls demanding to know whether the Clinton marriage was merely a political arrangement; many people found it inconceivable that the relationship could still be based on love.
But now the country may have caught up with the Clintons. The latest thinking from therapists and religious groups is that affairs need not be a marital death sentence. Some evangelical and other Christian congregations are so alarmed by rampant divorce that they’re counseling people to work through their problems rather than split up. Therapists and self-appointed marriage experts are increasingly promoting the same message. And as children of the divorce explosion in the late 1970s now hit bumps in their own marriages, they’re rethinking the one-strike rule.
That, combined with the fact that we’ve now been through it before, means that Americans are less likely to sound the death knell for straying politicians. But while fidelity isn’t strictly required, a love story is. (Which could potentially spell bad news for Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana and his forays into the « escort » world.) In private life, the most accepted excuse for cheating is that you fell out of love with one person and in love with another.
Presidential hopefuls are taking heed. Giuliani is careful to show that although his marriage to his current wife, Judith, may have been forged through infidelity, she’s the love of his life. An ally of Gingrich’s recently told a reporter that although the former House speaker is on his third marriage, « this time, it’s really love. » No doubt Bill and Hillary were trying to make a similar point in Iowa.
Given the patchy marital histories of many candidates, we can expect lots more lovin’ on the campaign trail.
Pamela Druckerman is the author of « Lust in Translation: The Rules of Infidelity from Tokyo to Tennessee. »
American writer Pamela Druckerman knows all the rules of infidelity. She spent three years studying adulterers, from Paris to Tokyo. She tells Polly Vernon why she thinks us Brits are getting it wrong.
Sunday July 8 2007
Pamela Druckerman doesn’t look like the world’s leading authority on infidelity. She looks like the primary- school teacher all the dads fancy; or one of those second-generation yummy mummies, the kind who sets up a stall in a farmers’ market selling fashionable cupcakes. She sits in the window of a patisserie in North London; a super-pretty, soft, smiley blonde, with a latte and a laptop. She’s involuntarily fixating on passing Bugaboos. ‘My husband said he might walk by with our daughter,’ she says. She’s American, and even though her husband is British, and they have spent the past four years living in Paris, her accent endures. ‘I can’t help checking out all the prams. It’s a reflex.’ She smiles.
I expected something a lot less wholesome from someone who’s spent the past three years immersed in the world of international adultery. Pamela Druckerman has written the definitive guide on it. Lust In Translation: The Rules Of Infidelity from Tokyo to Tennessee is the result of a long study of the world’s philanderers. Druckerman has crunched numbers, collated evidence, and acquainted herself with the lexicon of adultery in two dozen cities in 10 different countries across the world. She has interviewed adulterers (one-off; serial; recovering; flagrant; and tortured) and cuckolds (or ‘men who wear green hats’ according to the Chinese) in Moscow, Kazakhstan, London, New York, Paris, Indonesia, South America and beyond… She discovered that the Japanese don’t count it as infidelity if they’ve paid for it, and that the best thing that can happen to them in one of their famous sex clubs is ‘oral sex without showering first’. She discovered that 40 per cent of Russians surveyed think affairs are ‘not at all wrong’ or ‘not always wrong’, and that upper-class Muscovites think affairs conducted at beach clubs do not compromise wedding vows one iota. She discovered that Indonesian women in extremely traditional Islamic marriages ‘have affairs, and the reasons they give for them are exactly the same as the reasons my girlfriends in New York City gave: my husband doesn’t listen to me, I need someone who’ll make me feel smart and pretty again; my husband doesn’t do that, but my boyfriend does …’ She discovered that on average the British cheat more than the Americans – and the French.
The book – which has yet to be published in Britain – has set the US on fire. Druckerman has been hauled over the coals on assorted American radio call-in shows on a twice-daily basis ever since. Days before we meet, she did a 20-minute live feed from Paris for Al Jazeera: ‘So I prepared all this serious research into infidelity in Muslim countries; and all they wanted to know was: how do the Japanese do it? What do those guys like?’
