Monday, November 19, 2012

The Petraeus Affair: Infidelity, Beauty, and Scapegoating

The sex lives of public figures bore me. Rather, the sex lives of public figures interest me no more than that of, say, my dentist. My view on sex is generally pretty solipsistic: If it’s not me having the sex in question, I don’t particularly care about it, and I don’t understand why anyone besides those directly affected would.

So I didn’t pay much attention to the David Petraeus scandal—at least, not until I read this excellent piece by Meghan Daum that questions the mandate of beauty in high-profile women. The article draws upon Petraeus’s wife, Holly, and the flurry of nasty comments in the “chattersphere” about how one could hardly blame Petraeus for sleeping with his attractive biographer, given that Mrs. Petraeus dared to look like a middle-aged woman who doesn’t pay homage to the beauty industry at every opportunity. "If it's no longer shocking that a powerful man would have an affair with a younger, worshipful woman,” writes Daum, “it is a little shocking that the wife of that powerful man, nerdish as he is, would thwart the beauty industrial complex quite so vigorously.”

Daum’s larger point—that we need to eliminate the double standard dictating that accomplished women like Olympia Snowe, Dianne Feinstein, and Nancy Pelosi must pay attention to conventional beauty standards while their male counterparts can eschew them—is one that needs to be made, repeatedly, until things change. (Remember the hubbub when Hillary Clinton had the audacity to speak at a news conference without makeup?) But what’s interesting to me is something Daum acknowledges in her article: Save for a smattering of comments-section trolls, nobody is publicly suggesting that Holly Petraeus’s low-key, glamour-free looks are to blame for Petraeus’s infidelity. Yet the piece hinged upon that very idea, and the piece gained traction because we all quietly understand the game of pin-the-blame-on-the-gray-haired-woman. Save for an ugly little post from Mediabistro, a bizarro article about how all the women involved in the scandal could use a makeover, and the aforementioned comment-section trolls, the only mention of Holly Petraeus’s looks I could find by poking around online comes from...well, Meghan Daum, and people rightfully echoing her point. Few people are trying to suggest that Holly Petraeus’s gray hair is responsible for her husband’s dick falling into another woman—but we get the idea anyway, even when it’s not spoken aloud.

If we’re collectively too kind to snark at a pained woman who has been publicly humiliated, we’re not above raising our eyebrows when the betrayed wife is conventionally beautiful. “If Tiger Woods could cheat on Swedish model Elin Nordegren, what chance do other women have?” cried the Examiner. “Beauties and the beasts,” blared the New York Post after Tony Parker cheated on Eva Longoria. There’s a certain freedom to say it when a beautiful woman has been betrayed, because we’re ostensibly championing the woman; we’re reassuring her that the dude must be cray-cray to cheat on her, because she’s hot, and it’s too bad that her insurance policy of being good-looking had a loophole for infidelity. A loophole that an estimated 22% of married men have exploited at some point, sure, but never mind the 1-in-4 odds at play, right? Those odds are “supposed” to fall in the favor of the Eva Longorias of the world—at the expense of the Holly Petraeuses—and though both parties gain our sympathy, only one of them garners a head-scratching “huh?”

There are all sorts of problems with that mind-set, starting with the insulting idea that good looks are all that wives can count on to keep their husbands faithful (note that while plenty of pieces on Holly Petraeus highlight her striking accomplishments on behalf of military families, none of them suggest her husbands is nutso for cheating on her because of those accomplishments). But deconstructing the idea doesn’t answer the fundamental question of why we’re so eager to tie appearance to infidelity.

I can’t help but think that maybe we want beauty and cheating to be linked. Because if they’re not, the statistics on infidelity are just too depressing. I remember confiding in a friend after a man I loved cheated on me. She was sympathetic, but a part of her response continues to flit around in my mind years after the fact: That’s just how men are, she said. She wasn’t trying to say it was “natural,” but rather that in her experience, men were simply eager to cheat, so I couldn’t take it personally. Let’s say for a moment that she was right—that men just cheat, end of story. It’s awful to think that a man might cheat on you because someone more attractive came along. But it’s worse to think that he cheated just because. Because then the logical fallout is that since he cheated just because, every man cheats, so you’d better learn to either adopt a laissez-faire attitude about the whole thing or get used to losing your dignity on a regular basis, because this is just how it’s going to be.

Accepting that notion would undermine the entire idea of monogamy, which, in this culture, is how we construe commitment. So we refuse it, and we seek a scapegoat for infidelity—and what better scapegoat than something that has already instilled in plenty of people a sense of insecurity, futility, and self-abasement? Beauty, along with its surrounding pressures and expectations, comes in mighty handy here. It makes me think about how often beauty and appearance are used as a scapegoat for other issues, and indeed how rigid we are with the narrative arc of women’s relationship with our looks (woman feels bad about body, woman works to come to peace with it, all is well—which is a fine tale, except it sets an expectation that women are displeased with their bodies, leaving little room for those who might not fall prey to that narrative).

