Thursday, April 03, 2008

Interview with Pamela Druckerman

I recently interviewed Pamela Druckerman, author of Lust in Translation. In the book, she examines how people in different cultures and countries cheat, and how they and their spouses feel and react to adultery. I reviewed the book here.

What was the greatest challenge in researching adultery?

Not having an affair myself! Seriously, my biggest problem was finding
reliable sex statistics. There are a lot of bad statistics out there - put
out by condom companies, women's magazines, and self-described sex-experts. Most of these numbers have no statistical significance, they're really just for fun. I had to search very hard to find scientific data. And even those numbers are suspect, because you can never be sure people are telling the truth about what they do in private. And in many countries, including most in the Muslim world, there are no statistics whatsoever.

You note the different approaches to adultery found in different cultures. Has the reaction to your book differed in different countries as well?

Because the book is about infidelity, a lot of Americans assumed it's a self-help book, and were disappointed to discover that it's more of a neutral, sociological look at the topic. Reviewers on posted warnings like, "PLEASE do NOT look to this book for help...DO NOT TRUST Pamela Druckerman." At book readings, women asked me how to find a partner who'll be faithful. (I suggested avoiding traveling salesmen and men from Togo, which has the highest known level of male infidelity).

Outside the U.S. there wasn't even a whiff of moralizing, and no one seemed
to expect the book to guide them in real life. An Argentine reporter wanted
to know if there might be a link between adultery and global warming. A
British newspaper labeled me "Mrs. Infidelity" and had me pose for glamour
shots. There was a lot of interest in Ireland, because I think people there
are really eager to talk about their new sexual freedom. People everywhere
also wanted to hear more about our odd adultery culture in the U.S. I think
the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal created an appetite for this.

Was there any sense that any globalized sexual culture is emerging?

I did notice some trends, but they don't always apply to even the middle
classes in every country. In Asia I noticed a Western-style shift to
women wanting (and sometimes even getting) more equality in their
relationships. This was particularly true among university-educated
women and those with professional jobs. In Indonesia I had dinner with
a group of early 30-something women who model themselves on the women
from Sex and the City. They definitely looked the part and had the
right handbags. But in the course of the meal, it emerged that one of
their worries was that their husbands or boyfriends would become
polygamists. I think there are some shared ideas floating around, but
they bend to meet the local rules too.

The wide variety of countries and cultures in the book made for greatreading. Were there any cultures or countries you hoped to cover but could not or ones that ended up not making the cut?

I didn't go to India or Brazil. If there's a part-two, I'll head to those places first. I couldn't go everywhere, so I tried to find a good mix of countries. I also went to places where I had friends or contacts, or where I could at least get by in the local language. I hadn't been back to Japan since I studied abroad there while I was in college!

Did any of the other countries show the range of sexual cultures you identified in the United States?

All of them did. Sexual cultures change according to age, social class, profession, ethnicity, even neighborhood. I spent some time trying to carve this up and understand it in America, and I could have done the same in Russia, England, China and elsewhere. But to make the topic manageable, and to make sure my samples of people around the world were comparable, I mostly looked at middle-class people in cities. Believe it or not, not that much had been written about these populations. Anthropologists studying sexual cultures tend to look at college students or native peoples, not dentists.

In your epilogue you raise the hope that the U.S. might learn from other countries to make adultery less traumatic. Do you think the marriage industrial complex will help or hinder such a shift?

Most therapists aren't really moral innovators. They reflect the biases of
the culture in which they work. For instance, they're often comfortable with
the idea cheating will end a marriage, whereas a therapist in another
country wouldn't accept that idea so easily.

There's even a movement now in American therapeutic circles to identify
therapists who are specifically pro-marriage, rather than agnostic about
whether the couple stays together. The idea is that couples in crisis need
someone to give them hope and guide them toward the light, rather than
having a neutral arbitrator. But that's a small group.

Finally, you note that the post-World War 2 generation had a much different view of adultery than which prevails today. How do you see it changing in the next 20 years?

I think Americans are becoming more accepting of the idea that it's natural
to be attracted to someone other than your spouse, and that this doesn't
mean your marriage is flawed, or that you're slipping down a chute toward
adultery and divorce. After all, idea that cheating automatically triggers
divorce is new. It only really started in the 1970s, when it got easier to
divorce, and women started working more. By the 1980s divorce was really out
of control. We're cooling off from that period, and realizing that it's
possible to work through even really big problems. We've seen the
alternative, and it's often worse.

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