The XX Factor

Infidelity Isn’t a Feminist Priority

Thanks, Phoebe Connelly, for speaking sense on this Jenny Sanford worship train: “It’s troubling to think that … we’d pick a feminist icon for the simple fact that she left a bad marriage.” I’m continually amazed by folks-usually folks who know nothing about feminism or actively hate it-who insist that putting a lock on the genitalia of married men should be feminist priority No. 1, as if a world that still has rape, domestic violence, forced pregnancy, unequal pay, and other major social problems for women should be put the back burner because men cheat. It goes without saying that women cheat, too. I fail to see why feminism should concern itself with the one issue where men and women are pretty much in the same boat and exert a large amount of control over their futures when it happens to them.

Oh sure, I’d be the first to say that cheating isn’t a complete equal opportunity offense, or completely apolitical. Men probably still do it more than women, and probably for the most obvious reason, which is that they still have more freedom to leave a bad marriage than women do. But if feminists concentrate on achieving equality for women, the problem of men who feel entitled to cheat on long-suffering, trapped wives will take care of itself, because those women will get to walk away. The feminist achievement of widespread, no-fault divorce probably did more to make men honest than any amount of moralizing ever could. Of course, it didn’t stop all cheating for all time, but that’s no matter to feminists. Unlike the other major issues that ruin marriages-fights over housework, child care, money, power in the house-cheating is an area where women give as good as they get.

This feminist’s perspective on the Sanford debacle is that it was the Sanford marriage and not the cheating that is the real offense against feminist values. The Sanford marriage, from their own statements, seems to be something straight out of feminists’ worst nightmares about the anti-feminist agenda for marriage: a loveless, bloodless coupling created out of duty, between a man and a woman who find passionate love across the genders to make about as much sense as passionate love across species. That’s why I found Mark Sanford’s affair so amusing, because it appears that it was the first time that it occurred to him that a woman could be intellectually stimulating and appealing as a full person, something more than someone to run his house, bear his children, and stand by him to reassure voters of his all-American masculine bona fides . There are no feminist heroes in this situation, but a little feminist gloating seems appropriate.