This spectacle of teary politicians confessing to some sexual imbroglio or another has become so routine it’s become a kind of new reality show: David Vitter, Elliot Spitzer, John Edwards, John Ensign, Larry Craig, Bill Clinton, Mark Foley, Portland mayor Sam Adams, L.A. mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom, Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi (though he’s proud rather than teary) and now South Carolina governor Mark Sanford.
Yet the amazing thing, according to a recent Gallup poll, is that more of us think this is morally wrong than any other item on a list of 16 ethically iffy acts.
Ninety-two percent of those polled say that it's morally wrong for married people to have an affair. Even more wrong than cloning a human, for instance. Only 88 percent of people say that's wrong. (As for how many people think it's morally wrong to cheat on a clone or even clone a cheater, well, that's unclear.)
Committing suicide? 80 percent. Polygamy? 91 percent. Killing somebody with the death penalty? 30 percent. In other words, of all the items, we judge having an affair the worst possible thing you can do.
Yet estimates of how many Americans have extra-marital sex average about 30 percent. And that doesn’t count the roughly half of us who divorce — in many cases because we want to have sex with somebody who isn’t our spouse.
So, do we really think having an affair is worse than, say, leaving the state you govern without telling anybody where you’re going in case they need to reach you to — I don’t know — commute a death sentence or call out the National Guard?
“That is kind of stunning but it does not surprise me,” said Stephanie Coontz, a professor at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., and the author of "Marriage, A History: How Love Conquered Marriage." “It is symptomatic of this major transformation in marriage that has very paradoxical results. We expect more from marriage than anybody in the past would have dared to dream.”
Though in the past marriage did embrace the romantic, monogamous ideal, there was also an understanding that having sex on the side, if not exactly expected, was something to be tolerated. Often this worked in favor of men, and Coontz thinks the equality in power between men and women is a good thing, but as the Gallup poll suggests, we’ve also adopted a rather strident view of human desire.
Yet at the very same time, Coontz said, our ethics have slipped in other realms. Employees and employers now regard firm loyalty as laughably naïve, corporations no longer feel responsible for the communities in which they are based, we have lowered our expectations of responsibility to our neighbors. In effect, we’ve put all our ethics eggs in one basket, marriage, even while we have created a highly sexualized society.
“That becomes a pressure cooker situation when we cannot live up to it,” she said. “It makes it harder to say well, ‘Let’s shrug and move on,’ or to seek support systems to see what we can do [to avoid divorce]. Instead, everything blows up.”
In the past, I pointed out that there has never been such a thing as strict monogamy, including among politicians. Yet as Coontz said, we want to judge politicians “not on what kind of social values do they have, but how do they treat their own husband or wife.”
While treating our spouses with honesty and honor is certainly a good thing, it ought to be kept in perspective in relation to other moral decisions. When having an extra-marital affair becomes the worst thing you can do, maybe it’s a sign we’ve lost it.
Msnbc.com Sexploration columnist Brian Alexander is the author of the book “America Unzipped: In Search of Sex and Satisfaction," now in paperback.