Nice Work

Bridgette A. Sheridan is a historian of sexualities at Framingham State University. When Karen Owen’s PowerPoint became news–she’s the Duke student who sent her friends a faux presentation based on her “sex research” on a sample of men whom she’d slept with–Bridgette followed the story with curiosity and then dismay. I had a conversation with her today in her kitchen in Cambridge. Here’s what she said.

VR: So, tell me again what’s your problem with the Karen Owen/Duke Faux Thesis Controversy?

BAS: Yea, I don’t get it. Why is this news? A white woman at an elite college reports in a mildly witty way her sexual adventures—her “dirty sex.” The story gets attention because people are shocked! shocked! shocked! by this “role reversal.” They puzzle over whether this is “good” or “bad” and speculate about its value as a “feminist turning point.”

VR: So that’s not really news?

BAS: This is like stories we’ve been told for a long time, particularly about white middle class women and sexuality. It is an old story about gender, about sex, about race, about class. The story is that “these girls are dirty too.” And then much excitement, worry, and titillation follows. Even though being naughty has been a familiar part of the sexual landscape in America for a long time, we keep getting especially worked up about it when we hear about it from yuppy women.

VR: What is dirty sex?

BAS: Hmmm. For white elite girls it is sex without commitment. It is sex focused on her own pleasure, rather than on her emotions about the person with whom she was having sex. Blow jobs rather than intercourse. Talking dirty rather than keeping the lights out. Sexting rather than sending flowers.

I love the question “what is dirty sex” because it draws our attention to how much sex is coded through social class, not just gender.

When I first started reading about the Duke episode, what I thought of immediately was the Milton Academy sex scandal of a few years ago, and it even took me back to Katie Roiphe’s commentary on date rape in the early 1990s.

VR: What happened at Milton?

BAS: Through an expose (Restless Virgins [!]) published in 2007 by young women from Milton Academy we learned about the fabulous, terrible sexual underworld at Milton after news broke of a 15-year-old female student giving blow jobs to five male athletes in the locker room at Milton.  According to Time, the charge about the book was that it read more like soft porn than sociology.

I would argue that the shocking and fascinating part for most people was “this is happening at an elite institution” – “these girls have so much to live for.”

VR: What’s the Katie Roiphe link?

BAS: Way back in the 1990s Roiphe wrote a book, The Morning After, based on her experiences at Harvard and Princeton, and her skepticism about the “campus rape crisis.” She came to the conclusion that all the (then) new dialogue on campus about date rape was overhyped and that women were full, knowing participants in the sexual dramas that unfolded on campus.

Here’s the link: For Roiphe, the story was women are just like men; for Milton, the worry was sure boys will be boys but a sexual revolution might mean that girls are like boys too. And now with the Duke story the case is, again, something about (elite, privileged) women taking on the characteristics of men.

VR: Wait, you mean the double standard isn’t being violated in these stories?

BAS: This Duke story doesn’t indicate that the double standard has gone away, or that women have more sexual privilege than men. What I mean is, really, for this to be a story at all the double standard has to be in place! That is all it is about. While there is so-called positive commentary such as “Karen Owen reaches the inner feminist in me” … ultimately the kind of shock at and condemnation of Owen and what she has done is always present, and reconfirms our sense that men’s and women’s sexual experiences are fundamentally different, and that this difference is a valuable cultural resource that ought to be protected.

Let me walk you through this: when the story broke, ever so briefly there was concern about the fact that men’s names and images were used in her “sex survey”; the concern about the humanity of those subjects was eclipsed quickly by the interest in the “role reversal.” And how was the issue of men’s names and images resolved? The concern for the men focused on how this would make them seem callous toward women. They wouldn’t be gallant men. There was no fear that they would be slutty men, because the very idea of men being “put down” for their sexual desires is unheard of.

Some online comments from readers at various sites pointed to how, if Karen rated a guy highly that he would have benefited, and that it was only harmful if he didn’t receive high ratings. Do you see how that constitutes a double standard? If you don’t, then think about what it means when someone argues that when a sixth grade boy is seduced by his (woman) school teacher that maybe he is just “luckier” than all the other boys. This is another version of that kind of thinking. This is not feminism.

VR: If this isn’t one, then what would be a feminist turning point?