But how much adultery can one person take? Isn’t it getting a bit repetitive? ‘No way!’ she says, with absolute glee. ‘It is endlessly fascinating.’
Oh, but isn’t it? Increasingly, infidelity seems to be the single greatest fascination of our age. We’re all at it, aren’t we? In some way or another? Eight months ago, I interviewed a psychologist called Esther Perel, who had written a book on the absence of sex in marriages and long-term relationships. When I attempted to get anecdotal evidence from people on the subject, they routinely responded: ‘People in long-term relationships have lots of sex; just not with each other.’
Hard stats on cheating are thin on the ground, and those that exist tend to be flawed. Furthermore, individual definitions on what qualifies as cheating vary dramatically.
In the course of her world tour of extramarital sex, Druckerman stopped off in the UK, where she met Edwina Currie and interviewed her about the affair she had with John Major; she also met a high-earning, very married investment banker who is working his way through a spreadsheet of sexual goals. Still, her statistics suggest that Britons don’t cheat all that much – some 9.3 per cent of men aged 16-44 and 5.1 per cent of women admitted to sleeping with someone other than their regular partner within the last year.
According to psychotherapist Brett Kahr, however, who collaborated with polling organisation YouGov on the biggest-ever survey of British sexual habits, and published his findings in February, there’s a lot more of it about than that. ‘According to conservative estimates, 11 million Britons will have indulged in an extramarital kiss at some point … Britons do seem to become more unfaithful as time progresses … of those aged between 18 and 29, 12 per cent will have had oral sex outside a steady relationship. For those aged between 30 and 50, that figure rises to 20 per cent … and among the over-50s, 30 per cent have had vaginal sex with someone other than his or her regular partner …’
Even if we’re not committing adultery, or being cheated on by a spouse, we’re wrapped up in it somehow. We’re caught up in a friend or a family member’s affair; covering for them when they’re on illicit dates, or picking up the pieces when they’re discovered. Or we’re obsessing over the public infidelities committed by our celebrities and politicians. From the Sarkozys to the (alleged) Beckhams, John Prescott to the (alleged) Brangelina-Aniston love triangle … a public relationship without an infidelity seems two-dimensional to us. ‘A happily married celebrity couple – who cares, right?’ asks Pamela Druckerman. Infidelity’s got sex, glamour, excitement, romance, lies, potential heartbreak and high risk. That’s why it’s a recurring motif in films and songs. It’s one of the few bits of filmic life that we could transpose into our own, generally prosaic lives, if we dared. Best of all – adultery’s really, really bad. Oh, how we disapprove of infidelity! How guilty we are about our own, and how censorious about other people’s … No wonder we’re hooked.
Druckerman began thinking about adultery in international terms when her day job – as a financial journalist – required her to relocate to South America. Once there, she says, she found that married men routinely propositioned her. She was shocked; she also began realising ‘how very American I am about this’. She lived and worked in four very different cities (São Paulo, Buenos Aires, Jerusalem and New York), during her twenties, ‘when I was dating, right?’ and was increasingly intrigued by fluctuating attitudes towards infidelity. In her late twenties and early thirties, her friends started getting married, and ‘everyone was asking themselves that same question: can I realistically sleep with only this person for the rest of my life?’ Druckerman began researching international attitudes to infidelity in earnest.
Lust In Translation is an excellent book. It’s funny, it’s compulsive, it’s surprising, it’s the million soap operas that make up other people’s love lives. But it also raises an important issue. At the core of the book is a possibility: does fidelity matter that much? If we’re all cheating, or thinking about cheating; if other countries and cultures have completely different attitudes towards it, if some of them honestly don’t associate infidelity with guilt (‘I’d ask them if they felt guilty about their affairs, and they actually couldn’t understand the question!’), then why has it become so taboo in the UK, and are we doing ourselves a massive disservice in making it taboo?
