by Peggy Vaughan
There is a constant stream of exposures of the affairs of politicians and celebritieswhich I have chronicled in the past. It's hard to know whether the exposure of so many of these affairs sends a message about the risks and damage involved in this behavioror whether it just leads to greater desensitization about people having affairs.
But since this keeps happening, it's important that we use these incidents to try to get more understanding of the whole issue of affairsNOT just use them as a distraction or worse, as titillation.
Rep. Anthony Weiner is the latest politician to face a sexual scandal. As these instances of "men behaving badly" continue to be exposed, it would seem that more of them would think about the consequenceswhich might have some impact on their behavior. But it just keeps happening.
After a week of denials, Rep. Weiner finally held a press conference to admit "This was me doing a dumb thing, doing it repeatedly, and lying about it." His statement reminded me of the title of a 1994 movie, "Dumb and Dumber." It was dumb to send sexual messages and photos to women onlinebut it was dumber to lie about it and say he could not "with certitude" say whether or not the photo in question was of him. It continues to be amazing how so many otherwise "smart" people do such dumb thingsand then do even dumber things in their effort to deny, diminish, or cover up their actions.
Arnold Schwarzenegger has shown once again the vulnerability of so many "powerful men" to being brought down by their sexual escapades. This story is particularly sad and disturbing. See my article on Maria Shriver's Pain.
Jesse James has joined the long line of celebrities who have had their affairs exposed publicly. This disclosure seems particularly poignant and painful due to the timing. Sandra Bullock had just told the world (during acceptance speeches and interviews surrounding her Oscar-winning performance in "The Blind Side") how much she loved Jesse and what a wonderful difference being married to him had made in her lifeand in her ability to do better work.
Each spouse reacts in their own personal way when learning of an affair. In Sandra's case, she immediately moved out of their home togetheras well as canceling her appearance at the UK Premier of "The Blind Side" which was scheduled for the following week. (The studio canceled the Premier and the press conference associated with it, citing Sandra's withdrawal for 'unforeseen personal reasons.') These actions are dramatic illustrations of the devastation that is often felt upon learning of a spouse's affair. See my comments about how Sandra Bullock is handling this situation.
While we don't yet know much about Jesse's affair (except that it was with a heavily tattooed stripper and lasted about 11 months, 5 weeks of which included lots of sex), these initial disclosures seem to wind up having many more aspects to them than first known.
For instance, in the same week that Jesse James's affair was revealed, more details were exposed about two others whose affairs had already come to light: Tiger Woods and John Edwards. (I've previously written about both of these menwhich you'll find later in this piece.)
In the case of Tiger Woods... it had just begun to appear that his stint in rehab and counseling was making a difference in the prospects for rebuilding his marriage. In fact, he and his wife had recently moved back into the same home. However, the latest revelation is the release of about 100 text messages that Tiger had sent to one of his mistresses (a former porn star). These messages are so 'dirty' that they can't be read on TV, but are described as nasty and even violentportraying a side of Tiger that goes beyond what anyone had begun to imagine when first learning of his affairs.
And in the case of John Edwards... the latest revelations come through an article and photos of his mistress, Rielle Hunter, in GQ magazine. The seductive, sexy poses of Rielle and the extremely negative things she had to say about Elizabeth Edwards must surely have contributed even more to the pain and embarrassment Elizabeth has already faced. This comes on the heals of the recent disclosures about the video tape of John and Rielle shot by Rielle during a sexual encounter.
Also, in more recent interviews, Andrew Young, author of "The Politician" (which had already disclosed a lot of details about John Edwards' actions) has disclosed that the affair with Rielle was not John's only affair. He says there were many other trysts with other women.
What about the recent public statements by the wives of famous men who've have affairs?
Tiger Woods was one of the most surprising of the many famous people whose affairs have been exposed. The affairs were so contradictory to his public image that it was perhaps even more shocking than usual. While each incident has some unique variables (in this case, the car wreck and surrounding questionsand the multitude of women with whom he was involved), there's a great deal of similarity to all the stories of rich, powerful, successful men who can't or don't resist the allure of the adoring women who make themselves available.
