If the past three months are any indication, 2010 will be a red-letter year for marital infidelity—as in scarlet A for adultery. Between mistresses spilling their secrets and philanderers walking the new perp walk of shame, the age-old adultery script is being rewritten. If Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1850 novel, The Scarlet Letter, was published today, the scorned female protagonist would have a blog, a book deal, even a reality TV show. And that disgracing A she was forced to wear? It would be emblazoned on Reverend Dimmesdale, her higher-profile partner in sin.
This week, Tiger Woods, currently the prime attraction in the new Cheaters Hall of Shame, submitted himself to another round of atonement at the Masters before his return to the links. Fielding reporters’ questions, he admitted “what I’ve done has been terrible to my family” and spoke of the “pain and damage I’ve caused.” It was a reversal of his stance when news of his infidelity broke last November: “This is a private matter and I want to keep it that way,” he said after text messages intercepted by his wife, Elin Nordegren, led to him crashing his SUV outside their Florida house.
Then an unrelenting “mistress” cavalcade —15 at last count—revealed the world’s best golfer had turned his marriage into a public thruway: he risked bringing STDs home by having unprotected sex and, the ultimate indignity, he invited a porn star into his marital bed when Elin was away. The clichéd lines he used to lure them—his marriage was loveless, his wife didn’t like sex—only amplified the betrayal. Within weeks, Woods’s reputation as a stalwart family man and disciplined professional was in ruins. Not only had he violated his marital vows but, seemingly as grievously, he had sullied his public who’d bought into his carefully constructed clean-living image. In January, the golfer staged a televised press conference, at which his wife was visibly absent, to grovel. “I was unfaithful, I had affairs, I cheated,” he said. “What I did was unacceptable, and I am the only one to blame.” He then submitted to the requisite rehab for “sexual addiction.” By then the damage had been done: Elin had moved out with their two children, his commercial endorsements were evaporating, and he had spiralled from hero to laughingstock—from Tiger to “Cheetah.”
In a post-Clintonian era, you’d think adultery would be accepted as a fact of life, like death and taxes. High-profile marriages, prominently the Clintons’, survive it. A recent Associated Press survey claims infidelity is cited as the reason in only 17 per cent of divorces. Yet the stigma surrounding betraying a spouse is on the rise—so much so that a blackmailer last year tried to extort US$2 million from David Letterman to stay silent about the talk-show host’s long-term affair with an assistant. Last month, the New York Times branded biker and reality TV star Jesse James an “adulterous jerk” after he admitted he had put his marriage to beloved actress Sandra Bullock on the line by conducting an 11-month affair with a “tattoo model” who sold her story to a tabloid, which triggered another 10 women to come forth. Facing the firestorm, James borrowed from Woods’s playbook: “It’s because of my poor judgment that I deserve everything bad that is coming my way,” he said before checking into a treatment facility “to deal with personal issues” and to try to save his marriage.
Edward Shorter, a history professor at the University of Toronto, has dubbed the ritualistic shaming of adulterers the “New Puritanism.” “What has changed in the last half century is the fact private behaviour is seen as a proxy of public behaviour,” he says. “It wouldn’t have occurred to anyone to evaluate Kennedy’s effectiveness as a president by using his private morality as a measuring stick.” Not only men are subject to this metric, he notes: Iris Robinson, the 60-year-old Irish politician, and wife of Northern Ireland’s first minister, was forced to step down as an MP last year amid revelations she’d had an affair with a teenager. Even pro athletes whose affairs are legendary—even expected—aren’t exempt, says Shorter: “Woods’s leadership role to youth makes him vulnerable in a way sports heroes 50 years ago were not. Did Joe DiMaggio have affairs? Who knows? Who cared?”
Of course, DiMaggio lived decades before a celebrity-obsessed 24-hour news cycle chased stories broken by TMZ.com. Even the past decade has seen a dramatic shift in press coverage of marital infidelity. In 2000, the National Enquirer broke Rev. Jesse Jackson’s affair with an employee, a relationship that produced a child and raised questions of improper campaign spending.
Mainstream media coverage was minimal, as was public outrage. Jackson settled with the woman out of court, remained married, and returned to his perch as America’s go-to guy in a national moral emergency. Ten years later, the Enquirer is up for a Pulitzer for exposing John Edwards’s four-year affair with Rielle Hunter, a scenario that echoes Jackson’s. Only this time, the dalliance made international headlines, torpedoed the presidential candidate’s political career, proved the death knell for his marriage and now sees Edwards facing federal grand jury indictment—and jail time—for allegedly directing campaign funds to Hunter, who worked as a campaign “videographer.”