Druckerman’s book is written from the perspective of an American – and America is famously high-minded about infidelity. A 2006 Gallup poll discovered that Americans are more comfortable with polygamy and human cloning than they are infidelity; the whole Clinton-Lewinsky furore hinged on the idea that Bill Clinton had cheated on his wife, and that this automatically meant he was capable of all manner of depravities, and thus unfit to be president. But Druckerman thinks the UK increasingly embraces the American ideal on infidelity by buying into what she identifies as ‘the American script’. The ‘script’ is our communal idea of affairs, and of how an affair and the aftermath of an affair should be played out; a blueprint, almost. It dictates our behaviour in an affair situation to a terrifying degree, even when it’s contrary to how we actually want to act.
The key points of the American script resonate so strongly, it’s almost tedious. For example – the first rule of infidelity in the US and the UK is that it becomes understandable, borderline-permissible even, if the prospective cheat says they’re unhappy in their marriage. ‘And of course,’ says Druckerman, ‘everyone has flaws in their marriages, things that aren’t quite perfect… but here and the US, you start complaining about your marriage, and that way, you’re not some lousy guy who cheats on his wife because he wants sex, you’re a puppy dog who’s looking for love.’ Which might sound so trite that it hardly merits comment – until you consider the Japanese script, in which a cheating man praises his wife to his girlfriend, to demonstrate that he’s a good husband.
‘The French, for example, are much more comfortable with the idea that their affair partner is just that – an affair partner,’ Druckerman says. ‘In America or the UK, because people are so uncomfortable having an affair, what they do is start thinking about marrying their affair partner, and then they start talking in those terms to their affair partner, even though actually things at home are OK and their affair partner is not someone they’d consider marrying if they were single. The American and the British are the worst at communicating that they want to keep it « clean »; and anyway, they’ve already complained about their marriage in order to legitimise the affair in the first place. So what do they then say to the woman who expects that she’s going to become the new wife? They can’t say: « actually, I love my current wife. »‘
For the aftermath of an affair, the American script goes into overdrive. ‘Well, there’s the one-strike-and-you’re-out rule: an affair, even a one-night stand, means a marriage is over. That’s a very American and British idea. I spoke to women who, on discovering that their husbands had cheated, immediately packed a bag and left, because that’s « what you do ». Not because that’s what they wanted to do – they just thought that was the rule. They didn’t even seem to realise there were other options. And then – all those people who discover an affair, and then say: « It’s not the cheating, it’s the lies I can’t stand! » I mean, really, like they’re reading from a script!’
The coda to the American script – and, increasingly, in the UK – is the inevitable recourse to therapy. ‘This idea that the only way to mend the relationship post-affair is through therapy, is unique to the American script,’ says Druckerman.
Druckerman talks about the ‘entrepreneurs’ who build a business on the aftermath of infidelity – the therapists and couples counsellors. She points out that there’s an entire industry with a serious financial stake in upholding the idea that cheating is desperately serious, a symptom of a deeply flawed marriage, of two people who need to be cured.
Does Druckerman think that couples therapy is an exploitative, harmful waste of money? ‘I’m not totally cynical about it. I know a lot of people who have been helped by it. But I do think at the heart of it there’s an idea that the only way to heal is with total transparency, by revealing exactly what was involved in the affair, blow job by blow job, and I’ve seen no evidence that this openness helps anyone. And I mean, this can go on and on and on – 80-year-old women who have the moral high ground on their marriage, because of a one-night stand their husband had 40 years earlier …’
Druckerman insists that Lust In Translation is not a self-help volume; rather, that she’s just making a series of observations. However, it’s hard not to read some level of criticism into her perspective on the American and British attitude towards cheating. Druckerman has lived in Paris for four years, and while she says that received wisdom on the French and affairs is wildly exaggerated, they do nevertheless ‘consider affairs to be part of the fairytale of a marriage, and not, as we do, a complete rupture in it. They haven’t mastered infidelity by any means, but I do think their approach might be healthier’. Maybe, Druckerman thinks, if we acknowledged from the beginning that infidelities can and do happen, we’d be better equipped to repair a relationship afterwards. ‘Because we often do recover in the end. We may start out the door at first, but we come back.’
Druckerman also thinks the French approach to infidelity is superior, because it encourages the adulterer to at least try to enjoy the affair a little. ‘I mean,’ she says, ‘if you’re going to do it anyway, at least enjoy the sex. Have you seen that Kate Winslet film, Little Children, where she’s having an affair and, while she’s actually having sex with this guy, he starts crying out: « What am I doing? What am I doing? »‘ Druckerman laughs. I tell her I have heard of comparable real-life incidents. ‘Oh right – people who get naked with their affair partners, but won’t have sex because they’re too guilty? I mean, talk about ruining it!’
Halfway through writing Lust In Translation, Pamela Druckerman got married. ‘I was juggling adultery stats and florists’ numbers,’ she says. The book didn’t put her off? ‘It changed the way I went into marriage. A lot of Americans I know would assume that they and their partners were going to be perfectly faithful. I still meet people who say: « We’re so solid, it’s not even an issue for us. » And that makes it all the more devastating when it happens. Part of the trauma is thinking that it never will happen, and so when it does, all your assumptions about the world are turned upside-down.
‘So while I still very much aspire toward fidelity, for me and my husband – ha! if one can [aspire] for someone else? – if one of us cheated, it would be less of a shock. Although probably not less of a devastation. And I hope that having lived in France for four years, my assumptions would be more French. I wouldn’t assume that the marriage was automatically over, or that I had to pay someone to usher us through the pain.’
Ultimately, Druckerman does think that infidelity is a big deal. She says that, wherever she went, whatever the local script on infidelity dictated, the one recurring motif was heartbreak, if the infidelity was uncovered. ‘It always hurts,’ she says. ‘People might expect it, they might not be surprised, they might not leave the relationship because, hey, the next guy’s gonna do it too, right? … but they will still be hurt.’
She is, however, unconvinced that it’s as big a deal as received wisdom in the US and UK would have us believe. Ultimately, Druckerman invokes Hillary Clinton, who reveals in her new autobiography that, although she considered leaving her husband on hearing about his affair with Monica Lewinsky, she realised that ‘worse things happen in a marriage’. Druckerman thinks this attitude might permeate the American script on infidelity, in the fullness of time. ‘I hope it will,’ she says. For her part, she’s going to keep researching.
She doesn’t have a choice. Druckerman says she can’t go to a dinner party without someone tracking her down. ‘They’ll say: « you remember what happened when I saw you last time? » … and I’ll be thinking, now, are you the one who’s considering running off with her gynaecologist, or was that someone else …? Because of course, for lots of us, affairs are the biggest, most exciting thing that ever happens to us …’ And that is why we’ll keep having them.
· This article was changed for legal reasons on July 16 2007.
Can You Say ‘My Wife Doesn’t Understand Me’ in French?
The New York Times
April 23, 2007
LUST IN TRANSLATION
The Rules of Infidelity From Tokyo to Tennessee
By Pamela Druckerman.
291 pp. The Penguin Press. $24.95.
In “Lust in Translation,” a global survey of how adultery varies from place to place, Pamela Druckerman quotes this advice for women who cheat on their men: “Try not to look too happy. If you never sang in the shower, don’t start now.”
The source is Cosmopolitan magazine. (What else?) But which national edition? This cavalier conversation piece of a book, itself not far removed from a magazine article, makes pit stops in Japan, South Africa, France, Indonesia and counseling-crazy America in its quest for taboo knowledge. The shower-singing caveat comes from Russian Cosmo, but it would be good advice in any of these places.
