Over fifteen years ago, my good friend Wade presented me with an interesting scenario: "A man makes arrangements for his mistress to meet him at home after work one night while his wife is out of town. She's to be in his bed with the lights off so he can slip in beside her. However, when the mistress arrives, she sees the wife's car in the driveway and takes off. The husband comes home late, doesn't see his wife's car, and slips into bed with her. In the dark, the man thinks his wife is his mistress, and they make love. Has the man cheated on his wife?"
At the time, I thought the scenario was a bit contrived, and I focused on the minutiae, like how could the guy miss his wife's car out front? Why didn't he at least feel the difference between his mistress and his wife (unless he just really has a type)? Now, though, nothing seems far-fetched about the predicament at all, and in fact Wade was just ahead of his time in thinking aloud about such things. Ever since President Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky made adultery a matter of public record, the question is always on our pop collective minds: "Who's cheating now?"
As of this writing, the answer is obvious: Jesse James. Before him, Tiger Woods wore the title (and yet perhaps always will -- that's one green jacket you can never dry clean), then David Letterman, John Edwards, and so. From all strata of social influence -- politics, entertainment, sports -- these men make the news interesting, and as they continue to stand revealed, they make answering that question absolutely impossible. Who's cheating now? It could be anyone!
By Wade's story's standard, it could be everyone.
What committed man doesn't look twice at a passing woman on any given day? Sometimes once is enough. Hands to your side, from the safety of your car or the other side of the street or your table at Starbucks, from that harmless distance, in that innocent moment of admiration, are you no better than Tiger Woods? I won't even touch (pun intended) the Internet phenomenon, the powerful porn industry, the pop-up ads of scantily clad women I can't control alongside my email inbox or Facebook homepage. In this context, we see hundreds of alluring women all week long, making Tiger's alleged seventeen seem tame. He'd be a saint for keeping it under twenty.
The ladies aren't free of this burden, either, and in fact they may even perpetuate it in pop culture at large, making them the most guilty of all. Consider Leap Year, this year's movie about a redheaded Amy Adams travelling to Ireland to propose to her boyfriend, per Irish tradition. Never mind that this isn't a leap year; that's a cheat on Father Time right there. No, Adams' encounter with and reliance on a chiseled innkeeper makes her trip interesting, and throws a little wrench into her plans. Without the distraction of another possible romance, the film wouldn't have been more than one woman's wretched travels, which I could watch at any given Southwest Airlines terminal for free. Now, I admit I didn't see the movie and I don't know how it ends, but turn the tables for a moment: a man travels to propose to his girlfriend but gets distracted by the chance to hook up with a hotter, more dangerous babe along the way. What a scumbag, right?! Who would want to watch a movie about some "playa," let alone make one?
Actually, such a movie was made. It's called Forces of Nature. The hotter, more dangerous woman is played by Sandra Bullock. Oops.
So, the realm of fiction boasts no double standard; man or woman, that filter of potential romance, fueled by emotionally contrived character development and circumstance, totally justifies rocking the foundation of commitment and fidelity. It must -- we pay to see it, then we revel in it when it happens to these people in real life. Interestingly, ultimately, I think we're learning to reserve judgement in favor of the spectacle's entertainment value. At least, I think I'm hearing, "Oh, what a jerk!" a lot less than before, when the stories were fewer and far between. I think we're coming to grips with the fact that the phenomenon of cheating is more widespread than we thought, transcending the realm of Jerry Springer's reality TV circus and affecting even the elite, the politicians and entertainers that we count on to set the standards for our beloved pop culture.
Every time, we're relieved that it isn't just us, and that makes it okay.
Like every era in human history, when will this Age of Adultery end? Consider that man from Wade's story. He'd obviously rather be with his mistress than his wife. Though he's legally married to one, his preference -- his heart? -- is with the other. So, by being with his wife in the end, he's defying his newly self-established norm, cheating on the plans he's made. The real question isn't if he cheated on his wife, then, but now is his wife really his mistress? Yes, I just blew my own mind. When someone wants so desperately to be with someone else but instead loves the one they're with, which is the real crime?
How long before cheating becomes the only way to play the game?