I have tried to imagine what a complete history of sexuality would look like. One could look at the history from the point of view of emotions, of biology, of custom and culture, the changes over the centuries, what emerged in various countries, one could even trace the evolutionary roots, imagine pan and look at the bonobos and the chimps, and try to guess what happened when, and how the lines diverged. And there is the question of where we are going.
What is clear is that marriage has been important to all human societies for as long as we have written or verbal information to track, and yet marriage everywhere, at all times, has been shadowed by infidelity, which is just as pervasive as the craving for loyalty.
Mistresses, it seems, are everywhere. One U.K. reviewer was startled to find the painful story of the end of her own first marriage on page four of my book. Bel Mooney’s husband, British radio present Jonathan Dimbleby, suddenly plunged into a dramatic and obsessive affair with the magnificent soprano, Susan Chilcott, who was terminally ill with cancer. Against her anguished pleas that her very new lover consider his own well-being and not ruin his life for her, Dimbleby vowed to care for her until she died, and moved in with her and her little son. “I still do not adequately understand the intensity of passion and pity that animated my decision,” he said later. “It felt like an unstoppable force.” Yet he also “felt absolutely torn” about being away from Bel and their decades-long, happy marriage.
Less than three months after her last public performance, playing Desdemona and singing sorrowfully, her voice rising to a crescendo, “Ch’io viva ancor, ch’io viva ancor!” (Let me live longer, let me live longer!) Susan died. But a grieving Jonathan did not return to Bel and their tattered marriage unravelled into divorce.
My retelling of their story, Bel wrote, “was a reminder that there are no easy generalisations about this subject.” But she did offer this perspective: “I admit to a suspicion that most men are susceptible to temptation. Show me a loyal husband and I’ll show you one who’s never had a real opportunity to stray.”
Well, not all loyal husbands lack opportunity, but as Bel Mooney’s personal experience suggests, opportunity is all too often irresistible. Remember when President Clinton was under attack for his relationship with intern Monica Lewinsky? We discovered later that as Reverend Jesse Jackson piously counseled and prayed for Clinton, he was also cheating on his wife with a mistress who was carrying his child. And Clinton’s self-righteous prosecutor, Newt Gingrich, was secretly pursuing a passionate relationship with Callista Bisek, whom he married after divorcing his wife, Marianne.
Both Jackson and Gingrich mistook the waning years of the 20th century for an earlier era, when mistressdom was the familiar handmaiden of marriage. That was clear when Jackson’s mistress, lawyer Karin Stanford, successfully sued him for child support. After millennia of protecting marriage by bastardizing the offspring of mistresses, indeed even making it difficult for men to recognize and provide for their “outside” children, our new laws essentially “outlaw” the concept of illegitimacy; they also demand parental accountability. Gingrich made another kind of mistake: he gambled on keeping his affair a secret but six years into it, he got caught. The values of the media world were also changing, and the man who had been angling to run for president on a platform of “family values” had to settle for divorcing his wife so he could marry his mistress.
The values of the media world were also changing, and the man who had been angling to run for president on a platform of “family values” had to settle instead for divorcing his wife so he could become his mistress’s new husband.