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The Last Frontier in the Culture Wars?

The Return of Infidelity

by DAVID ROSEN

America is back to normal.  After the hard fought 2012 election, there is something almost reassuring about the news that two powerful boy-toys, CIA Director David Petraeus and Lockheed Martin’s incoming CEO, Chris Kubasik, were forced to resign due to extramarital sexual affairs.

There’s something about men with power: they just can’t keep their zippers zipped.  Over the last couple of decades, the U.S. has been witness to wave after wave of infidelity scandals with considerable social power and position.

The 2012 election was a major rejection of the Christian right’s culture wars against the rights of woman to choose an abortion and use birth control and homosexual couples to marry.  It may also prove to be a pivotal event in the long war against public shaming of married people who commit infidelity, who violate the “sacrament” of monogamous marriage.

According to current estimates, more than half (53%) of first marriages end in divorce and more than half of men (57%) and women (54%) admit to committing infidelity in a relationship.

Clearly, far more is at stake in the Petraeus and Kubasik affairs.  While both incidents seem to have been voluntary and non-coercive, other concerns are at issue.  With the former, national security might have been violated; with the latter, corporate employment policies were breached.  Both are firing offenses for the male honchos involved.

But both incidents point to deeper changes remaking personal relations and marriage.  Once out of the spotlight, each man will need to work through the bitterness and humiliation felt by their respective wives.  How this is resolved in a private, personal matter.

Surprising, nearly a third (31%) of marriages survive after an affair has been revealed.  This many well be another sign that the culture wars is internally eroding in the face of widespread belief that people have a right to personal privacy.

* * *

In the late ‘80s, revelations about the illicit sex lives of two holier-then-thou preachers, Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart, captured the nation’s attention.  Both were charismatic televangelists, happily married family men with large followings.  They proved that temptation lurks even in the cloistered confines of the church.  (The recent outing of the Christian right heartthrob Dinesh D’Souza, president of the evangelical King’s College, shows that sexual temptation is alive and well among the holier-then-thou.)

A decade later, the sex scandals that culminated in the Impeachment of Bill Clinton, and led by the grand moral hypocrite and multiple extramarital deceiver, Knut Gingrich, showed that sex scandal could reach the highest levels of government.  The more recent outings of a number of male politicians for sexting, most nobably Congressmen Chris Lee and Anthony Weiner, seem almost pathetic in comparison.

The revelations about the illicit affaires involving two leading macho military and corporate bureaucrats, Petraeus and Kubasik, suggest just how extensive the sexual abuse of power must be throughout corporate and military-industrial America.

Petraeus’ affair was with his biographer, a female West Point graduate and former service-member.  In a letter of resignation, Petraeus declared: “After being married for over 37 years, I showed extremely poor judgment by engaging in an extramarital affair.  Such behavior is unacceptable, both as a husband and as the leader of an organization such as ours.”   This is surely the death-knell to his oft-reported presidential ambitions.  Sadder still is the likely pain and humiliation the extramarital affair must be causing his wife, Holly Petraeus, who serves as assistant director for service-member affairs at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

Kubasik is reported to have been involved in a “lengthy, close personal relationship” with a subordinate at the nation’s largest military contractor and who has since left the company.  In a statement, he said:  “I regret that my conduct in this matter did not meet the standards to which I have always held myself.”

Over the last couple of years, there’s been a spate of corporate honchos outed for illicit dalliances.  Earlier this year, the two top dogs at Best Buy, the founder, Richard Schulze, and the then-CEO, Brian Dunn, were forced out after revelations about affairs with female employees.

In 2010, HP’s then-CEO Mark Hurd resigned after he was found innocent of sexually harassing a former female consultant, but that he falsified expense reports incurred with the woman.  In 2007, BP’s then-CEO, John Browne, was forced out because he lied in court about a four-year relationship with his Canadian boyfriend.  And not to be undone, in 2005, Lockheed’s competitor Boeing ousted its then-CEO Harry Stonecipher for having an affair with an employee.

Sadly, the dalliances by Petraeus and Kubasik, let alone the other execs, reveal something pathetic about today’s official sexual culture.  It’s easy for married people to have affairs, more than half of married men and women admit to engaging in them.

More troubling, if, as media reports indicate, Petraeus’ biographer compromised classified emails or other information, much more then sex and personal intimacy were involved.  This is what the FBI will determine.  While this does not seem the case in Kubasik’s situation, male executives are all-too-often in the position to use their corporate power to coerce female employees into sexual relations in order to keep their jobs.

* * *

The U.S. has a long and distinguished history of sexual scandal involving men of power and privilege.  Putting aside presidents and preachers, the good-old days of America’s past suggest both more taudry and grander spectacles of sexual infidelity that make the Petraeus and Kubasik affairs seem so banal.

The adulterous affair and blackmail scheme involving Alexander Hamilton, the secretary of the treasure in 1791, makes Clinton’s indiscretions with Monica Lewinsky oh so pathetic.  Hamilton’s adulterous affair was, as his biographer, Ron Chernow, notes a “sexual obsession.”

While living in Philadelphia with his wife and children, Hamilton was approached by a young damsel in distress.  She claimed to be a New Yorker, recently relocated to the nation’s capital and was so seductive that Hamilton agreed to visit her at her home that evening.  After having sex, he left money for her.  Thus began a sexual liaison that lasted over two years, ending in a blackmail scheme that compromised America’s Secretary of the Treasury.  He was, as Chernow states, “conned by a pair of lowlife tricksters,” Maria and James Reynolds.

This does not compare to the grandest American sex scandal of the 20th century.  It linked the ingénue damsel, Evelyn Nesbit, with the millionaire playboy Harry Kendall Thaw and the famed architect Stanford White.

Thaw had a particular predilection for very young teenage girls, what psychiatrists today call an ephebophilia.  He is reported to have spent $40,000 “in an establishment of unorthodox sex.” Operating under the pseudonym of Professor Reid, he advertised in newspaper for the training of young girls, age 15 to 17, enticing prospects with a possible stage career.  Using a whip, he raised welts on their naked bodies, paying generously for the privilege.  In 2006, he married the starlet Nesbit.

As a teenager, Nesbit was a model for the celebrated artist Charles Dana Gibson and became famous as the “Gibson Girl,” the quintessential expression of turn-of-the-century virginal beauty. After their marriage, Thaw was shocked, shocked, to learn that his bride had been involved in pre-marital indiscretions and, in true patriarchal fashion, he blamed White for taking advantage of – i.e., deflowering — her.

Rumors circulated that White had lured the impressionable Nesbit to a secret hideaway he had at New York’s Madison Square Garden where he allegedly raped her.  It all came to a head in a shoot-out at the Garden’s roof garden on June 25, 1906, when Thaw killed White.

Ah, those were the grand days of sex scandal.  Something has been lost and gained as the yoke of Christian morality is loosened and the tryanny of patriarchy eased.  Rarely if ever will a man (let alone a woman) be blackmailed engaging an affair or shoot their nemeses.

In our more rational times, two-thirds of marriages break-up after an affair is discovered.  But for the one-third of couples that stay together, honestly addressing the sexual and emotion temptation that an affair represents may neutralize the stigma of infidelity and help strengthen the couples commitment to one another.

David Rosen writes the “Media Current” blog for Filmmaker and regularly contributes to AlterNet, Huffington Post and the Brooklyn Rail.  For more information, check out www.DavidRosenWrites.com; he can be reached at drosennyc@verizon.net.