Affairs rare despite rumored popularity

By Karen S. Peterson
Monday, December 21, 1998

In spite of confessed sexual peccadilloes in Congress and the White House, not everybody is doing it.

The latest, still-unpublished research shows that about 24% of men and 14% of women have had sex outside their marriages. A national study of 5,000 men and women who have been married is under way at the Center for AIDS Prevention Studies at the University of California, San Francisco.

The findings closely match those of a prestigious 1994 study from the University of Chicago.

The issue surfaced again when House Speaker-designate Robert Livingston, R-La., announced Thursday that he's had extramarital affairs, then resigned Saturday. He joins an ever-lengthening list of members of Congress confessing infidelities.

But the popular belief that about half the married population cheats is a myth, says a co-author of the new study, Joseph Catania, a behavioral epidemiologist.

Catania finds that about 28% of men President Clinton's age (52) have had affairs, as have about 17% of women.

One finding "popped out," Catania says. "There is very little sex with co-workers." His research shows that most affairs are with friends (57%) of at least six months, not colleagues (9%).

Only about 0.5% overall have had multiple affairs. And only about 3.3% have had extramarital sex in the past year. His sample is 55% women, 45% men; the study was done in 1996 and '97.

Catania's findings follow a 1994 report that found 80% of women and 65% to 85% of men have never had an extramarital affair. "Every study that I know of over the last few years has resulted in the same type of findings," says one of that study's co-authors, John Gagnon of the State University of New York at Stony Brook.

Atlanta psychiatrist and marital therapist Frank Pittman agrees. "Not everybody is doing it. Most men are faithful most of the time," says the author of Grow Up! (Golden Books, $23.95).

Findings on infidelity are hotly debated. Earlier studies said up to 68% of men and 66% of women confessed extramarital bed-hopping.

Gagnon says prior research wasn't based on random samples of the population, concentrating instead on people who chose to come forward to discuss their sex lives. Scientifically based random samples "tend to include more conservatives," he says.

Still, statistics are "really shaky," says Maggie Scarf, author of Intimate Partners: Patterns in Love and Marriage. "And what do they mean?"

The polls, she says, lump together "one-night stands and intense, long-term affairs."

People routinely lie to investigators about infidelity, cautions Peggy Vaughan, author of The Monogamy Myth (Newmarket Press, $14.95). "You cannot trust anybody on a subject like this."

She believes about 60% of men and 40% of women will have an extramarital affair at some time; since these people are not always married to each other, about 80% of marriages are touched.

Politicians, actors and sports figures are particularly vulnerable, Gagnon says. They travel a lot and have access to adoring members of the opposite sex. "They have more opportunity and more temptation."

Former secretary of State Henry Kissinger said it first, says St. Paul, Minn., marital therapist William Doherty: Power is a great aphrodisiac. "A lot of women are attracted to powerful men," Doherty says. And it is true, he says, that today "more women are initiating sexual activities."

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