This is no 'excuse' for their behavior, but it's important to recognize ALL the factors that contribute to affairs. It's not just famous people who have affairs. It's not just people with 'opportunity' who have affairs. It's not just 'bad' people in 'bad' marriages who have affairs. (And, of course, it's not just men who have affairsbut theirs are the ones most often exposed.)
Just because we don't hear much about women having affairs doesn't mean it's not happening. Granted, the powerful people whose affairs are exposed have almost always been men, but that's likely to change if/when women ever reach levels of power (and a sense of entitlement) that all-too-often happens when male politicians or celebrities get to this level. Let's hope that the 'opportunity' which is a part of this dynamic will not hold true for women as well, but realistically, this can be one of the many factors involved in affairs.
Now, to focus on more of the many celebrities and politicians whose affairs have been exposed through the years...
The public reaction to the admission of extramarital affairs by David Letterman may signify a new level of acceptance (or even approval) of affairs. Up until now, there has been a generally critical reaction from the public to the exposure of an affair. But this timeafter Dave used his show to turn this admission into a 'funny story'the audience actually applauded several times!
The laughter and applause by his audience was a clear example of one of the many ways in which we can undermine the value of monogamy. While Dave's audience may not be typical of the general public, it does show that the attitudes of society as a whole have an impact on the way these actions are viewed by the public. And societal attitudes also become one of many "societal factors" that contribute to affairs in the first place. Understanding these factors is a point I began making back in 1989 when The Monogamy Myth was first published.
Another exposure was about SC Governor Mark Sanford. While the affair itself is primarily a personal matter, in this instance it also included some very strange behaviorlike 'disappearing' for 5 days with neither family, his Lt. Governor, nor his staff knowing where he was. Actually, his staff had been told he was 'hiking the Appalachian trail'although he was actually in Argentina. (His wife, Jenny Sanford, is one of the wives who wrote a book about her husband's affair from her perspective.)
Another prominent issue in the Sanford case is the one that was highlighted a week earlier in the story about the affair of Nevada Senator John Ensign: hypocrisy. Even people who are not particularly disturbed by stories of politicians' affairs often condemn the hypocrisy of those who present a 'holier-than-thou' attitude prior to the exposure of their own affairs.
It must be noted that the hypocrisy of some of the public people who say one thing and do another is not limited to those whose affairs get exposed. There's a great deal of hypocrisy among some journalists and pundits who report these storieswhose personal secrets would expose a certain hypocrisy in the way they publicly chastise those who get caught.
While both of these last two stories involved Republicans, affairs know no political party. The previous most notable report of the affair of a politician was about former Democratic presidential candidate, John Edwards. After almost a year of rumors and denials, he finally acknowledged that in 2006 during the early days of his campaign, he was not only wooing voters, but also a woman who was filming 'personal documentaries' for his campaign. And now after a very long period of denial he has finally acknowledged that he is the father of the child from this affair. (The whole sordid story is covered in a book by Andrew Young called "The Politician.")
The point I want to make is how these stories just keep happeningover and over and over. Reasonable people might think that someone would learn from what happened in previous cases like this, but, of course, having an affair has nothing to do with rational 'thinking.' It's an impulse-driven, emotional activity best expressed by John Edwards's admission that he became self-focused and narcissisticand came to believe he could do whatever he wanted. (This is reminiscent of the way Bill Clinton responded to the 'why did you do it' question by saying: "because I could.")
I think it's wise to look at the prevalence of this 'entitlement' mindset as it has been exhibited by a long list of politicians. (Of course, this group does not have a corner on this kind of activity. All kinds of people from all walks of life have affairs. It's just that as a society we take note of the ones that get the most publicity.)
I began noting these stories of politician's affairs with the exposure of Jesse Jackson's affair some years ago. It continued with the media attention on the affair of congressman Gary Condit. Then more recently, we had the exposure of New York Governor Eliot Spitzer's affair. (And, of course, much of the strongest attention to politician's affairs was with Bill Clinton.)
