May 4, 2007 / 1:45 PM / 13 years ago

U.S. spouses cheat like the French, but feel worse

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Men in South Africa say they cheat instead of taking second or third wives, Americans lament that love has died in their marriages, and the Japanese believe ex-marital sex isn’t adultery if they pay for it.

People are silhouetted at Canary Wharf business district in London May 1, 2007. Men in South Africa say they cheat instead of taking second or third wives, Americans lament that love has died in their marriages, and the Japanese believe ex-marital sex isn't adultery if they pay for it. REUTERS/Luke MacGregor

These are just a few of the cultural excuses for cheating on one’s spouse as recorded by Pamela Druckerman, author of a new comparative look at infidelity titled “Lust in Translation: The Rules of Infidelity from Tokyo to Tennessee.”

On a world scale, men in African countries from Togo to Mozambique were most likely to have taken another sexual partner in the last 12 months, with as many as 37 percent saying they had been unfaithful in that time, according to data compiled by Druckerman.

While the French may be the first to eroticize illicit sex in movies and books, only 3.8 of married men and 2 percent of women in France admitted to having affairs.

They were outdone by the strait-laced citizens of the United States, where acknowledged rates of cheating came to 3.9 percent of men and 3.1 percent of women. But on a national average, U.S. adulterers were much more likely to beat themselves up over it.

A former Wall Street Journal reporter who has worked in Europe, the Middle East and Latin America, U.S. expat Druckerman was struck by her own strong reactions against the idea of infidelity as compared to more cavalier attitudes abroad.

“I thought you could often understand a country better by looking at the rules in people’s private lives. It really reveals the values of a culture,” Druckerman said in an interview.

“Americans have gotten more tolerant on practically every major sexual issue from having a child out of wedlock to divorce ... and homosexuality,” she said. “We’re more accepting of all these issues except infidelity, where we’ve gotten stricter.”

Even more telling were views on the evils of adultery. While some 6 percent of Americans in one survey said it was acceptable to cheat in some or all circumstances, nearly 40 percent of Russians polled saw no problem with it.

On a broad scale, men in poorer countries were the most likely to cheat, or in places rife with political and economic upheaval such as Russia or China.

But within countries, rates of cheating varied hugely within sub-cultures or even city neighborhoods, Druckerman’s found.

“Much more important than any religious law or law of the land is what your friends and colleagues are doing,” she said.

Filled with titillating anecdotes — including the story of a 1950s housewife who would arrange double dates with her husband, her lover and his wife — Druckerman most closely compares her findings overseas with U.S. mores.

In particular, Americans seem to adhere to a well-defined script on adultery in which sex outside the marriage amounts to the ultimate act of dishonesty, one that could require years of repentance and therapy to resolve, Druckerman said.

“The message is even a one-night stand can paralyze a marriage,” she said. “Then you have this idea in America that you’re sort of bursting with this knowledge of the affair and can never be whole until you confess.”

“I tend to be sympathetic to the French idea that some truths are better left unspoken.”

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