BAS: I think a feminist turning point would be when this wouldn’t be a story at all. Sexual freedom will exist when there is no such thing as “role reversal” — that is, when there wouldn’t be roles of privilege or statuses of disadvantage. Sounds nice, huh?

-Virginia Rutter

Here’s something we don’t need a piece of research to tell us (though I’m going to tell you about a really good example): men with MBAs earn a lot more than women with MBAs. Most of the gap is explained by having children – which costs women but not men. Most of that parental-status tax costs women because they have to give up time at the office.

According to a recent article by economists at the University of Chicago and Harvard, who used data on UC Booth School alumni, men and women MBAs start earning about the same at the end of graduate school. But the earnings diverge over time. Nine years after MBA, men average around $400K; women, $250K.

This dramatic difference is much smaller for women who don’t have children. The authors opine that the lower-earning situation of MBA mothers is a consequence of “family constraints and the inflexibility of work schedules in many corporate and finance sector jobs” (p. 249).

A little more to the story: Women who partner (and have kids) with lower-earning men do not have dramatically lower incomes than men on average. And women who partner (and don’t have kids) with higher-earning men keep their wages up in a kind of competitive synergy.

So, with all this information, I was thinking, what if we really wanted to reduce gender inequality? What could we do? And here are three ideas. Like all policy interventions, there are costs and benefits; let’s see what they are and who bears the costs….

Idea number 1: no kids How about women not having children? It would be a bit like Lysistrata, except thanks to birth control, or the option to have sex with women instead of men, women could still have sex. This would make women workers earn more like men workers and should more quickly reduce the gender gap in earnings among MBAs.

The downside: No more yuppy kids. Might be hard on private school enrollments, sleep consultants, that kind of thing. So, maybe not having children won’t work.

Idea number 2: marry down How about women marrying down? Unlike the situation of MBA moms who marry up, marrying down means MBA moms work just as much as ever—and don’t decrease work hours except in the brief period around a child’s arrival in their lives. Though it turns out that when women have higher earning spouses they are more likely to take off time, when men have higher earning spouses, they still remain those “ideal workers” plugging along in the workforce. These are the true income maximizers! These couples are more likely to hire a nanny or use day care, while for man bread-winner couples, having their high-powered women stay home to do the day care themselves is another status marker.

The downside: It could be a little tough on some marriages, at least in the short run: Turns out that marriages with higher-earning or higher-status women are less stable (and harder on men’s health for richer people). Limiting people’s freedom to marry, like limiting their freedom to have kids, isn’t particularly appealing, either.

Idea number 3: work flexibility How about creating more flexible workplaces that don’t penalize men or women for time out or reduced hours? If we really wanted to reduce gender inequality, we could do this. We could stop marginalizing men who seek flexibility, and stop putting up barriers to women seeking the same. It would be a way to promote freedom to have children and care well for them, freedom to marry whom we want, and freedom to participate in the market place in ways that leave constraint behind.

The downside: The authors of this study note that many believe that it is in the “nature of the work” of the high-flying banking and investment world that makes this kind of change especially difficult, and report that such changes have come about a bit more in, for example, medicine. I think more sweeping change is possible. And then, there would be no more papers about that puzzling wage and wealth gap between men and women. Because it isn’t really that much of a puzzle.

Virginia Rutter

There’s s a long-lived puzzle about money, gender, and housework. In heterosexual partnerships where men earn more than women, women do more housework (on average). When men and women earn about the same, their housework contributions become more equal (though women still do more). But, and here’s the puzzle, when women earn more than their men, women again do more housework. (See this for a classic on the puzzle.)

If paid work and housework were “gender neutral” you’d expect there to be an equal trade off in households between paid work and domestic work. Women who earn more would do less housework, and men who earn less would do more housework.

But paid work and housework aren’t just about earning money and running the household—look back at this column on lower-earning men and health for a different example. Instead, paid work and housework are also about “doing gender”… they are activities that help to confirm masculinity (through earning for men) and femininity (through housework for women). But, you already knew that. A new international study (abstract only) tells us more about the symbolic meaning of paid work.

First, signs of change: researcher Sarah Thébaud found that men who believe in gender equality and who work fewer hours or earn less than their (women) partners do modify their housework behavior—a little bit. These men do about one and half hours more housework than their breadwinning (male) comparisons. But this modification isn’t enough to counteract what women do when they are in the same situation. Lower-earning women still do about twice as much housework as guys when they are the lower-earning partner. Gender roles are changing, but sticky.