“Lust in Translation” is divided into geographical regions, each prompting Ms. Druckerman, a former staff reporter for The Wall Street Journal, to a new set of stereotypes and generalizations. Since each chapter breaks down into a string of interviews and anecdotes, the book has no overarching structure or point. But its stories are colorfully told and often entertaining. While the book is made crass by the frank avidity of Ms. Druckerman’s hunt for material (as opposed to wisdom), it has its share of wittier formulations. “In the parlance of French films, cheating merely signifies that you’re the protagonist,” she accurately observes.
But let’s begin at the beginning: with a ’round-the-world tour of contrasting adultery-related behaviors. When an American gets caught, there is anger (“Remember the day I beat your picture to shreds?”), lingering resentment and tons of talk. The book finds programs devoted to “Smart Marriages” and “Divorce Busting,” not to mention greeting cards for the cheating spouse who hasn’t yet been caught. “As we celebrate with our families, I will be thinking of you,” reads one sub-rosa holiday message.
Yet a Frenchman tells Ms. Druckerman that “he had dropped out of therapy soon after meeting the woman who became his mistress, since he was finally happy.” One Orthodox rabbi ponders the Talmud on the rectitude of sex that takes less time than it does for a woman to remove a wood chip from her teeth. Philandering Finns are exceptionally comfortable with their behavior, perhaps because the Finnish press isn’t moralistic about it and perhaps because they travel a lot. Finns answer sex survey questions readily, since the questioner who rings their doorbells is likely to be dressed as a nurse.
“All around the world, the biggest ‘risk factor’ for infidelity is simply being male,” Ms. Druckerman writes. Money and mobility also help to make it easier. The book also explores religion, class, weather, community and education as factors, and it can be glib to the point of offensiveness in tossing these constructs around. “Even Mexican men were a lower adultery risk than the lawyers I’m used to,” writes Ms. Druckerman (who was bucking for her own personal chapter in this book by getting married and having a baby in the course of flirting her way around the world doing research). “Perhaps I should have given some of them my number.”
Although its author now lives in Paris, “Lust in Translation” devotes extra attention to American behavior, and to the advice business she calls the marriage-industrial complex. “I never realized how many different things could go wrong in a marriage until I saw all these cures,” she marvels. A recovering American adulterer can expect to spend “thousands of hours” discussing the affair and begging for forgiveness, which may never be granted. Meanwhile a Frenchman explains that he felt reasonably justified in opting for extramarital sex because of his wife’s appearance. “I don’t feel very much guilt, because I asked her so many times to change, to dress more nicely, more sexy, to go to the hairstylist,” he says.
According to this book, the common ground between France and America is the relatively repressed state of their sexual cultures, despite appearances to the contrary. When Ms. Druckerman gets to Russia, she finds a very different story: a boastful attitude about sex, combined with confusion about changing mores since the fall of the Soviet Union. In any case she is helped by an institute doing research on “patrimonial knowledge of Slavonic coitus,” which doles out advice on the topic of sexual harassment. The advice is that attractive young women working in corporate jobs can count on being harassed.
This book is most disturbing in its view of African countries, where AIDS and denial make a toxic combination. It is most poignant in Asia, where China’s booming economy has created a community of so-called second wives on the mainland, a major attraction to men from nearby regions. (Ms. Druckerman cites “My Husband is a Taiwanese Businessman in Mainland China” as a bestseller on this subject.) In Japan she finds women pining for their old boyfriends while men follow the rigorous rules of hostess bars and sex clubs. Adultery is an obsession, but much of it is wishful thinking. “I never found most of the missing sex from ‘sexless marriages,’ ” she writes. “Even many Japanese affairs seem to be virtual, a matter of exquisite pining rather than actual sex.”
Speaking of virtual, Ms. Druckerman devotes only brief attention to cyberspace. “Not only are affairs not principally about sex,” she writes about Internet intimacy, “but you can have an affair without even taking your clothes off.” Yet the book’s strict geographical and cultural divisions are transcended by what is now possible online, and the behavior encouraged by e-contact warrants greater curiosity. It may be the adultery of the future.