Canada NOTES

September 28 1998

Canada NOTES

September 28 1998

SEX AND LIES

COVER

One cheats—and the other

JANE O'HARA

A woman admits she once had an affair with her sister’s boyfriend. When confronted with it, she says: ‘The first thing out of my mouth was a lie.” That first little lie turned into a big fat lie, until she couldn’t lie any more. When she finally admitted the truth, her sister started throwing things at her. “It was horrible,” she said. A Jewish man confides how he used to dupe his WASP girlfriend when he was cheating on her. “I would tell her I’d been at the synagogue,” he says sheepishly. “It wasn’t even a high holiday, but what did she know?” In another case, a wife who prided herself on knowing where her husband was 24 hours a day uncovered his elaborate scheming after a late-night phone call. She dialed *69 to retrieve the caller’s number. A woman answered, and the two agreed to meet. There, the duped wife got a another shock: the mistress told her that the affair had ended—because the husband had taken up with yet another woman.

These are not illicit and steamy stories from Washington, where President Bill Clinton’s sex scandal has taken on the proportions of a capital crime. They are the lies and deceptions of everyday Canadians, tales of betrayal at once banal and biblical. Clearly, these people are not proud of their behavior: they didn’t want their names used or the cities they live in identified. Yet their experiences represent the moral ambiguity, the limbo between right and wrong, into which many people stray at some point in their lives. Said the woman who slept with her sister’s boyfriend: “I understand that Clinton’s first impulse was to lie. I knew I wasn’t supposed to do it, but I did. I’m such a straightforward, reliable person normally.” Head-scratchers in official Washington may be puzzling over what they are now calling “the disconnect”—the huge gap between the blistering outrage of pundits and the ongoing pub-

lie approval of Clinton. But instinctively, most people know that few lives would be able to withstand the kind of four-year, $60-million scrutiny that independent counsel Kenneth Starr has focused on the President.

Worse, they cringe at the thought of the intimate details of their sex lives being transcribed by the media into hard copy. It seems that fewer Canadians need fear the scrutiny than their American cousins: according to a 1997 poll, only two in 10 admit to having had extramarital sex—half the American figure. And of those who have had affairs, 66 per cent say they would try to work things out in their relationships. And perhaps they are doing just that —the total number of divorces has been dropping in Canada this decade, from 79,034 in 1992 to 71,528 in 1996.

Indeed, when it comes to extramarital sex, Canadians seem to be developing considerable tolerance. According to a 1997 Maclean’s/CBC poll, fully one-third rejected the notion that it is totally unacceptable for someone in a long-term relationship to have an affair. That sort of liberal baby boomer morality confounds religious fundamentalists, right-wing Republicans and even nervous Democrats. No matter what the public hears about the President, no matter how strong the denunciations or how unsavory the revelations, the poll numbers hold firm. Since January, when the name Monica Lewinsky was pencilled in beside Gennifer Flowers and Paula Jones on the presidential scandal sheet, more than 60 per cent of Americans have continued to approve of what Clinton is doing in office, a far greater number than ever

WANDERINGS OF THE RICH AND FAMOUS:

Prominent couples —Hugh Grant and Elizabeth Hurley; Hillary and Bill Clinton (top); Prince Charles and Diana (below)—with the dubious distinction of having the male partner’s dalliances paraded in the media

voted for him. Despite roundthe-clock finger-wagging on American TV, or endless repeats of the ’90s version of the Zapruder film—footage of Lewinsky, with the black beret, hugging Clinton in the Rose Garden—Americans may be holding their noses, but so far, they are still standing by their man. In short, they recognize the presidential dalliance as a poignant personal tragedy, not a crime of the scope of Watergate. “I don’t think Clinton should be I impeached,” said the man who § lied to his girlfriend about being I at the synagogue. “It’s just real% ly embarrassing for him. It’s like I sitting in therapy with the whole nation as your therapist.”

Not everyone is so quick to forgive the President. In a television interview last week, America’s fire-and-brimstone psychologist Dr. Laura Schlessinger sternly denounced Clinton’s behavior as a grand betrayal of his wife, Hillary, and daughter Chelsea. Even Sarah, a Halifax woman who admits to having had numerous affairs, is not sure the President should stay in office. “I’ve done some bad things,” she said. “But I’m not running a country. I can’t look at him the same way any more.”