The question is why are lived gender roles sticky and slow to change even when people’s personal gender attitudes appear to be changing? Thébaud used cross-national data from 18 countries to learn whether something in the larger culture could explain why we keep seeing this housework/doing gender pattern.

Sure enough, in countries where breadwinning, paid work, and earning a good income are more highly valued (as measured by a “work culture index”), even lower-earning men are more likely to resist doing housework. It wasn’t that the men were necessarily personally invested in any kind of gender stereotype, but where the larger culture emphasized the importance of earning and paid work, men did less housework no matter what. So, for example, the Netherlands had a lower work culture index and Dutch men who earned less than their (women) partners added more housework hours. Meanwhile, in Slovenia, which has a higher work culture index, the men performed no additional housework when they earned less than when they earned more.

The way Thébaud explains it, “Although men may do more housework on average in contexts where women have a stronger presence in the labor market…my results suggest that the ongoing pressure for men to live up to breadwinning expectations remains strong and has the power to considerably restrict the degree to which they engage in unpaid work.”

In case you were wondering: countries that were higher on the work culture index weren’t higher on productivity or GDP. But, other aspects of cultural context are more encouraging. Studies, like this one, have shown that men in countries where more women are in the workforce do more housework.

Virginia Rutter

Here’s how it works: if you call it a “diversity initiative” or a “work family intervention” or stuff like that there’s the chance that you will see resistance to the project of, well, promoting diversity, or creating a family-friendly work place. On campuses, all the earnest and the marginalized check it out and everyone else goes, “what? Oh, I don’t think I got that email.”

You already know this intuitively, but a study in the current issue of Gender & Society (abstract only) tells the story of a workplace initiative that starts with the notion that framing matters.

Researchers at the University of Minnesota hung out at Best Buy corporate headquarters while Best Buy instituted a program that is not called “let’s try to reduce the sexism in our every day practices at work” — instead it is called “Results-Only Work Environment” (ROWE) : On the ROWE website they explain their project like this:

“Results-Only Work Environment is a management strategy where employees are evaluated on performance, not presence. In a ROWE, people focus on results and only results – increasing the organization’s performance while cultivating the right environment for people to manage all the demands in their lives…including work.”

The program was created by Jodi Thompson and Cali Ressler , and it has gotten positive recognition in BusinessWeek (twice!) and you can also hear about it on a recent NPR segment. It basically involves a flexible workplace.

The UM researchers (including Erin Kelly and Phyllis Moen at the Flexible Work and Well Being Center) explain in their article how the focus on results reduced resistance. “ROWE was not presented as a work-family initiative or a gender equity initiative; rather it was strategically framed as a smart business move… [the founders] felt that a gender or work-family framing would lead to the initiative’s marginalization.”

You see, ROWE is about achieving excellence. This isn’t (merely) Foucauldian. This is what any diversity project of any sort is all about, right? ROWE–which has has been adopted by other companies, too–reports a 35 percent reduction in waste and a 90 percent reduction in voluntary worker turnover.

But here’s the other part of the story: The program didn’t reduce resistance completely–especially among men managers. But it created a different kind of conversation because the analysis wasn’t explicitly about gender or diversity or accommodating people with exceptional needs. It was about an alternative approach to  work that relied less on conventions of time use and more on outcomes. The resistance heard by the researchers was to the ways that the program was challenging what’s called the ideal worker norm.

What is the ideal worker norm? Well, you know what it is, it is the way you were brought up to work. You’re there or feel you should be there as much as possible (long hours). You are busy all the time, doing doing doing (look busy!). You are ready to drop everything when someone says there’s a panic (excel at “fire drills”). Thing is, this way of working is (1) not necessary for success and (2) damaging to people’s ability to balance work and other aspects of their lives. Joan Williams writes about the ideal worker norm wonderfully in Unbending Gender (2001). She shows us just how gendered this approach is, as it builds on an outdated model of family life.

By saying (as ROWE does), oh this norm of how we work (excessive hours, fire drills, et c) is a “choice” it says we can make other choices. This means that we can de-naturalize the sneaky connection of men as superior workers (especially men who can hide or evade their other personal responsibilities). And we start to allow men as well as women to make contributions and be achievers in all the domains of their lives.