Edwards thought he could stage-manage the story as so many politicians before him had: he dismissed the first allegations in 2007 as “ridiculous,” adding: “I’ve been in love with the same woman for 30-plus years.” He even renewed his wedding vows with his cancer-stricken wife, Elizabeth, on their 30th anniversary in 2008. That was a month before the Enquirer published photographs of him meeting with Hunter and her baby girl at a hotel. Again, Edwards tried to spin it, sitting for a TV interview in which he admitted to an affair but denied paternity—a role assumed by his aide Andrew Young in another elaborate ruse. By the time Edwards admitted in January of this year that he was the father—and that his wife had filed for divorce—the spectacle had descended into farce and the only shocking aspect remaining was that the charade had been perpetuated for so long.
Yet the public appetite for details remains unsated. The more Hunter runs off at the mouth, the more Edwards seems the fool. An unrepentant Hunter broke her silence in a March GQ interview in which she gushed about “the force field” of her love with “Johnny,” revealed the couple had sex the day they met, took a few shots at Elizabeth Edwards and posed, scantily clad, for photos. There’s more to come: earlier this week, Oprah Winfrey announced she’d snagged Hunter’s first TV interview.
Part of the fascination, of course, is the window adultery provides into the mysteries of modern marriage. Historian Elizabeth Abbott, author of the 2003 book A History of Mistresses, observes that “mistressdom” has traditionally existed as a “parallel institution” to marriage. Now the rules of “mistressdom” are blurry and expectations mixed. “Feminism blew the classical kept mistress away,” says Shorter. “Women today are too active in the labour force.” Indeed, the word itself is archaic, summoning the image of a woman lolling on a chaise longue, not a $8-an-hour waitress at a chain restaurant. But that new reality is reflected in the May Vanity Fair, which profiles four of Woods’s “mistresses,” serving up more tawdry details, including Perkins waitress Mindy Lawton’s pathetic admission that the only thing Woods bought her was a Subway chicken-wrap sandwich.
In GQ, Hunter boasted that she was no “gold digger,” noting that she “could have cashed out big” for her story. Edwards had been “helping a little bit,” she says, but she wasn’t being taken care of or paid for the interview. “I have to work,” she said.
Just as the women’s movement transformed marriage into a more egalitarian institution based on love not necessity, it yielded an egalitarian, and thus newly dangerous, mistress who views herself an equal partner—even when it’s apparent she’s been intentionally selected from a lesser orbit, a hallmark of the mistress of yore. And that has resulted in a shift in the historical “double standard that condemns the errant woman more than her male partner in sin,” as Abbott put it.
While writing the book, Abbott observed a new mistress vigilante willing to spill details—for celebrity, for revenge, to stake a legal claim. The power balance has shifted. It’s the adulterer, not the mistress, who’s now seen as the home wrecker; he’s the one who betrayed his vows; he’s the one with everything to lose. Mistresses, on the other hand, have everything to gain, if only fleetingly—reflected in the emerging mistress celebrity complex. Rachel Uchitel’s notoriety in the Woods scandal won her a job on TV show Extra. Ex-prostitute Ashley Dupré, whose dalliance with now-former New York governor Eliot Spitzer resulted in his resignation, scored a gig as love and sex columnist for the New York Post. Sarah Symonds, a Brit who boasted of having a seven-year affair with celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay in 2008, even appeared on Oprah in 2007 shilling her how-to, Having An Affair? A Handbook for the Other Woman, based on her fling with shamed British top Tory and novelist Jeffrey Archer in the late 1990s. Ramsay was pilloried not only for jeopardizing his family-man reputation, but also for being so boneheaded to get involved with a woman famous for making a career, quite literally, of sleeping with other women’s husbands. Symonds represents the new mistress who makes her money post-affair, rather than while in it. But she’s also typical in aspiring to be more than just a casual sex partner. “I was his confidante—more than a mistress,” she said of Ramsay in the Daily Mail. “He even called me his ‘soulmate.’ ” Teary-eyed porn star Joslyn James spoke of her similar connection with Woods at a press conference she convened: “I loved him and he told me he loved me too,” she said.
Once spurned, the modern mistress refuses to hide as she would have 50 years ago. In January, YaVaughnie Wilkins took brazen measures to expose her eight-year relationship with Charles E. Phillips, the co-president of software giant Oracle and an Obama economic adviser, after he reconciled with his wife. The 41-year-old actress and writer bought prime billboard space in New York, Atlanta and San Francisco to plaster a photo of her and the 50-year-old Phillips under the banner “YaVaughnie & Charles” and “You are my soulmate forever—CEP” (Phillips’s initials).