It’s not often that I’m going to argue in this space that beauty is irrelevant; the entire thesis of this blog is that personal appearance becomes relevant to pretty much everything. And that’s not what I’m arguing, not exactly, not least because none of us have any way of knowing exactly why David Petraeus slept with Paula Broadwell—or why any person, anywhere, has cheated on someone they’re ostensibly committed to. (It’s something you often hear from philanderers themselves: I don’t know why I did it, I don’t know what came over me, The whole thing was stupid.) But I will argue that beauty is more relevant to the discussion of infidelity, and to how we make sense of infidelity, than it ever is to infidelity itself, which is why, as Daum points out, “assiduous gym rats with nary a gray hair get cheated on.”

In fact, there’s further evidence of this in the Petraeus case: Since I only paid cursory attention to the story yet kept seeing photos of Jill Kelley everywhere, I assumed that she was Petraeus’s lover. It actually wasn’t until I started researching this piece that I saw a picture of Broadwell, his actual paramour. As a long-haired Lebanese-American socialite usually photographed in bright, tailored dresses, Kelley has more photogenic glamour than an academic from Bismarck who favors a severe hairstyle. Bluntly put, Kelley looks the part of the stereotypical homewrecker more than Broadwell does—which is, I’m guessing, a large part of why her visage, not Broadwell’s, has become one of the iconic images burned into the public mind in regards to this affair. We want a fall gal, and Kelley makes a good one (especially given that she committed adultery as well, just not with the main figure involved here).

The sooner we stop gaping, wide-eyed, when we see men have affairs behind the backs of their beautiful wives, the sooner we can truly start leaving the low-maintenance betrayed wives like Holly Petraeus alone. And the sooner we can do both of those things, maybe we’ll come just a hair closer to understanding why we place such importance on an institution so many people flout—with lovers beautiful and plain, glamorous and mousy, younger and older. Perhaps with practice we’ll even come a little closer to fixing it.


  1. It's an age-old question, for sure: why do men cheat on their beautiful partners? In my opinion, the answer is that human beings didn't evolve to be sexually monogamous. In fact, most animals, even the ones that pair bond, are not sexually monogamous. I think until we, as a culture, get really comfortable talking about sexuality--male AND female--we're going to continue to wring our hands over cheating men. Beauty may be sexy, but novelty is also very sexy.

    (I might be a tiny bit biased--my own research is on female sexual behavior, in fruit flies of all things! But I think there are probably some interesting parallels between humans and flies, not the least of which is that a big part of human female sexuality is being receptive to sexual advances. And receptivity almost certainly has biological correlates that we don't understand well at all.)

    1. Rosiecat, how fascinating! The idea of receptivity having biological correlates is so intriguing--I like the idea of there being some sort of explanation that can be compatible with something more active than female passivity.

      Re: monogamy, logically and intellectually I too believe it's not a part of our evolution, but on a personal level I don't think I could reconcile myself to a non-monogamous relationship. I would love to see a rethinking of partnership that normalized non-monogamy--but I'm not interested in being one of its pioneers! Too invested in the entrenched ways of thinking at this point. (Though I'm pretty much a serial monogamist, i.e. always the woman with a boyfriend, which I've heard described as a form of non-monogamy because it's not "mating for life." Hmmm.)

    2. Hi Autumn! Thanks for your response--I love that you write back to your commenters.

      Regarding monogamy, I totally understand your perspective. I actually tend toward celibacy myself, which is ironic given what I study! But I learned through experience that while I tend to be monogamous when I am partnered, I am okay with having a non-monogamous partner. I love what I learned from that relationship and still care very deeply for that person.

      But it does make me sad that when we talk about "cheating men," we seem to have a knee-jerk response to it. Men's sexuality is complex--it's not just about a partner's physical beauty, or novelty, or even sex drive. We expect so much of men and women in marriages that it seems to leave little room for flexibility or negotiation. I'm not saying what Petraeus did was right--I think he violated the military code of ethics by sleeping with someone other than his wife in a war zone, yes?--but my feeling is that a system that demands perfect behavior is bound to crack. Men cheat, and it sucks, but I wonder: even in monogamous relationships, are there ways to acknowledge men's sexuality that would open a sense of freedom and play? Culturally, could we adopt an attitude that lets each person decide, in his or her own partnership, how to handle a partner's infidelity? I feel like we don't have a very healthy script for dealing with betrayal, jealousy, insecurity, etc. Having a partner cheat on you sucks, I'm sure, but I think our cultural attitudes tend to compound the pain because we rarely hear good things about forgiveness and overcoming a betrayal.

    3. Rosie, ha, after you comment on how you like that I respond to commenters this then languishes in my inbox for months! Just wanted to say that I would love to see this mind-set be out there in a larger sense. I mean, I'm guessing that the reason I'm not okay with non-monogamy is because of what it signifies in our culture--that it's a reflection on me, or on my partner's commitment (or my own), not a reflection of, as you put it, simply not adhering to what does amount to perfect behavior in this area. I wouldn't listen to that as an excuse from a partner now, but if it were the cultural norm and I understood more innately what it was about? Yes, that would be okay. As you put it, the cultural attitudes we have around it compound the pain.

  2. You know what? Why do men cheat? Why does anyone cheat? Because they're not happy with what they have, for men this is usually sex, for women it's usually emotional intimacy. Partners who are stereotypically beautiful are certainly able to sustain unfulfilling relationships devoid of intimacy and care. Isn't it a possibility that Petraeus and Tiger cheated on their spouses because they were unsatisfied, and it has nothing to do with the beauty quotient of the betrayed spouse?

    1. Well, of course, which is...the point of this entire post.

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