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Recently read: Lust in Translation

[Originally published at the now defunct group blog explananda.com]

Posted on February 17, 2009
Tags: book_reviews

Pamela Druckerman. Lust in Translation: The Rules of Infidelity from Tokyo to Tennessee

Paul sent me a snarky email when I stuck this book on my Amazon wishlist a while back, and I’m self-conscious enough that I declined to carry it with me as reading material on the subway. So I can only imagine how Pamela Druckerman felt about explaining the subject of her first book to her prospective in-laws (the writing of the book overlapped with her engagement and marriage).

My (extremely high-minded) excuse (let me just say preemptively) is that primate relationships are endlessly fascinating, especially human primate relationships, and especially human relationships in cross-cultural perspective. For Druckerman that sort of fascination was clearly part of it, but her thoughts were first focused on the subject (she says, with clearly preemptive intent) by the experience of being stationed in South America as a reporter for the Wall Street Journal, and finding herself suddenly, repeatedly, hit on by married men.

After she got over her annoyance (which she makes very clear, lest you get the wrong idea), she got curious. People—or the men, at least—seemed to have very different assumptions about the significance of infidelity. These assumptions struck Druckerman as pretty wrongheaded, but then again her assumptions struck them as wrongheaded. And this led her to attempt to stand back a bit from her own cultural assumptions, in a manner that goes back (at least) to Greek philosophers pondering cultural difference, noticing, for example, that different cultures treat their dead differently (some bury; some cremate; some dine); that different peoples tend to regard the customs of others with disgust; and wondering where in all that is there some norm established by nature that would allow us to assess the propriety of all these customs, and how would we know it if we found it, and are we sure we’re on the right side of it, since disgust by itself seems to have a pretty low epistemic value, and what are we left with if there isn’t any such norm, etc., and etc., and etc?

Anyway, the result for Druckerman of this sort of pondering, interspersed with research and interviews, is Lust in Translation, a cross-cultural survey of infidelity. Druckerman has herself an extraordinarily complex question, one that requires a lot of thinking, not just about culture, but also about race, religious, class, and gender issues that get inevitably tangled up in an attempt to survey differences across nations on any issue, let alone one that is highly private and fraught in all kinds of ways. (Dividing up the world into national cultures can be terribly misleading. It might well turn out, just for example, that working class people in two different countries have much more in common with one another than they do with the middle or upper classes in their respective countries. We can multiply such examples indefinitely. Indeed, it is the indefinite multiplication of such examples that gives some people hives at the mention of this sort of project.)

Druckerman, to her credit, seems more aware than your average journalist of some of the methodological pitfalls in such a study, at one point explaining why it’s so difficult even to get reliable national statistics for infidelity (the figures don’t all measure the same thing, for one thing). She also displays some awareness of race, class, gender issues that makes her subject so complex.

Unfortunately, her attention to these issues seems to me selective, partial, and often inadequate. You can complain about this, but you can’t complain that Druckerman doesn’t warn you. Seven pages into the introduction she admits that although she “spoke to experts and compared [her] observations with statistics, [her] own sample of adulterers isn’t scientific. It’s quirky, personal, and sometimes accidental.” Even with this proviso, I think Druckerman could have thought and written much more deeply about some of the gender and class issues she glances up against in the course of the book. But at least she’s not peddling her book as sociology.

So what does she find?
We all know the American script. One part of it says a cheating husband is supposed to tell his mistress that he’s unhappy with his wife. This means he’s not a lousy two-timer but rather a sensitive soul who is understandably searching for the love and affection he deserves. In China, however, I discover married men routinely praise their wives to their mistresses, to prove they respect women and to set boundaries for the affair. People everywhere may have the same menu of emotions. But cultural scripts teach us which emotions to invoke on a particular occasion. A married Japanese woman was confused when I asked her if she felt guilty about having a lover. I had to repeat the question several times. Feeling guilty hadn’t occurred to her, since she was meeting her obligations to her family. A Frenchman was taken aback when I asked whether he had gone into therapy to sort out his double life. In fact, he had dropped out of therapy soon after meeting the woman who became his mistress, since he was finally happy.

(Druckerman’s interviews complicate some of these national stereotypes a bit, but probably not enough to satisfy someone whose methodological scruples leads her to find this sort of survey appallingly simplistic.)

When Druckerman looks at American society, she finds that the statistics don’t really bear out the impression that the US is a hedonistic nation of cheaters. In the United States, in 2004, among married or cohabiting couples, only 3.9% of men and 3.1% of women had had more than one sexual partner in the past year. (The impression that the figure is much higher is due partly to older and less reliable surveys.)