Viewers were directed to a website filled with romantic photos, intimate notes, even a ticket stub to the Obama inauguration. The outlay was estimated at $250,000—a lot of money to prove Wilkins was more than a one-night stand. But it worked. Within the week, the website was yanked and Phillips issued a statement admitting that the two once had a “serious affair.” The final fallout for Phillips remains to be seen: last week he announced he was stepping down from the board at Morgan Stanley, where he met Wilkins when she was an intern.
The fact adulterers don’t foresee such risks makes them appear even more reckless—and out of touch. In February, Kristen Lucas went to the media with sexually charged text messages from Toronto city councillor and Transit Commission chair Adam Giambrone, with whom she’d been having a months-long affair. The 20-year-old university student was angry after finding out Giambrone, who’d just launched a mayoral bid, had lied to her about not having a live-in girlfriend. The 32-year-old politician admitted to an “an inappropriate relationship” with Lucas, whom he’d connected with on Facebook, but insisted it “consisted in public places only.” The next day, realizing he’d been cornered, he apologized, and admitted Lucas wasn’t the only person with whom he’d been unfaithful: “To have misled those around me in this fashion is the worst mistake of my life,” he said, before bowing out of the mayoral race.
Giambrone was slow to figure out that the same technology that enables the adulterous affair and provides much of its illicit frisson, via naughty texts or photos, can also expose it: one of Woods’s bedmates provided 300 text messages as proof of her 31-month affair with him. Another revealed the golfer had desperately demanded she remove her name from her phone so his wife wouldn’t find it, a message the woman saved and broadcast.
Once public, indiscreet texts and photographs subject philanderers to a second wave of online ridicule, as witnessed in the mockery of South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford’s heartfelt, cringe-inducing emails to his Argentinean mistress (“I love the curve of your hips, the erotic beauty of you holding yourself (or two magnificent parts of yourself”) and Giambrone’s juvenile texts, destined to be replayed the next time he runs for office: “No fare increase to ride the Giambrone rocket tonight!” read one.
Even Google CEO Eric Schmidt couldn’t control former mistress Kate Bohner’s online musings, as he discovered when he tried to shut down a blog tied to the journalist’s upcoming “multi-media confessional autobiography” (she called him “Dr. Strangelove” and revealed he gave her a prototype iPhone). Within days the blog was up again with a disclaimer that all characters are “fictional.”
The Internet’s role as the new town square for flogging adulterers might seem strange, given its role abetting infidelity via websites like AshleyMadison.com. But it also reflects a new intolerance toward alpha males like Woods and Edwards, who believed it’s still possible to have it both ways: enjoy the benefits of marriage—the support, children, intimacy and public respectability—and still revel in fresh flesh while lying to everyone. Edwards’s desperation to be president was so strong he was tone deaf to the mood of the American public, which is: do what you want to do in your own marriage, but don’t screw with us.
He was also seen to be a class-A creep for the way he treated his terminally ill wife. Couples marry today with the expectation of mutual happiness and best-friend support—the “someone-who-has-my-back” praise Bullock lavished on James in her Academy Award acceptance speech earlier this year. The kind of rampant deception to perpetuate a year- long affair makes a mockery of that trust. Once betrayed, wives no longer can be counted on to stand by their men—as witnessed by the recent marital defections of Elizabeth Edwards and Jenny Sanford. Elin Woods’s absence from the Masters suggests she too has checked out. Bullock may well be next. In January, the actress said this about the Woods scandal: “If I were Elin, man, I would have hit a lot more than she did.” This week, unconfirmed reports claim that the couple has a pre-nup which specifies James will receive no money if the couple splits due to infidelity. Divorce papers have apparently been drawn up.
In a society where marriage is voluntary and casual hookups are easy, long-term commitment has new value—as reflected in the celebration of the Obama marriage. Hence the public shaming of adulterers. “Watch out cheaters,” blared a Philadelphia Daily News headline referring to Wilkins’s billboards. And it’s not only the famous who are at risk. Last month, Abbott, whose latest book is A History of Marriage, received an email from a Canadian woman imploring her to write about the six-year affair she had with a married lawyer, which produced a child; she was willing to provide incriminating photos. The historian declined the assignment. But somewhere somebody’s about to learn it’s never been a riskier time to be a philanderer.