Global Adultery Hooks Up With American Guilt

By Pamela Druckerman
The Penguin Press, 291 pages, $24.95

“It’s not the cheating, it’s the lying”—or so goes our national post-affair mantra. But of course, it’s the cheating. The cheating is the lying, as much as it’s the sex. (If you aren’t lying, you’re not cheating: You’re swinging.) We know the distinction between the physical act of sex and the illocutionary act of lying is false, yet this is the first line in the last act of every American domestic tragedy. It’s what betrayed spouses are supposed to say when confronted with their wayward partners, and it sets the stage for scenes filled with apology, contrition and, oddly, the detailed recitation of each liaison. It’s like this everywhere, right?

Lust in Translation: The Rules of Infidelity from Tokyo to Tennessee, former Wall Street Journal reporter Pamela Druckerman’s witty, engaging exploration of comparative infidelity, answers this question with an emphatic No. Every country has its adulterers—some more than others—but each culture’s cuckoldry has a flair all its own.

“Infidelity,” Ms. Druckerman writes, “isn’t just ubiquitous, it’s revealing.” From the status-anxious cafés of the Upper East Side to Moscow’s bureaucratic institutes of sexology to the stimulacra of Tokyo’s “pervert trains,” she exposes styles of infidelity as varied as the names used to describe them—“going strange,” “pinching the cat in the dark,” “a tied-up mare eats, too,” “standing in two boats at once.” Ms. Druckerman dramatizes the desire-driven lives of, among others, Williamsburg’s frustrated Hasidim, Indonesia’s bored wives and the torpid yi lais who inhabit China’s concubine villages.

Variations in styles of cheating make sense, but why would one culture, say Russia, breed more cheaters than others, like France? Although more entertainment than analysis, Lust offers a compelling if incomplete answer to this riddle: money. “The key factor of infidelity is living in a poor country,” she writes. The emphasis here is on poor countries, not people. The wealthy cheat as much or more than their fellow citizens, but countries with lower standards of living have higher rates of infidelity.

Ms. Druckerman is less amusing when the topic is South Africa, where infidelity promotes serial transmission of H.I.V. That the story of a country so ravaged by AIDS shares space in a book that revels in the novelty fact that one South African survey distinguished between those who cheat and those who cheat “while drunk” is bad enough. But to write “South Africans [by which the author means black South Africans] would rather die than be monogamous” is insulting and patently absurd.

Lust in Translation presents itself as cosmopolitan, but the book’s heart remains true to the U.S.A. According to Ms. Druckerman’s numbers, Americans cheat about as much as other First World nations. We just don’t deal well with the consequences. Only in America, where the taboo of adultery transcends otherwise impervious political and economic divides, do people so completely separate the act of sex from the attempt to cover it up; and only in America do people demand absolute disclosure about their affairs upon discovery.

These stock American reactions to the discovery of an affair aren’t natural: They are the received wisdom of the Marriage Industrial Complex, Ms. Druckerman’s name for the constellation of self-help books, recovery groups and marriage therapists that have multiplied since the 1970’s, the golden age of American divorce. The confrontations, “cry-talks” and demoralizing feelings of guilt demanded by our conventional wisdom create an intimacy that couples rarely experience. As a result, Ms. Druckerman finds herself interviewing spouses devastated by affairs—photos shredded, guns pointed, police called—who nevertheless wax nostalgic about their shared suffering.

Insights such as these into America’s twisted affair with adultery make Lust in Translation undeniably alluring. Global Adultery Hooks Up With American Guilt