But Clinton’s continuing high levels of support come as no surprise to Santa Barbara, Calif., psychologist Gay Hendricks who, with his wife, Kathlyn, commands $7,500 a day to counsel couples with rocky marriages. “People tend to forgive Clinton because they’re compassionate towards their own weaknesses,” says Hendricks. “I think people are using this as an opportunity to look at their own behavior.”

Have North Americans no shame? Or

Some spouses are so clever their partners would need tracking dogs to prove their infidelities—but most give strong signals

have sex scandals of the high and mighty lost their ability to shock? Five years ago, Prince Charles made a fool of himself when he was taped telling his mistress, Camilla Parker Bowles, that he would like to be her tampon. But when American basketball giant Wilt Chamberlain bragged that he had slept with 20,000 women, people took out their calculators and his book sales soared. Three years ago, when British actor Hugh Grant was arrested with a hooker on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles, movie executives feared his career was over. His boyish act of contrition on latenight TV saved him, and his beautiful girlfriend, Elizabeth Hurley, obviously forgave him.

While some believe that similar support for Clinton is a sign that North Americans are skidding down a slippery moral slope, others think that the public has just become more accepting of human failings, whether their own or the President’s. For the past 30 years, Vancouver therapist Miriam Ulrych has listened to the secrets of hundreds of clients. She has heard it all, and extramarital sex, followed by lies, is a common theme in her office. On one occasion, she counselled a man who, like Clinton, believed that he wasn’t really being unfaithful since he had drawn the line at oral sex. So why was he in therapy? Because his mistress was upset that he wouldn’t penetrate her vaginally. In other words, she wanted him to commit.

Out of both professional and personal interest, Ulrych took note on Sept. 11 when the Starr report was released. On channel after channel, middle-aged anchormen looking both excited and pious, spoke of “the sordid, lurid” details. After sifting through the vari-

ous reports, Ulrych says that, despite the overheated play-by-play, the only thing that distinguishes the Clinton-Lewinsky tryst from the legions of everyday adulteries is the location. “The most surprising thing was that he did it in the White House,” says Ulrych. “Beyond that, it seemed an incredibly ordinary event. It was an older man and a younger woman, an office romance. This is the stuff of many people’s lives. In some ways, it may make Clinton more human to the ordinary Joe because now they can say to themselves, ‘Hey, he’s just like us.’ ”

That will be cold comfort to the women who have been cheated on, says Sally Warren, author of Dumped! A Survival Guide for the Woman Who’s Been Left by the Man She Loved. The book is based on 108 candid interviews with North American women who were either married or in long-term relationships when the men in their lives left them for other women. Warren says that most women are usually surprised when their husbands announce they are leaving. They have ignored warning signs. She describes one woman whose husband went for a walk during Thanksgiving dinner, saying he wanted some fresh air. She found out later he was calling his mistress. “The universal reaction of the women scorned is, ‘How could I be so stupid?” says Warren. “Usually, they just accepted explanations that he was having problems at work, upset at turning 50 or just going through a bad patch."

Susan, a 50-year-old mother of two from Montreal, had suspected her husband of cheating well before he admitted it. “It was just a feeling I had,” she recalls. “There are signs, definite signs.” Among them: her husband seemed less interested in her emo-

tionally and far more critical of her appearance. Finally, after 15 years of marriage, Susan confronted her husband. Fie denied he was having an affair, but two years later moved out to live with a female co-worker. “I knew he was lying,” she says. “When you live with someone for that long, you know when they’re lying and when they’re not.”

But some men are so clever that their wives would need a tracking dog to discover their infidelities. One Quebec writer ensconced his mistress in a completely domestic setting: her own apartment with a full set of pots and pans. “His only real demand was that I make Red River Cereal for him in the morning,” said the former mistress, now happily married to someone else. And meet Frank, a self-employed white-collar professional from the Prairies, who had numerous affairs while his wife remained oblivious. A master of the fling, Frank says his former father-in-law, an Olympian of adultery, too, once said: “The best aphrodisiac is a good woman.” Maybe so, although Frank was drawn to furtive, forbidden sex. ‘You feel guilty, scared and are generally looking for a way out as soon as it begins,” admits Frank, now divorced and living monogamously with his common-law wife. “The old cliché—there are 50 ways to leave your lover—is true. But it’s always painful.”