When Americans do cheat, however, the fallout is often more severe and prolonged than in other countries. It’s not that anyone, anywhere in a committed monogamous relationship is thrilled to find that their spouse has been with someone else. It’s just that Americans are, according to Druckerman, relatively highly primed for long sagas of guilt, obsessive rehashing of details, and oodles of therapy (much of that therapy being of questionable value).

Druckerman surveys a number of couples who, she thinks, are following the particular American cultural script on infidelity. Frankly, some of these couples seem so extreme that I wonder whether they’re chosen more for the Jerry Springer-like effect they give to these passages in the book than to any insight they shed on the broader culture. At any rate, Druckerman thinks that the script is encouraged by what she calls the Marriage-Industrial Complex, an enormous multi-billion dollar industry of counseling, self-help books, seminars, web sites, etc. that caters to these elaborate rituals of infidelity, guilt, excruciating quantities of disclosure, and (sometimes) redemption. “Marriage-Industrial Complex” is a decent enough label for an interesting notion; failing to follow it up a bit more seemed to me one of the lost opportunities in the book.

When she turns to a country like France, where she lives (or lived while writing the book; I don’t know where she is now), Druckerman doesn’t find quite what she (or I) expected. For one thing, the French don’t seem to cheat all that much either. In France, in 2004, among married couples between the ages of 18 and 54, 3.8% of men and 2% of women had had more than one sexual partner in the past year. In other words,
Most French adults are boringly, staggeringly faithful. They pair up in their late twenties or early thirties and then spend the rest of their lives having trusty marital sex with the same partner, over and over again.

(If you’re wondering about high-profile exceptions like Mitterrand, Druckerman has an interesting discussion of his case.) On top of this, those French prudes allegedly do less sexual juggling than Americans during the dating phase of a relationship. When they do cheat, however, the French seem not only less consumed by guilt, but much less inclined to make the American assumption that cheating is a social offense, that is, an offense in which others have a genuine interest, on the grounds that it gives away a general character flaw which is bound the affect the cheater’s performance of other social roles (professional, for example).

And so it goes. As the book progresses, Druckerman packs her suitcase again and again for Russia, South Africa, Japan, and so on. Once there, she interviews a few people, rehashes some stats, and reflects (briefly and superficially—how could it be otherwise given the massive scope of her inquiry?) on the possible social and cultural determinants of the attitudes she finds there.

I think the main problem I had with this book is that—a bit like a certain type of unsatisfied spouse—I kept wanting it to be something that it wasn’t, and never claimed to be. Cross cultural surveys are fascinating, but “quirky, personal, and sometimes accidental” surveys tend to drive me sort of nuts. I don’t want to imply that it’s rigorous sociology or bust for me. I think a good novel featuring infidelity might be a valuable source of insight into the subject. Perhaps a more thoughtful, less frenetic meditation on the subject might have gone over better. But casual pop surveys of a subject seem to fall in an uncomfortable intermediate zone in between highly particular fictional studies and rigorous sociology. Anyway, all this is just to say that even though Druckerman sets her methodological cards out on the table in a frank and honest way, I have no idea whether anything much she contributes to the subject is actually true. And in the end, though she made me no promises, that makes me feel a little, well, cheated.


Author: Paul
Date: 2009-02-18

The issue of customs and reflexive disgust versus justified revulsion is really interesting, of course, but certainly in this context. I’m inclined to subscribe to a view of proper life-partner relationships that counts infidelity as quite a bad offense–certainly one that should make one feel guilty. The case of the Japanese woman suggests otherwise. But I can’t shake the urge to chalk that up either to her misapprehending her actual marital responsibilities or to her having less strict responsibilities in light of concurrent or past failures on the part of her husband.

Clearly I would want to think more about such cases, and not give my own reflexive responses too much weight. But I find it interesting how quick I am to make the hypotheses I do, given that they emanate from a rather firm commitment to one view of “proper human relationships.”

Author: Paul
Date: 2009-02-18

At least Japan is on the case, if perhaps for the wrong reasons.

Author: Chris
Date: 2009-02-18

Japan gets by far the strangest chapter in the book.

Infidelity seems to differ in seriousness depending a lot on how seriously people take it. I notice that there are other models of relationships—more common in the gay community, for example—where it’s seen as far less a betrayal, or no betrayal at all, and that seems to make all the difference when people try to figure out what their partner’s sleeping with someone else really means. I think what makes it so bad in so many cases is that it really means something not very nice.