Let's face it: Adultery happens. People do screw around. Air Force lieutenants and Army generals do it. Presidential candidates do it. Even the president "allegedly" does it. The question is: Should we care, and if so, how should we respond?
Certainly, our attitudes toward adultery have shifted in recent years. The media, once a willing partner in covering up the peccadilloes of the rich and famous, now aggressively expose them—even as such indiscretions seem to matter less and less to a largely forgiving public. Gone are the days when cheating was uniformly denounced and the discreet cheater quietly tolerated. Hypocritical? Absolutely. But, as Jonathan Rauch writes in the New Republic (Sept. 22, 1997), it may be the best way we have to cope with a social issue that lately has become far too political.
"Adultery," writes Rauch, "is best handled hypocritically—which is to say, sensitively." In other words, don't ask, and for sure don't tell. This is the so-called Main Street code of past years. It serves to preserve marriage, which "civilizes and settles men, provides relatively stable and secure homes for children, helps provide economic stability for both partners, and ensures that everyone has somebody whose 'job' it is to look after them in times of crisis or incapacitation," he writes. That's a tall order, but in order to serve those many functions, Rauch contends, "marriage must be durable." And if adultery is a threat to marriage, it must be discouraged—but in a "genteel" way. It is in some respects a deal with the devil, but we don't have much choice.
The alternatives—exposing and disgracing the adulterer, or simply relaxing our moral reflex and refusing to condemn so human a sin—are both untenable, he argues. Witness the case of Kelly Flinn, the Air Force lieutenant who was forced out of the military for having an affair with a married civilian. In an effort to be consistent and fair following Flinn's dismissal, the Air Force established a sexual misconduct hotline that was quickly swamped and shut down because too many heads would have rolled. "Without the protection of hypocrisy that the Flinn matter removed, the armed forces faced the possibility of a decimated officer corps," Rauch writes. "This was not a fanciful concern."
It does no good to untether our moral anchors, either, as Monicagate would suggest. As the media pounded away at President Clinton's alleged philandering, his popularity soared, and the useful taboo against adultery was gradually lifted. "As people get used to hearing about this or that prominent person's infidelities, the taboo evaporates," Rauch explains. That's a problem if we care to uphold marriage and the family. But the Kelly Flinn case demonstrates how the other choice is equally abhorrent. Taken to its extreme, our zeal for outing adultery could conceivably topple the government.
Of course, not everyone shares Rauch's point of view. Writing in Elle (Nov. 1997), Eric Alterman argues that adultery is wrong "the way lying is wrong—it is but sometimes it isn't"—and that the adulterer is not always the moral deadbeat he or she has been made out to be. "Just as children can be a reason to keep a less-than-ideal marriage together," he writes, "they can also provide an argument for why a spouse who cheats occasionally but remains anchored in the family is—morally speaking—more admirable than one who cuts and runs." But Alterman's flexible morality seems a flimsy cop-out, evidence of a society that has lost its moral backbone.
That brings us back to Rauch and hypocrisy—which turns out to have a long history as it relates to adultery. Michael Gold points out in Moment (Feb. 1998) that adultery has been forbidden at least since biblical days, but only for married women. The Seventh Commandment is the original double standard, decreed not as an injustice to women but to preserve the family. (The laws forbidding adultery began as an attempt to be sure of the paternity of children.)
Still, as Alterman points out, the women get it worse. Consider the fates of Emma Bovary, Anna Karenina, Hester Prynne, and other literary models scarred by the "A" word. And, sure enough, in the contemporary version of this morality tale, Monica Lewinsky loses her job at Revlon, while the Adulterer-in-Chief sails on toward high approval ratings.
But in that situation is anybody really a winner? Even if Clinton avoids impeachment, everybody—his wife, his daughter, his minions, his public—has paid a price. We've been so derailed as a nation by this most recent sexual sideshow that Rauch's case for hypocrisy is looking more like sensible public policy than ever before.