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WETZSTEIN: Adultery ‘wrong’ to most Americans

- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 13, 2008

Adultery certainly has been fodder for this year's news cycle. Former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer kicked it off with his call-girl scandal. Fellow Democrat, Attorney General Marc Dann of Ohio, also stepped down because of an extramarital affair, and Republican Rep. Vito J. Fossella of New York, who fathered a child outside of marriage, has said he's not running for re-election.

Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, who is accused of lying about an affair with a former aide, was still fighting to keep his job at press time.

The media has a mixed response to these kinds of stories. Naturally, it loves to jump on a sex scandal, but it also tries to stay aloof from the morality (or lack thereof) of the issue. Thus, adultery is cast as your basic peccadillo - something naughty that good people sometimes do.

Or should be free to do, as Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz argued on NPR when he was interviewed in March about Mr. Spitzer.

"This is a completely and totally victimless crime," Mr. Dershowitz said. "Millions of men use prostitutes. ... Twenty years from now, we will be looking back and saying, 'My God, people had to resign over prostitution?'"

What do Americans think of adultery? Numbers I've seen indicate that Americans are not ambivalent about it. In fact, they hate it. They also don't want to forgive it, and since most of them (according to one federal snapshot) don't engage in it, they don't want to see it in their leaders.

For contrast, let's look at public opinion on premarital sex vs. adultery.

In 1972, more than a third of Americans (36 percent) said sex before marriage was "always wrong" and 28 percent took a libertine view that premarital sex was "not wrong at all," according to the General Social Survey (GSS), a respected national public opinion poll.

Fast-forward to 2006.

Now almost half of Americans - 46 percent - take the libertine position that premarital sex is "not wrong at all." The group saying it's "always wrong" has shrunk to 26 percent.

Clearly, Americans have softened their stance against premarital sex. This same America has vigorously held the line on adultery.

In most GSS surveys between 1972 to 2006, Americans were asked for their views of spouses having "sex with a person other than spouse."

In the 1970s, around 70 percent said extramarital sex was "always wrong." Today, even more people - 80 percent or more - take this hard-line view. More than a few find adultery unforgivable.

Amid news of the Spitzer affair, Gallup and USA Today polled people on whether they would forgive their spouses for a sexual affair. Only 10 percent said they "definitely" would forgive straying mates. The largest group - 38 percent - "definitely" would not forgive.

American wedding vows typically have a sentence in there about forsaking all others. But according to Hollywood movies, myriad music lyrics and Mr. Dershowitz, there's nothing out there but cheatin' hearts. Does this mean that we are, um, a nation of hypocrites?

Well, maybe not.

The federal government conducts a National Survey of Family Growth (NSFG) every few years. In 2002, it asked more than 12,000 people, aged 15 to 44, how many sexual partners they had in the last 12 months. There's a line for marital status, so the married people's answers could be identified.

Among the wives, 93 percent said they had one - repeat, one - sexual partner in the last 12 months. Of the husbands, 92 percent said they had sex with one partner.

So, yes, the NSFG showed there are cheatin' hound-dog spouses out there. Headlines show that some of them even reach high office.

But, taken together, these numbers indicate that as powerful as the 1960s sexual revolution was, it didn't lay a finger on this particular example of U.S. social mores. Adultery is still a "thou shalt not."

Cheryl Wetzstein's On the Family column appears Tuesday and Sundays. E-mail here..