The infidelity scandal involving generals Petraeus and Allen has focused on how and why powerful men cheat on their wives.
Even on days when infidelity isn’t dominating news headlines, it seems there are endless magazine covers or old Oprah reruns on the same subject.
The focus is invariably on why men cheat, and advice for how women can keep men from straying. When the description “cheater” is used, the mental image is usually, unfairly, male.
But women cheat too. All the time. And children are often innocent, overlooked victims of both male and female adulterers. Why is our society so determined to focus on men who cheat, instead of people who do, and the damage they cause?
There are two married female cheaters — moms with young children– in the current headlines. There are two husbands, and five children, behind them. Paula Broadwell, who admitted to an affair with General David Petraeus, is married to Dr. Scott Broadwell and has two young sons with him. Jill Kelley, rumored to be a rival for Petraeus’ affection (at least in Broadwell’s eyes) is linked to General John R. Allen; she is a 37-year-old Tampa socialite, married for 14 years to Florida cancer surgeon Dr. Scott Kelley, with whom she has three young daughters.
According to 2012 statistics from the Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 57% of men and 54% of women admit to cheating at some point in their lives. Within marriage, 22% of husbands say they have strayed, versus 14% of wives. So the stereotypes are somewhat justified. Men cheat more frequently, at least after marriage; but women clearly do too.
Jill Kelley and Paula Broadwell are young, attractive, wealthy and powerful in their own realms, whether it is the Tampa social circuit or West Point alumni circles. They are both financially secure and clearly independent minded. American women of earlier Cave Men and Mad Men generations risked their economic independence, social status, custody of their children, and sometimes their survival if they cheated.
Today’s gender equality means that Broadwell and Kelley had far less to lose by cheating (although my aside is that losing the trust of the person you are married to, and your children, outstrips all other losses; that’s why it’s called cheating).
I grew up in the 1960s and 70s hearing the common sexist justification for men who cheat: they’re men. It was that simple. Men were driven to cheat by sex drives that dwarfed women’s, and by overwhelming biological impulses to impregnate a range of different females. The women “preying” on married men were single or divorced, heavily perfumed and made-up. They were childless, heartless gold-diggers who wept at home, drunk and alone, during Thanksgiving and Christmas when their paramours put their families first. Little attention was paid to children hurt by a cheating parent. I never once heard of a married woman, a mother, who dared to cheat.
In fact, I’ve never heard any explicit justification or mythologies for why women cheat. Female cheaters apparently don’t make enticing fodder for ESPN or the cutlines of Men’s Journal, Maxim or Fish ‘N Stream. But come on — are women really so different from men? Is selfishness determined by gender? Maybe we avoid discussing female adultery because the subject embarrasses and humiliates men. But then where does this silence leave the husbands who’ve been cheated on? And the children involved?
Maybe infidelity has nothing to do with gender. Maybe more women cheat today simply because they can. Maybe sexual equality includes equal opportunity to betray loved ones. Or maybe women have always cheated – discreetly – and we’re just hearing more about them today.
While the news articles hash and rehash details about Paula’s 13% body fat and Jill’s yellow dress, and the generals they were entangled with, my questions veer to the spouses and children left in the debris. What is Scott Kelley doing right now? Scott Broadwell? How are they going to recover from this scandal? Where are Jill and Paula’s young children? What have their parents told them, if anything, about where mom is and what she did to dad?
In other words, what’s happening behind the scenes, outside the Senate conference rooms, beyond the newsrooms? It’s not just the big-shot generals and the objects of their affection whose lives have been destroyed. What is happening to the innocent bystanders, the families behind the headlines?
It is, technically, none of our business. Many folks argue none of this scandal is any of our business. Although adultery is technically a crime in some outdated state legislatures, and against military ethics codes of conduct, none of these dalliances will ever be punished, legally at least. After all, the parties were all consenting adults…right?
Not from where I sit, as a twice-married wife and mother of three. The spouses and children affected had no say in the choice to cheat. It may not be the public’s business, but it is still wrong on far more important levels – because the damage goes deeper than laws and rules and ruined careers. We may never hear about the pain felt by the husbands and wives and children who have been betrayed. That doesn’t mean it’s not there. Even if it’s not captured by any headline, it will be in their hearts, forever.