The Postmodern Hester Prynne

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 G.O.P. candidate to succeed, yes, Mr. 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. (Her publicist quickly sputtered a disgusted denial that she was cheating with the ex-VP, whose movie she produced.)

Even non-celebrity 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. (Exhibit A: Philip Weiss’ exhaustive 2008 examination in New York magazine of his own wandering eye and his wife’s lack of interest in sex.)

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 over-reporting is likely to be by men while under-reporting is likely to be by women, due to cultural pressures on men to be studly and women to be chaste.

When you talk to married women about their attitudes toward infidelity, their own, their husband’s, or their friends’, you get a more subtle, complicated picture. For one thing, raging male libido is not the starting point of the discussion. This email from a married mother of two, an author married to another author, is typical: “Were infidelity to occur, there’s no reason to assume it would be on his part. I don’t worry that ‘my husband is going to cheat on me.’ That’s not really a scenario I roll over in my head. … But you get the sense from movies-like Judd Apatow’s supposedly relatable Knocked Up-that a women’s job is just to HOLD those virile, roaming husbands down! Crazy. Not something I experience or see in ANY of my peers.”

Neither is there some male need for sexual variety that’s paramount over the female’s enjoyment, or potential enjoyment, of same. It’s female desire, above all, that is notoriously difficult to sustain in a long-term relationship (hence the “lesbian bed death” syndrome). As an observant friend of mine once noted, heterosexual men may be the only ones ideally suited to monogamy, anyway, since only they can reliably be turned on by anyone, even a long-term partner. When a woman’s desire for her husband wanes, it’s all too convenient to assume her sexuality itself has been put aside.

“I know a few women who are cheating/have cheated,” said Anna Holmes, until recently the editor of Gawker’s women-oriented site, Jezebel, over IM. “When I first heard about them, I was shocked-because even I somewhat bought into the narrative that ‘men cheat; women, not so much.'” She was also surprised to feel some “admiration” for these women. “I also think that women who cheat upend the narrative that the end goal is marriage. Because here they were, seemingly happily married-some of them, I believe were honestly HAPPILY MARRIED but restless-but it wasn’t enough. We’re always told that it’s enough.”

“My 20s in New York went like this: Most of the women around me continually beat themselves up in the pursuit of male attention-myself included!-we felt like passive players in our own romantic and sexual lives,” Ms. Holmes tippety-tapped. “‘Cheating,’ for better or worse, is not really passive. So when I say I felt a strange sense of admiration, what I mean is that I saw women who had previously played second-bit roles in their own romantic and sexual stories take charge. This isn’t to say that you have to cheat to ‘take charge’-simply that by the time we hit our 30s, most of us were married, and so for one of us to unashamedly look elsewhere for sexual or emotional companionship-on our own terms-felt revolutionary.”