Americans: Adultery Still Wrong

Go, and sin no more."

Like Jesus in the biblical story of the woman caught in adultery, most Americans think marital infidelity is wrong - but forgivable.

But whether it involves one's own life or that of a public figure looked to for leadership, the issue means far more than simply deciding whether to hurl or to drop the stone of accusation.

As public discussion intensifies on the nature of President Clinton's relationship with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky - a discussion shadowed by earlier charges and admissions involving Mr. Clinton's personal life - it raises profound questions of character and conduct both publicly and privately. At the base of most of these questions is the prohibition against adultery found in virtually all religious doctrine.

Today's headlines about the White House are part of a contextual drama that includes many recent characters and episodes touched by the Seventh Commandment: Sportscasters Frank Gifford and Marv Albert, political consultant Dick Morris, and Air Force bomber pilot Kelly Flinn and Gen. Joseph Ralston - whose stories helped lead to new Defense Department rules about "fraternization" and adultery.

And then there are all the broadcast confessionals of illicit sex - most of them involving some kind of infidelity - that now are part of talk-show TV fare.

"An alien tied up and forced to watch America's daytime talk shows might conclude it's all our society ever thinks about, and that when it comes to sexual interaction, anything goes," observes Frank Newport, editor in chief of the Gallup Poll.

Which may be why Defense Secretary William Cohen, in explaining the armed services' relatively stringent rules involving adultery (it's a violation of the Uniform Code of Military Justice), felt it necessary to deny that "the military is preaching Victorian values in the age of Aquarius."

Strict standards

"Anything goes" certainly does not describe the predominant American attitude toward sex - especially regarding marriage - according to many studies over the years.

"Americans strongly adhere to a normative standard which says it is wrong to cheat on one's spouse," the Gallup organization reported last December. "Specifically, 79 percent of the US public says that it is always wrong for a married person to have sexual relations with someone other than their marriage partner, with another 11 percent saying that it is 'almost always' wrong.

"That leaves only a small 6 percent who say that it is wrong only sometimes and just 3 percent who say that it is not wrong at all," the report continues.

And there appears to be no difference between generations regarding adultery. "Unlike most other areas of sexual conduct, this is one dimension on which young people are just as likely to agree as older Americans," according to Gallup.

The extent to which Americans personally adhere to such a standard - especially over a lifetime - is more difficult to gauge. This may be because most people view adultery as a lie itself (to one's spouse) and therefore relatively easy to lie about.

The National Opinion Research Center (NORC) at the University of Chicago found that 21 percent of the men and 11 percent of the women it interviewed admitted to having had at least one extramarital affair. But the same 1994 survey also showed that 90 percent of the men and 94 percent of the women believe sex outside of marriage is wrong.

This led NORC sociologists to conclude that the United States is "essentially monogamous," a country in which "each individual spends most of his or her life with only one partner."

Believing Clinton

So how does this square with the past marital difficulties that Clinton reportedly has acknowledged (an affair with Gennifer Flowers that he earlier denied), as well as with the growing public perception that Clinton is not telling the whole truth about his relationship with Lewinsky.

"Most Americans ... still think that even if what a President does in his private life is deplorable, it is his own business," historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. wrote in The New York Times this week.

Others point to a general feeling among many Americans that Washington officials, for better or for worse, operate in a different realm - one where "power is the ultimate aphrodisiac," as Henry Kissinger once put it.

Among many feminists, the issue with Clinton is not marital infidelity but sexual harassment. Gloria Steinem, founder of the National Women's Political Caucus and Ms. magazine, caused a recent stir when she suggested that Clinton seems to have understood that "No means no, yes means yes."

In other words, that his attentions were not forced on Lewinsky or any of the other women mentioned in conjunction with the scandal.

This brought a flurry of discussion, including University of California political scientist Gwendolyn Mink's rebuttal that "when power differences between the two people involved are extreme, consent counts for little."

And some observers note that the "stand by your man" attitude of presidential wives in such cases - from Florence Harding to Eleanor Roosevelt to Jacqueline Kennedy - affects public attitudes. A sign in a crowd recently greeting Clinton read: "If Hilary doesn't care, neither do we."

The president's popularity

This, no doubt, is one reason Clinton remains far more popular than special prosecutor Kenneth Starr, the man investigating whether the president had an adulterous affair and whether there was an illegal attempt to cover it up.

In any case, observes Mr. Schlesinger, "When [Americans] elected Clinton in 1992 and reelected him in 1996, they did not think they were sending a choir boy to the White House."

Put another way, Americans apparently accept that the man they elected president may not live up to the moral standards they hold for themselves. Asked to "compare your own personal standards with Clinton's standards" in a February NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, 69 percent of those surveyed said their standards were "higher" than Clinton's.

Whether this makes any difference at a time when political leaders of both parties are saying a full "mea culpa" by Clinton could avoid potential impeachment proceedings remains to be seen.

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