With Jackson's affair, the focus was also on the fact that the affair had produced a child. Condit's affair was exposed due to the tragic disappearance of Chandra Levy. And, of course, Edwards's affair carries the additional 'how could he' reaction due to his wonderful wife, Elizabeth, who is struggling with terminal breast cancer. And there's the lingering question of whether or not a child was born from this affair.
Regardless of the specific issues surrounding any particular story, each of them serves to raise our awareness once again of the prevalence of affairs. Each new case presents another opportunity to make some important points about the nature of affairs in our society.
Frankly, a great many more people are having affairs than we want to believeand it's not just among celebrities. Affairs happen to all kinds of people in all walks of life. Generally (except among those who have personally faced this issue), people try to ignore or deny the prevalence of affairs. So when we learn of yet another "public person" who has had an affair, it makes "news"as if this is a rare or unusual occurrence.
The truth was more nearly reflected by Congressman John Conyers, Jr. during the time of the extensive focus on the Clinton-Lewinsky matter, when he was quoted as saying...
Unfortunately, there's still a tendency to think that affairs happen only to people in certain professions: entertainers, politicians, sports figures, celebrities, "traveling salesmen," etc. However, affairs are extremely prevalent among "regular people" as well, affecting all kinds of people in all walks of life. It's just that they don't get exposed in the same way. If there were the same kind of close public scrutiny of their lives, we'd be much more likely to recognize the pervasiveness of this problem. But most people who face an affair in their marriage still try to keep it secreteven from friends and family.
I certainly don't intend to expose any "private people," but I do think it's appropriate to have some discussion about those "public figures" that have been exposed in the news. I must admit I can't even begin to refer to all (or even most) of the public figures and leaders whose affairs have been publicly exposed.
Many of the exposures only took place after their death, leading us to have a double-standard in our judgment of those who are exposed while still alive (and in the public eye) vs. those whose affairs only became public knowledge after their death.
Below is a quick overview of some of our former Presidents whose affairs were revealed after their deaths. (Most of the following were reported in a book titled Sex Lives of the Presidents by Nigel Cawthorne.)
*George Washington was a "womanizer" who had numerous affairs.
And, of course, there are many other "leaders" who could be cited, most notably Martin Luther King, Jr., whose extramarital sexual encounter was audiotaped by the FBIand exposed to King's wife.
Whether it's those listed above or other "public figures" (like Bill Cosby, Frank Gifford, Kobe Bryant, Newt Gingrich, Robert Livingston, Dan Burton, Henry Hide, David Schippers, Helen Chenowethor any of the other people who have had one affair exposed), their response inevitably refers to the incident as if it were the only affair they ever had. While I'm certainly not saying there were other affairs, it would be reasonable to think that this might be the case.
I am not trying to argue any particular case for or against any particular person. I am interested in the much bigger picturethe way we fail as a society to realistically confront this problem. We can't effectively deal with this issue until we understand the nature of the problemwhich means acknowledging the prevalence of affairs.
The bottom line is that affairs occur in a large percentage of marriages. No one is immune from having affairs disrupt their lives or the lives of those they care about. This doesn't "excuse" a person for having an affair, but it does help their spouse overcome the shame they feel when viewing it only as the failure of their spouse or their relationship. It's time to face the reality that affairs are not just a personal issue; they're a societal issue as well.
This is the message I have been trying to get across since The Monogamy Myth was first published in 1989. The issue of affairs is much bigger than our narrow focus only on the "personal" aspects of itwithout also understanding this problem in the larger societal context.
While every poll shows that most people believe affairs are wrong (and we publicly condemn those who have affairs), our support of monogamy is only lip service. In fact, we are jointly responsible for creating a fertile environment for affairs by participating in the kinds of behaviors that actually contribute to the problem.
How do we contribute to a climate that promotes affairs?
We can't expect those who are having affairs to be more responsible in their actions as long as we all contribute to the factors that actually encourage affairs. We can not adequately address this issue until we acknowledge the hypocrisy surrounding the way we deal with ALL issues related to sex. Accurately defining the problem is the first step toward any hope of solving it.
For more on this issue, see: