Arts & Culture

How To Sound Smart This Week: Infidelity Edition

Like the majority of creatures in the animal kingdom, including Eliot Spitzer, brand-new New York governor David Paterson has mated with females other than his life partner. If you think the above is a ridiculous sentence, you should read the … Read More

By / March 18, 2008

Like the majority of creatures in the animal kingdom, including Eliot Spitzer, brand-new New York governor David Paterson has mated with females other than his life partner.

If you think the above is a ridiculous sentence, you should read the thrown-together essay in today's New York Times on the marital habits of non-humans, followed by today’s Daily News article about how Paterson and his wife both had affairs during a rough patch in their marriage. Sex, politics, fuzzy creatures in love—you couldn’t do better for conversation fodder this week.

The Times article serves as a primer on sexual fidelity in the natural world, or rather the lack of it: “Social monogamy is very rarely accompanied by sexual, or genetic, monogamy” among beasts, it explains. In fact, animals from shrikes (“elegant raptorlike birds”) to monkeys have been known to exchange goods for sex.

This is certainly interesting—but is it relevant? Like, at all? We hold humans—especially public figures—to higher moral standards than we would animals. To do otherwise would be to somehow ignore the whole of human civilization, which is pretty much predicated on the idea that we’re more than just chimps with better posture. Why should our sexual behavior be exempt from the social contract when the rest of our behavior is beholden to it? After all, if Elliot Spitzer was caught flinging poop at his opponents, you wouldn't see an article on the Times front page subtitled "Animals as well as governors have trouble with poop-flinging.”

If you can't find enough material for discussion in the Times article alone, you could also bring in the feminist angle. I’d contend that the circumstances of women’s lives make us as a gender way less susceptible to half-assed “But it’s biology!” arguments. American women begin menstruating at an average age of 12 but don’t have children until they’re (on average) 25. After 13 years of successfully ignoring and subverting the biological need to reproduce, it’s pretty hard for us to believe that we don’t have any control over our dumb animal bodies.

Also, we're constantly reading poorly reasoned articles blaming biology for gender norms, like the old saw about how women like pink because Neanderthal girls spent a lot of time gathering berries. The Times article about infidelity makes a big point about how both sexes cheat, but it’s illustrated by a boy monkey hitting on a long-lashed girl monkey even as he’s tethered to his long-lashed monkey wife. Why? For the same reason that last summer’s study about female cheetahs and their multiple partners got translated in the media as “lady cheetah are total sluts.” Because, as Beth Skwarecki points out in this quarter's edition of the excellent feminist magazine Bitch, the media often skews stories to conform with social constructs, even when the reporting doesn't back them up.

Which brings us to Governor Paterson. The Daily News reports the story thus: “In a stunning revelation, both Paterson, 53, and his wife, Michelle, 46, acknowledged in a joint interview they each had intimate relationships with others during a rocky period in their marriage several years ago.” It’s sort of sweet and heartening that they were able to make it work, don’t you think? But the Daily News headline is “Gov. Paterson admits to sex with other woman for years,” as if it’s that age-old story about how Power Makes Men Cheat — as if Michelle Paterson was the classic scorned wife a la Silda Wall Spitzer.

The scandal here, such that it is, tells us very little about power or gender or government, and probably too much about the Patersons' private lives A couple hit a rough patch, tried dating other people, and then went to counseling. Now they’re back together. At the Politico, Ben Smith sums it up best when he says his sources all responded the same way: “Yawn.”