Virginia Rutter

Kristen Springer, a sociology professor at Rutgers, presented some very cool research on men’s health at the recent Council on Contemporary Families conference, and a related paper in the journal Gender & Society (abstract only) is out now. She was looking at men who earn less than their wives. You need to know what she discovered next time you are trying to figure out what to make of those articles in the New York Times or wherever about the “troubling impact” on the changing economic status of men and women. See this post for background in the “new economics” of marriage.

Springer asked if men who earn less (specifically less than half) than their wives have worse health than men who earn the same or more. The simple answer: yes. But hold up! Don’t go yet. There’s more, and it is important.

Because Springer asked why. She looked at whether it was because of who gets to make decisions in the couple, and came back with the answer NO.

She looked at whether it was because of marital unhappiness among these couples, and came back with the answer NO.

In other words, there weren’t couple issues or any kind of home front “war between the sexes” being played out here.

No, it looks like, instead, there is a war within the sexes going on.

She looked at a high fallutin’ but also very powerful concept that folks in the biz call “hegemonic masculinity” — that is, the “most honored way of being a man” in a given society (see Connell and Messerschmidt 2005 if you wanna read up).  In the US, men’s breadwinning is a central component to this. This means that men’s earnings puts them on top of the heap, over other men (as well as over their women).

Here is what she found: For men who were not earning less, the more money he and his family earned, the healthier he said he was. This is your basic wealth equals health situation. (In the figure below, this means the blue bars are higher at the rich end, lower at the poor end.)

But for men who were earning less than their wives, the guys at the top of the heap were the only ones to report significantly worse health relative to guys earning the same or more than their spouse. The guys at the top, for some reason, were especially stressed by the inequality. The study didn’t have direct measures of men’s beliefs about the situation, but it looks a lot like only for men of the upper ranks is there a sense that earning less than their wives constitutes a failure. (In the figure the red bars are lower for the rich guys.)

Springer’s key graph looks like this:

(click here for the full version)

What’s the take home from this? First, beware of stories that bemoan what is happening to men in the face of women’s growing presence in the job market and the economy. The health hardships for the men at the bottom of the ladder are not about gender inequality, they are about the hardships of inequality, full stop (the blue bars). Second, recognize that when we are anxious for men (or they are anxious for themselves) about being breadwinners this isn’t about being a man; it is about social class. It is almost as if the better-off can “afford” to have gender strife, just as in decades past they could afford to have a stay-at-home wife when everybody else required two earners. Finally, don’t be taken in by the notion of the immutable organization of gender in families (nor by the notion that social class doesn’t exist or doesn’t have a meaningful cultural as well as economic impact).

Springer recommends a whole bunch of policies that create more economic justice for all by creating more family friendly policies that can in the end help to eradicate “hegemonic masculinity.” Well that won’t be a slogan you’ll use with your Member of Congress, but just wanted to call it what it is.

Virginia Rutter

Working too many hours is more common in higher paying jobs than lower paying jobs. Down the pay scale, people are struggling for hours, up the pay scale, not so much. So experience and scholarship has shown us that the pressure to work! work! work! and never leave that Blackberry unattended creates a work/family conflict that can affect women workers more so than men–though it isn’t easy on anyone.

But new research in the April 2010 American Sociological Review examined how “spousal overwork” affects who does what in families. The article, “Reinforcing Separate Spheres: The Effect of Spousal Overwork on Men’s and Women’s Employment in Dual-Earner Households” by Youngjoo Cha asks whether excessive work hours by one partner can influence the decisions another partner makes about work and family life.

Results are clear: when a husband works more than 60 hours per week, a wife was 42 percent more likely to quit her job (compared to those whose husbands work fewer than 50 hours per week). The same was not true for husbands. Among professional workers, the wife’s odds of quitting when her husband worked 60 hours per week was 51 percent (versus 38 percent for non professional workers). Think of it this way: up the social ladder, people are more likely to talk the talk, but less likely to walk the walk when it comes to gender equality.

And what if kids are present? The answer provides no surprises. Professional mothers were 3.2 times more likely to quit when their husbands worked 60 hours per week (compared to non mothers in the same situation). Is this a set up, or what?

Youngjoo Cha argues that overwork reintroduces “separate spheres” – the pattern of assigning domestic work and childcare mainly to women and market work mainly to men – and can even help explain the slowing of progress towards gender equality.

