Skip to main content

Blame affairs on evolution of sex roles

By Stephanie Coontz, Special to CNN
November 18, 2012 -- Updated 1334 GMT (2134 HKT)
Gen. David Petraeus, 60, <a href='http://www.cnn.com/2012/11/12/us/petraeus-cia-resignation/index.html' target='_blank'>resigned Friday, November 9,</a> as head of the CIA and admitted having an affair. His mistress was later identified as his biographer, <a href='http://www.cnn.com/2012/11/10/politics/broadwell-profile/index.html' target='_blank'>Paula Broadwell</a>. The retired four-star general formerly oversaw coalition forces in Iraq as well as U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan. He and his wife, Holly, have been married 38 years and have two grown children. Gen. David Petraeus, 60, resigned Friday, November 9, as head of the CIA and admitted having an affair. His mistress was later identified as his biographer, Paula Broadwell. The retired four-star general formerly oversaw coalition forces in Iraq as well as U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan. He and his wife, Holly, have been married 38 years and have two grown children.
HIDE CAPTION
Who's who in the Petraeus scandal
Paula Broadwell
Jill Kelley
Gen. John Allen
Holly Petraeus
Frederick Humphries
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Stephanie Coontz: Male politicians repeatedly step into illicit sex situations. Why?
  • She says at one time they were encouraged. Now infidelity scorned, but old habits persist
  • She says in an unequal history, men learned to expect adoration; women to admire men's power
  • Coontz: Retro pattern persists, draws men to young adoring women, women to older men

Editor's note: Stephanie Coontz is Director of Research at the Council on Contemporary Families and teaches history at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. Her most recent book is "A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s."

(CNN) -- How could they not have known they were asking for trouble? In the past few years, Rep. Mark Souder of Indiana had an affair with the staff member who had helped him produce a video promoting sexual abstinence. South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford flew to Argentina for an extramarital tryst, instructing his staff to tell the press he was hiking the Appalachian Trail. Sen. John Edwards tried to pass off the daughter he fathered as the love child of one of his aides.

And now a stockpile of sexy e-mails has simultaneously brought down the head of the CIA and delayed the nomination of the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan to head NATO.

Stephanie Coontz
Stephanie Coontz

Many Americans believe these scandals reflect a precipitous decline in respect for marital fidelity. If anything, however, such respect has never been higher. In a 2006 poll by the Pew Research Center, 88% of Americans said adultery was immoral -- a higher number than for any other of 10 unsavory behaviors they were asked about. According to a 2009 Gallup Poll, only 6% of Americans believe extramarital sex is morally acceptable.

Tolerance for male adultery is certainly at a new low. In letters and diaries written during the Colonial and Revolutionary eras, men routinely bragged about their extramarital conquests -- even to the brothers and fathers of their own wives! In the 1850s, it is estimated that New York City had one prostitute for every 64 men, while the mayors of Savannah, Georgia, and Norfolk, Virginia, put the numbers of prostitutes in their cities at one for every 39 and 26 men, respectively.

As late as 1930, Somserset Maugham's play, "The Constant Wife," was considered shocking because the heroine confronted her husband about his affair instead of simply ignoring it, as most women in polite circles did.

Opinion: OK to flirt your way to the top?

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



President Thomas Jefferson fathered a child by his mistress. So did Warren G. Harding, who also carried on an affair with the wife of a family friend. Gen. Dwight Eisenhower had a long-term relationship with the woman who was his driver in England during World War II. CIA Director Allen Dulles, according to his own sister, had "at least a hundred" affairs, including one with the queen of Greece. President John F. Kennedy's affairs and one-night stands may have numbered even more.

But times have changed. The press and political insiders no longer turn a blind eye. So why do men continue in behaviors that now carry so much risk of exposure and punishment?

Part of it is probably a sense of entitlement. Powerful men have "people" to take care of the mundane details of life. They are briefed on the names and backgrounds of whomever they meet, told when it's time to leave, and extricated from awkward encounters. Someone else keeps track of appointments, money and time, fetches whatever they have forgotten at home, makes excuses when they change plans, and picks up after them when they leave a room. No wonder they get careless about picking up after their indiscretions as well.

But why do equally powerful women so seldom engage in such risky affairs? Some believe that the very qualities that make men successful also make them vulnerable. Powerful men are rewarded for being risk takers, a political consultant once told me, whereas women feel more need to control their emotions and impulses if they are to succeed. There is some truth to this. But I think the answer is more complex, and in some ways sadder.

FBI to brief Congress on Petraeus
Obama: No evidence of leaked info
Friend of Jill Kelley speaks out

After all, these men don't necessarily take such risks in other areas where emotions run strong. Political leaders calibrate their positions, moral convictions and emotional impulses with a degree of calculation that would put Machiavelli to shame. Many even shove aside their most deeply held beliefs at the faintest hint that these might expose them to risk.

As someone who has studied the evolution of love, sexuality, and marriage over the centuries, I believe the frequency of these sexual scandals reflects the fact that many men and women have still not fully incorporated into their daily emotional lives the new ideals about gender equity and mutuality that have emerged in the past 40 years.

Opinion: Media, stop stoking Petraeus sex saga

Today many -- perhaps most -- men sincerely want to marry women who are partners rather than subordinates. And women now want careers of their own, whether paid or unpaid, rather than defining themselves entirely through a husband's achievements. Yet many of our romantic fantasies and cues for sexual arousal are still shaped by the unequal division of roles, power, resources and prescribed character traits that prevailed from the early 19th century up through the 1960s.

