The Postmodern Hester Prynne

Guess what, fellas? Women cheat, too—they just tend to be a bit more nuanced about it

Oh, these naughty alpha males and their uncontrollable libidos! We’ve had a parade of powerful men in picture-perfect marriages, exposed as lying horndogs: John Edwards, Mark Sanford, Tiger Woods, Eliot Spitzer, now even (allegedly) Al Gore. And just look at their lovely, betrayed wives, each one “handling” the situation with her own brand of dignity.

It’s like some postmodern myth cycle, Zeus and Hera in a 21st century of zoom-lens pap photos and manic dirty texts that live forever courtesy of AT&T. We can’t, or won’t, stop consuming the details. The narratives hurtle from the first mistress revelation in The Enquirer or a trashy blog to—a million or so Huffington Post comments later—the wife’s book deal and public “healing”; at the moment, we have forever-shocked Elizabeth Edwards in a second media push as her book, Resilience (Broadway, 2009), comes out in paperback.

As the recession grinds on, there must be something primally reassuring in these stories of male infidelity and wronged female virtue among the elite. The über-cheaters give us evidence that entitled males still exist, are still in charge, while sober, de-eroticized women—even nubile, beautiful, ultra-blond Elin Nordegren seems willingly desexualized—safeguard The Family. “The saddest part for me,” Elizabeth Edwards told Larry King last week, “is that I know I’ll never again be held in that way … with passion.” Meanwhile, Tiger has a new girlfriend already; Sanford is working on “rekindling things” with his Argentine lover.

These tales of hookers and half-hookers and gold diggers and fame diggers and “soul mates”—it all presents itself as censure, but the sheer volume of media, the obsessive attention to it, represents a kind of cheering on. “We really want to believe that powerful men have harems or the equivalent,” as a prominent female West Village writer of 50 put it to me, “because it’s reassuring us that boys will be boys. The alternative is unthinkable.”

She went on to speculate that famous male serial cheaters want to be exposed. “I think being held up as the bad boy in front of a nation is kind of a turn-on for some of them. A lot of men want to think of themselves as naughty, and of course they know that other men will envy them, which is one reason, no doubt, that they are so ambitious in the first place.”

When elite women’s cheating goes public, meanwhile, the outrage can be shrill: Just a year before Hanna Rosin’s recent, well-received Atlantic cover story, “The End of Men,” readers of that magazine excoriated Sandra Tsing Loh for her confessional piece about leaving her husband after an affair. And yet somehow, compared to what the male cheaters inspire, female adulterers’ hold on our attention is short-lived, even, in the end, a bit ambivalent. Nikki Haley’s reported extramarital liaisons were good for maybe a week of headlines, and did little to slow her political rise—she is now the GOP candidate to succeed, yes, Sanford as governor of South Carolina. Over in Hollywood, when Laurie David left Larry David—gossip had her hooking up with the handyman of her Martha’s Vineyard estate—the story was a blip on celebrity blogs for a few days, then disappeared. Where was Larry David’s anguish, his healing, the journey that, say, Sandra Bullock has been on since revelations that Jesse James was cheating? Made into a mockery by “Larry David” on Curb Your Enthusiasm. Whatever the real Larry David was going through, we looked politely away; maybe it’s just too much to contemplate, the idea that a rich, successful man isn’t a winner in romance, too. Laurie David, meanwhile, has gotten more fulsome tabloid attention in a week for her rumored role in the story of Al and Tipper’s divorce than in the adulterous provocation of her own.

Even noncelebrity men want to be part of the story line of the cheating, sexually voracious husband and the wife who is muted or uninterested in bed. It’s a staple of men’s magazines and male confessional journalism: the half–cri de coeur, half–boast about how hard it is to be monogamous when you have such a monster sex drive, or how some anonymous author has decided to indulge in guilt-free adultery since his otherwise exemplary wife simply cannot fill his needs.

But let’s put aside media mythologizing and look at real life for a moment among the married, educated, affluent class, who share the background and lifestyle of the über-cheaters. Is it a hotbed of unbridled male lust desperate for an outlet, coming home to a female libido that the high-achieving wife has shushed as adroitly as she puts her baby down to sleep? That scenario seems more and more passé—not to mention blind to certain realities of female erotic nature. The statistics say that marital cheating is at about 25 percent for men, 15 percent for women. But one wonders about those numbers. Self-reporting about any sexual matter is notoriously unreliable, and with adultery, any overreporting is likely to be by men while underreporting is likely to be by women, due to cultural pressures on men to be studly and women to be chaste.

There is this perhaps uncomfortable fact: Sex means just as much to women as to men, but secrecy is a more fundamental component of sexuality for women. “My sexual life is pivotal to me, as I believe it is for everyone else,” novelist Edna O’Brien once said. “For me, primarily, it is secretive and contains elements of mystery and plunder. My daily life and my sexual life are not of a whole—they are separated.” A cheating woman will tend to be very, very good at hiding it.

Not only are women better at keeping secrets, the forms their extramarital relationships take tend to be much more varied, often easy to not even classify as cheating: The IM relationship, the “emotional affair,” the “work husband”; there is perhaps less boning in a hotel, more pouring out of her heart and dropping erotically charged lines to someone who is not her husband, someone she may not even have met in person; she may be trying to decide if she is in fact having an affair with the guy. The experts agree: It’s all infidelity.

When Karen Karbo tried to get women to talk about their experiences with “online cheating” for an article in Canadian Elle, she found her subjects slinking away after initially agreeing to talk. They were ashamed not so much of the cheating part, but of the neediness it seemed to advertise.

There is one giant exception to the rule of female sexual secrecy: women who sleep with the married alpha males. These women seem to relish the chance to tell the world about their romance with, or their shoddy treatment at the hands of, someone famous. Their blabbing is in fact another big reason that the public face of cheating is so overwhelmingly male.

“Hollywood women probably cheat just as much as the men,” speculated Amy Sohn, author of the novel Prospect Park West (Simon & Schuster, 2009), which depicts cheating among the Park Slope stroller set. “But there are all sorts of reasons that the men they have affairs with wouldn’t go to the tabloids, where the Tiger Woods–type women do. For one thing, the women they go for—the low-hanging fruit, as they say, not their economic or social equals—have an economic incentive to expose it, while the men don’t, necessarily.”

In the end, the female propensity to wrap sex in romance may explain why they, more than men, can find that cheating does not brand them with notoriety—if they handle it right. “With the cheating women, they often end up in a relationship with the person, so there’s nothing tawdry about it, and the stories just fade away,” Sohn said. “It means you fell out of love with your first husband and fell in love with your second husband! Wow!”