Overwork just seems kinda American. We work hard because we are of the nature to work hard. Well, a policy of inequality since the 1970s may be why we are of the nature to work so hard, so long, and with so little to show for it. One thing we do seem to have to show for it is the persistence and maintenance of gender inequality in families. I suppose that is kinda American too.

-Virginia Rutter

We’ve got a diversity initiative on campus currently, and so I’ve been thinking a lot about “affirmative action for white guys.” You start to notice it when bits of bad behavior that come from some people are tolerated more than bits of bad behavior that come from others. A colleague has coined the phrase “gentle sexism.” But some of the bad behavior isn’t as gentle as shirking your duties or exerting a kind of “oopsie, look what I did” male privilege. Yet a look at some darker forms of it can put our irritation about lighter forms of it into perspective.

The Milwaukee/Vatican case is the most recent of escalating revelations of what affirmative action for white guys looks like. We learned this week that the Vatican and Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) suppressed prosecution of a priest, Lawrence Murphy, in a case where “as many as 200 deaf students had accused him of molesting them, including in the confessional, while he ran” a school for deaf children (as described by the Associated Press). Oi vey.

The news coverage explains how, despite efforts to prosecute Murphy, the Vatican office in charge of this mess–headed at the time by Ratzinger–“axed” it. By the time the investigation finally came around, the Vatican was convinced, Murphy was old, ailing, and only wanted to live out the rest of his life in the “dignity of the priesthood.” Christian compassion prevailed—by which I mean compassion for Murphy.

Though the actions of the “victimizers” in the church cases are heinous, and appear with the accumulation of evidence to be endemic (see the documentary Holy Watergate [2005] for one of many accounts; and see Andrew Sullivan on the distinction between “sin” and “crime”), I wonder what makes the tolerance of this possible?

But here’s the deal: I don’t think it is exceptional. I think tolerance of these outrageous sex abuse cases is on a continuum of a practice of affirmative action for white guys. The Vatican’s forgiveness in case after case, in the interest of “human dignity,” doesn’t extend to a whole host of people, like women or gays or people who are pro-choice or whatever. Church leaders find that it feels okay, passes muster within their community of other white guys, to engage in affirmative action for white guys. It feels comfortable. It makes sense.

There are lots more examples, small and large. The Vatican’s actions remind me of the wild tolerance we have had for the current financial meltdown, really our financial “scandal.” It feels okay to give the boys on Wall Street a pass (there are girls on Wall Street too! I know!)–they are “elite for a reason”—and other elites understand this. Even though they got it wrong, they have something special, and they couldn’t be dishonest because they are one of us.

So the thing that unites the sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church and the financial scandal in Wall Street is the way that bad behavior from some is tolerated. There is continuity between the logic of the “dignity” that Joseph Ratzinger wanted to grant Murphy, and the logic used by Tim Geithner when he made decisions and promoted policies as if bankers would never be “too greedy” or unlawful. Here’s the thing that blows my mind: the hallmark of affirmative action for white guys isn’t just giving extra consideration for a protected class for the same behavior as others. It is about giving them the benefit of the doubt and assuming the best even with clear and convincing evidence of the worst.

Lighter forms of this–every day gentle sexism, for example–are worth being more wary of than we typically are. That irritation is for good cause.

-Virginia Rutter

Three cheers for health care reform. It isn’t enough, but it is more than we’ve had. And in case you were wondering just how bad we’ve had it lately, I submit to you this graphic reminder. The Center for Economic and Policy Research’s Hye-Jin Rho and John Schmitt analyzed national data for Health Insurance Coverage Rates for US Workers, 1979-2008.

Their report shows that US workers’ rate of health insurance coverage declined by 10 percent over the past 30 years (ahem, just as women’s share of the workforce has been increasing) and low wage workers (with higher concentrations of women workers) have been losing more than anyone else: The rate of low wage workers with no health insurance has more than doubled to 37 percent in 2008.

And that’s a pretty graphic reminder.

Virginia Rutter

See this beautiful woman. Like many remarkable women—including GWP readers—she is smart, competent, skillful, empowered, full of grace. But things happen, and our energies get focused in ways that we can’t always control, and they did for her. Helene Jorgensen is a labor economist formerly at the AFL-CIO. In 2003 she caught Lyme Disease–an infectious disease spread by a tick bite–while hiking in Montana after an academic conference.

