Pamela Druckerman’s Lust in Translation is light on research, heavy on anecdote, and a nonetheless entertaining book in its examination of the contradictory responses adultery raises. It’s wrong, unless you’re in love, in which case it’s okay; it’s wrong, unless you’re in a country that permits multiple marriages, in which case it’s not adultery; it’s right, because everyone does it, in which case it’s okay, unless it’s not. Some countries appear more opposed to adultery and commit more of it while other appear less opposed while committing less. Opportunity matters: affairs are easier to arrange in rich countries where people have access to hotels, cars, and so on, but many rich countries (like the United States) engaged in relatively little adultery. Most of all, examining adultery brings out contradictions on both individual and societal levels.
Druckerman says, “Outside America, people have their own ideas about whom to have an affair with, how obliged the parties are to each other, and even how the whole thing should end.” Ditto for inside America, which, like most places, actually has many sexual cultures, not few. Druckerman points out that in some situations, like baseball teams, the culture conspires to allow adultery. Some novels play this idea took; think of Désirée Zapp in David Lodge’s Changing Places, who says, “I’ve always wanted to be chaste. It’s been so nice these last few weeks, don’t you think, living like brother and sister? Now we’re having an affair like everybody else. How banal.” In Désirée’s academic world (the novel was published in 1975 and probably has its roots closer to 1970 or 1965), everyone was having, or seemed to be having, affairs (Malcolm Bradbury’s The History Man portrays a similar effect). Now, on the contrary, more academics appear to be leading the relatively tame sexual lives of businesspeople.
Unless they’re not. “They” could refer to businesspeople or academics. Today’s scandal de jour involves Mark Hurd, the former HP CEO, who didn’t get offed for adultery, but for falsifying company reports to try and hide the adultery. Tomorrow it will be someone else. Druckerman points out that American rhetoric about cheating often involves the lying being as bad or worse than the sex. That’s a rule she’s intuited through many conversations and some reading. It’s the kind of rule many people pick up:
Infidelity may seem like a secret, lawless realm, in which people make private decisions about how to behave. We learn the rules through, among other sources, stories and gossip about how affairs play out. These shared narratives defined what is ‘normal’ in each place and shape our expectations about what should happen to a couple in the course of a long marriage. Of course, no one’s life follows the rules exactly. The point is that everyone in a society knows what the rules are and where their own behavior stands in relation to the rules.
The question is, how many people know “what the rules are,” don’t like them, and want to change them? Probably a small number, and an even smaller number actively work to change them. Yet those few are where change comes from: Gay Talese might be on example, since Thy Neighbor’s Wife chronicles sexual change in America and implicitly endorses changing mores. Of course, since that book came out around 1980, and Lust in Translation came out in 2010, Talese’s book arguably hasn’t had the effect he might have intended.
Social scientists call these “rules” about any subject of human behavior “scripts,” which people implicitly learn from the culture around them. That we have imbibed scripts even for forbidden behavior shouldn’t surprise us: if the behavior is common enough to be forbidden and to have norms or laws prohibiting it, that behavior is also probably common enough to occur. Scripts change based on context. In Hooking Up: Sex, Dating, and Relationships on Campus, Kathleen Bogle describes how the hookup script operates on college campuses—the same campuses that were once in loco parentis and now are closer to “anything goes as long as no one complains.” To Bogle, women complain about the hookup culture but feel powerless to do anything about it; this seems odd to me because women are the choosers and men are the chosen.
Their Chinese counterparts probably feel the same way at times, to return to Druckerman:
China’s sexual revolution [since the introduction of market capitalism] is very contagious. I keep hearing stories about married Western men who, after working in China for a few months, decide that monogamy really isn’t for them. Peer pressure shapes a sexual culture. When everyone around you is saying that cheating is normal, and that you’re entitled to indulge yourself and no harm will come of it, it starts to sound like a good idea.
“It starts to sound like a good idea:” presumably everyone thinks what they are doing is a good idea, while what their neighbor is doing is wrong, and what the people on the other side of the world are doing is worst of all, especially if those people are women. The most common thread running through Lust in Translation is hypocrisy, although Druckerman doesn’t take pains to point that out and follow where it might lead. She’s a journalist for the Wall Street Journal, which shows; I would’ve liked the book to draw broader, deeper conclusions, to examine more research on sexuality and culture, and to look more at evolutionary biology. Regarding the last, Druckerman says that “I assume that people everywhere have roughly the same mix of biological urges. I want to know how people in different cultures channel those urges.” But you can only do so if you have a reasonably strong understanding of what those urges might be and how incentives alter them.
You’re mostly left to draw your own conclusions from Lust in Translation, but the book is easy enough to read that you can finish it in three hours and still have enough substance to change the way you think—if you want to. Lust in Translation suggests that you’re less likely to change how you think and more likely to find cunning ways of justifying what you do and castigating what thy neighbor does. It’s not just the American way, but a common method of dealing with life all around the world.