It happened again. A man in power developed a case of chronic wardrobe malfunction. The leader of the organization that is “the nation’s first line of defense,” the Central Intelligence Agency, couldn’t even manage to defend himself against the temptation of an affair with his biographer.
Since news of CIA Director David Petraeus’ extramarital affair with Paula Broadwell broke just after the election, reactions have run the gamut from utter outrage at the trusted official’s adultery to incredulity that a mere infidelity should warrant the resignation of a promising government official. I find myself somewhere in the middle—given the history of infidelity among powerful men, I am not surprised by Gen. Petraeus’ affair. If anything, I’m disappointed he couldn’t keep his relationship secret. In fact, he and Broadwell apparently decided to end their affair just after the FBI began investigating harassing emails sent by Broadwell to Jill Kelley, a friend of the Petraeus family. However, the fact that I was not shocked by the news does not mean I would subscribe to the sort of open marriage Philip Weiss proposes in New York Magazine.
Weiss laments the demonization of infidelity in American society and advocates for the adoption of the European blasé attitude toward adultery. He argues that evolutionary psychology teaches us that monogamy is not natural—“men’s genes program them to seek many mates and try to monopolize the reproductive lives of those mates.” Further, women are apparently programmed to “monopolize the economic resources of their mate.” I see two problems with this view.
First, since when do we consider embracing our most basic instincts an efficient way to further the interests of society? Functioning members of society are required to restrain their primal impulse to physically attack anyone who makes them angry, to do work that they don’t necessarily find satisfying or important and to limit the satisfaction of sexual urges. If we lived by instinctive impulse alone, we would probably enjoy a lifestyle similar to that of the Hadza people, a hunter-gatherer tribe in Tanzania.
I do not mean to devalue the traditions of the Hadza people. Rather, I argue that you can’t have the best of both worlds. You can’t expect to enjoy the luxuries of a high-power career, attained after years of diligent and honest work within the context of a capitalist society, and also gratify yourself whenever desire raises its primal head. I also recognize that we no longer live in a society where pre-marital sex is the greatest imaginable danger to the stability of civilization, a society where a woman must remain in the home to allow men to focus their energy on productive activities. However, our society does, at least superficially, still value honesty and dedication to one’s career.
Second, the idea that men are destined to spread their seed as widely as possible and that women are destined cling onto their mates for dear life contradicts the extraordinary advancement of women in the workplace over the past couple decades. If women are really supposed to be so focused on just finding a mate and clinging to them for dear life, why would any woman have enough mental energy left to become more educated than the average American man and to be more successful in athletics than her male counterpart? Further, the theories of evolutionary psychology are retrospective. In other words, concepts are based on evaluations of what has made societies successful in the past. Given that women were only recognized as full citizens in the U.S. with the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920 and that the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act only passed the Senate in 2009, it is hardly surprising that history would favor men as spreaders of seed and women as clingers.
The evolutionary justification for the inevitability of infidelity is also founded in a research method that identifies other adaptive behaviors that we now consider taboo. For example, evolutionary psychology proposes that humans evolved as members of small groups competing for scarce resources. Given the importance of gaining access to those resources, the “fittest” groups were able to more effectively identify the other, the non-member, as an enemy, and behave accordingly to incapacitate or eliminate that threat. According to this methodology, we would find an evolutionary justification for racism. That an individual human might be naturally inclined to eliminate and/or subjugate all those who are unlike him or herself does not translate into a justification for racism. In the United States, children are taught from a very young age that all men are created equal, and that “men” includes women, too.
So what do we do with Petraeus’ infidelity? Advocate honesty. If you want to embrace your primal sexual urges and stray outside the bounds of a monogamous relationship, go ahead. But be honest. Just because centuries of powerful men have cheated and gotten away with it doesn’t mean we should continue that trajectory. Primal impulse is no excuse.
Joline Doedens is a first-year law student. Her column runs every other Monday. You can follow Joline on Twitter @jydoedens.