Thursday, March 29, 2007

book review: Lust in Translation

Having affairs

International relations
Mar 29th 2007
From The Economist print edition

AMERICANS do it guiltily, Russians casually, Africans lethally and the French habitually. Stereotypes about adultery are as common as research about it is flaky. So Pamela Druckerman's thoughtful and myth-busting study of infidelity deserves to be widely translated and read.

A former Wall Street Journal reporter, Ms Druckerman likes hard facts. So before getting into the tricky questions of guilt and complicity she tries to find an international adultery league table. That proves amazingly difficult. There are bogus surveys galore—she takes commendable swipes at Alfred Kinsey and Shere Hite—but very little based on proper, probability-weighted samples, and even fewer international comparisons.

Ms Druckerman finally unearths some unpublished data collected as part of AIDS research at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. The most adulterous countries in the world are African. In Togo 37% of married or cohabiting men say they have had another sexual partner in the past 12 months. The most uxorious are probably Switzerland (3%) and Australia (2.5%).

In Japan she, like many outsiders, is baffled by the contrast between a gooey sentimentality about romance, and the sexlessness and distance of many Japanese marriages. It has its drawbacks, especially for women, but doesn't do much harm, she concludes. Her finely calibrated moral compass is matched by a reporter's knack for deft, understated description. She dryly recounts a visit to a sex club that is done up like a crowded subway train, where the customers pay for the privilege of being able to grope the female “commuters”.

Americans, she reckons, are a bit neurotic about adultery; in other countries it counts as a regrettable lapse, but not necessarily an unforgivable act of heinous betrayal. By contrast, in France, where she lives, people find it reprehensible that Americans actually discuss the point when dating turns monogamous; until then they casually juggle several suitors at once. The French are faithful during courtship; their marriages and liaisons last longer than Americans' do. Fidelity is rated as the top quality that Frenchwomen look for in a man; for men it comes second after “tenderness”. On the whole, though, they are tolerant of infidelity when it happens.

Her conclusion: people in rich countries value monogamy and tend not to stray often. In America, however, “adultery crises last longer, cost more, and seem to inflict more emotional torture.” Americans are so guilt-ridden, she writes, that they don't even enjoy what should be the pleasurable bit. Better, she reckons, to take a lesson from the French, who believe that monogamy is optimal, enjoy the lapses when they happen but try not to escalate them, and never, ever, confront a spouse for cheating.

Lust in Translation: The Rules of Infidelity from Tokyo to Tennessee
By Pamela Druckerman

Penguin Press; 291 pages; $24.95

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