How do you know when you’re living with an unreformed Frank? 5 Caroline Keating, an associate professor of psychology at Colgate

0 University in Hamilton, N.Y, is an expert in deception, with a subii specialty in lying and leadership. Whether it’s with preschoolers or * CEOs of companies, her research shows that the people who rise

1 to the top are the summa cum laude of liars. And Clinton is at the > top of that class, not because of what he says as much as how he £ presents himself. “Find me a politician who hasn’t lied,” says Keat-

ing. “WeVe grown to accept deception as dominance. Clinton is very good at controlling his nonverbal behavior—lowered eyebrows, a direct stare—and people are reassured by those dominance displays. That’s about power. That’s a man who can lead.”

Keating says that in some ways, the public demands deception from its leaders. ‘We don’t want our leaders to be weak, to be sick, to be unfaithful or forgetful,” she says. “So they learn to act. When they’re tired, they don’t show it; when they’re sick, they pretend they are not. If a leader is afraid his country may lose a battle, he’s not allowed to show that either. We want a leader who inspires confidence.”

Clearly, people also make distinctions about the seriousness of lies. Which is why,

Keating believes, the public has cut Clinton some slack, even though it is clear he lied about having sex with Lewinsky. He’s not alone in this. In the standard operating manual on affairs, the first instruction upon being found out is: deny, deny, deny. Keating says that one of the reasons research on sexual behavior—from Kinsey to the Hite report—is so notoriously unreliable is because people lie so much about their sex lives.

Rosamond Norbury, a 46-yearold Vancouver photographer, wasn’t looking for an affair when she met George (not his real name). After a few dates, she realized they weren’t going to be compatible socially, but enjoyed one another sexually.

“I liked going to cocktail parties and talking, and he had no social skills,” she says. “We’d go to a party and he’d stand there like a dork.” Norbury had an affair with him for 10 years, in which time he married, divorced and remarried.

“The first time he married, he told me he wouldn’t be seeing me any more and I said, ‘Fine,’ ” recalls Norbury. “But three months later, he wanted to start up again. I felt only a twinge of guilt about his wife because I had never met her and I never initiated the sex. It was always him. It was so compartmentalized, in its own little box in the bedroom.” The affair finally ended when her lover married for the second time and didn’t want to cheat on his new wife.

It may be safe to say that all affairs are a sign that something is wrong with a marriage. But many marriages survive them, particularly those, according to Vancouver therapist Ellen Tallman, that are just casual flings, sexual escapades provoked by the monotony of monogamy or the thrill of living dangerously. Tallman puts Clinton’s affair with Lewinsky in the latter category. According to Lewinsky’s testimony, she performed oral sex on the President 10 times in 16 months; the President allegedly leaned up against a doorway in order to “ease his sore back.” They had phone sex, too. But Lewinsky adds that on one occasion, Clinton fell asleep while she was talking

dirty to him. And she was angry with him another time when he kissed her and she noticed that his eyes were wide open, looking out a window. Lewinsky also admits that when she asked Clinton if he would take her into the residential part of the White House—where the first couple actually live—the President said no.

These were all signs to Tallman that Clinton was literally just fooling around, and not interested in any relationship that impinged on his marriage. “A lot of men in power have so much responsibility

Many marriages survive the sexual escapades triggered by the monotony of monogamy

in their lives that they just want a quick blow job and be done,” said Tallman. “They don’t want to have to do any more work. Although what he did was narcissistic and unthoughtful, it’s as if he were gambling on the side or secretly drinking.”

A seasoned philanderer like Frank understands why Clinton was prepared to take the risks he did with Lewinsky. “Basically, it’s the hormones,” he says. “There are people who would never have affairs, and there are others who are drawn to them like a moth to a flame.” Clinton appears to fall into the latter category. But for all his experience, he seems to have forgotten what Frank calls the one cardinal rule of adultery: “Never fool around with someone who has less to lose than you do.”

SUZANNE HILLER

BRENDA BRANSWELL

JOHN DeMONT

BARBARA WICKENS

BAGESHREE VAZE

JENNIFER HUNTER

With SUZANNE HILLER in Halifax, BRENDA BRAN SWELL in Montreal, JOHN DeMONT in Ottawa, BARBARA WICKENS and BAGESHREE VAZE in Toronto and JENNIFER HUNTER in Vancouver