Before industrialization moved production outside the household unit, husbands and wives were partners in home-based production, equally responsible for provisioning the household and dealing with the details of daily life. But the experiences and emotions of men and women diverged as men began to earn money outside the home while women concentrated on meeting family needs.

Gradually, women came to see success, prosperity and status as only attainable through the achievements of men, while men became accustomed to receiving love and admiration for possessing skills, resources, and knowledge to which women did not have access. Women began to equate admiration with attraction; men began to equate being looked up to with being sexually potent. For 150 years, romance novels and the mass media have reinforced this confusion.

Opinion: Lessons from Petraeus sex scandal

I think this pattern helps explain why so few women are tempted by the adoration of younger acolytes but often fall for superiors or mentors, while many otherwise happily married men become so intoxicated by admiration that they risk their careers and families for its temporary rush. President Bill Clinton couldn't resist the hero-worship of a White House intern. Then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich carried on an affair with an admiring female aide while trying to impeach Clinton for lying about a similar indiscretion.

Presidential candidate John Edwards fell for the woman who followed him around with an adoring camera as well as an adoring gaze. Rep. Anthony Wiener apparently thought any woman who admired his political views would be turned on by an unsolicited picture of his crotch. And like his CIA predecessor Allen Dulles, whose affair with journalist Mary Bancroft was based on the excitement of what she described as her "overwhelming admiration," David Petraeus bonded with his own worshipful biographer.

Some of the men involved in these scandals are clearly pigs. Some of the women are opportunists. But most are otherwise decent people who have not yet been able to adjust 200 years of conditioned sexual responses to our evolving emotional and intellectual preferences. The challenge facing modern couples -- not just the men and women in these scandals -- is to root out our old psychological habits and incorporate our new expectations of love and marriage into our deepest emotional core.

We will know we have made progress when equality and friendship become more sexy than adoration and uncertainty.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Stephanie Coontz.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
April 23, 2014 -- Updated 1641 GMT (0041 HKT)
Robert Hickey says most new housing development is high-end, catering to high-earners.
April 23, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Alexander Motyl says as Russian President Putin snarled at Ukraine, his foreign minister was signing a conciliatory accord with the West. Whatever the game, the accord is a major stand down by Russia
April 23, 2014 -- Updated 1229 GMT (2029 HKT)
Les Abend says at every turn, the stowaway teen defied the odds of discovery and survival. What pilot would have thought to look for a person in the wheel well?
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 2247 GMT (0647 HKT)
Q & A with artist Rachel Sussman on her new book of photographs, "The Oldest Living Things in the World."
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 1958 GMT (0358 HKT)
Martin Blaser says the overuse of antibiotics threatens to deplete our bodies of "good" microbes, leaving us vulnerable to an unstoppable plague--an "antibiotic winter"
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 1737 GMT (0137 HKT)
John Sutter asks: Is it possible to eat meat in modern-day America and consider yourself an environmentalist without being a hypocrite?
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 1538 GMT (2338 HKT)
Sally Kohn notes that Meb Keflezighi rightly was called an American after he won the Boston Marathon, but his status in the U.S. once was questioned
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 1256 GMT (2056 HKT)
Denis Hayes and Scott Denman say on this Earth Day, the dawn of the Solar Age is already upon us and the Atomic Age of nuclear power is in decline
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 2036 GMT (0436 HKT)
Retired Coast Guard officer James Loy says a ship captain bears huge responsibility.
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 1708 GMT (0108 HKT)
Peter Bergen says the latest strikes are part of an aggressive U.S. effort to target militants, including a bomb maker
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Cynthia Lummis and Peter Welch say 16 agencies carry out national intelligence, and their budgets are top secret. We need to know how they are spending our money.
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 1235 GMT (2035 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says President Obama knows more than anyone that he has much at stake in the midterm elections.
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 1255 GMT (2055 HKT)
Eric Sanderson says if you really want to strike a blow for the environment--and your health--this Earth Day, work to get cars out of cities and create transportation alternatives
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 1408 GMT (2208 HKT)
Bruce Barcott looks at the dramatic differences in marijuana laws in Colorado and Louisiana
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 2047 GMT (0447 HKT)
Jim Bell says NASA's latest discovery supports the notion that habitable worlds are probably common in the galaxy.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1817 GMT (0217 HKT)
Jay Parini says even the Gospels skip the actual Resurrection and are sketchy on the appearances that followed.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1752 GMT (0152 HKT)
Graham Allison says if an unchecked and emboldened Russia foments conflict in a nation like Latvia, a NATO member, the West would have to defend it.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
John Sutter: Bad news, guys -- the pangolin we adopted is missing.
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 1825 GMT (0225 HKT)
Ben Wildavsky says we need a better way to determine whether colleges are turning out graduates with superior education and abilities.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1026 GMT (1826 HKT)
Charles Maclin, program manager working on the search and recovery of Malaysia Flight 370, explains how it works.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1250 GMT (2050 HKT)
Jill Koyama says Michael Bloomberg is right to tackle gun violence, but we need to go beyond piecemeal state legislation.
April 17, 2014 -- Updated 1845 GMT (0245 HKT)
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
ADVERTISEMENT