Even though Lyme Disease’s symptoms include (among many others) exhaustion and difficulty focusing, Helene has written a riveting book, Sick and Tired, about dealing with her illness while navigating our irrational health care system. She’s a PhD in economics and has written a page-turner that got a starred review in Publisher’s Weekly.

Along the way, Helene’s book highlights the ways that women in particular can be bullied and jerked around (and not believed, especially with hard-to-diagnose illnesses). At one point, for example, Helene’s doctor was convinced that she had syphilis (after 10 years of very stable marriage). While we are all hassled by “not being listened to” in the health care system, there is the additional experience of having her voice discounted as a woman. Helene’s book is just out this month, and I asked her what is on people’s minds at her recent book events. Here’s what she told me:

1. We often don’t know how to do it, but sick patients must become consumers and shoppers. Helene explains, “If you are really sick and need medical care, the last thing you want to do is to call a bunch of doctors and haggle over price, as if you are a tourist souvenir shopping in Cancun. Even so, if you don’t have health coverage or your plan does not cover certain services/drugs, it pays to price shop. Pharmacies charge very different prices, and discount pharmacies such as Costco and Sam’s Club are significantly cheaper (and you don’t even have to be a member to fill prescriptions).

“Many health care providers are willing to negotiate lower prices. A 2008 study found that 66 percent of patients who negotiated with their doctor lowered their costs; and 70 percent who negotiated with hospitals got a better deal. With the rise of high-deductible health plans, patients are increasingly expected to act like consumers. As I discuss in the book [pp. 42-43], it is envisioned that high-deductible plans will lower health care costs as patients-as-consumers will shop for the highest quality of services for the lowest price, and providers compete for patients by increasing efficiency. But patients do not make good consumer decisions. After all who wants to go to a discount surgeon? (Patients use price as an indicator of quality.) Secondly, patients don’t have the medical expertise to make good decisions.”

2. Doctors can have mysterious conflicts of interest. According to Helene, “There is a huge controversy over the treatment of Lyme Disease, and two standards of care have been developed. When I was first diagnosed, I was referred to an infectious disease doctor at a leading research hospital. I assumed that I was going to get the best of care. I was terribly wrong. Patients often don’t get the best of care because of doctors’ conflicts of interest, such as consulting and investment arrangements with drug companies, health insurance companies, medical device companies, laboratories. In the book [p. 45] you can read the story of spinal surgeons who invested in a spinal device company, and the return on their investment was dependent on how many devices they implanted in patients. Here’s the catch: As a patient, it is almost impossible to find out what conflict of interests your doctor has.”

3. Health care reform is crucial. Helene explains that “private health insurance companies do not make money off sick people like myself. Republicans want to increase competition in the insurance market, but no amount of competition will make patients like me profitable. The Democrats’ plan calls for setting up insurance exchanges and banning discrimination against pre-existing conditions. But that is not going to make insurance companies want to insure sick people. Insurance companies will continue to engage in all the same tactics they use today to get out of their responsibilities to pay for medical services for sick patients. Health insurance companies regularly deny coverage for covered services, in the hope that patients are too sick to contest the denial. Since patients who are the sickest also have the highest medical bills, this is a very effective way for insurance companies to shift costs onto patients.

4. Empowerment is key. Helene is a “sick and tired” (literally) heroine of empowerment, and while she’s interested in changing our health care system, she also has advice about how individuals can help themselves. She explains, “You have to educate yourself about your medical condition. You have to demand the best care from your doctor, and if you are not getting it, find a new doctor; and you have to fight your insurance company to pay for your care. This is very hard to do when you are sick, and having a support system is important. A woman at my talk yesterday suggested that if you don’t have family or friends who can help you, your local church (if you have one) may provide such support.”

To Helene: Thanks for telling this story. To readers: Tell me what you think of Sick and Tired.

Virginia Rutter

Sitting in the waiting area, topless but for a little robe, waiting to get my annual g-ddam mammogram last Friday, I listened to two women talking earnestly about Tiger Woods’ press conference as it blared on the t.v. “Nobody’s business”-lady debated with “sometimes it matters”-woman. They shared, it seemed, some common sense notion that having sex with another person outside of your marriage is always a problem of the worst kind.

As I later reflected on the topic, I did a Google search on infidelity and saw the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy’s infidelity consumer update that starts with the words…”After the devastating disclosure of infidelity….” Made me remember: eighteen years ago my boss at the time–a family therapist–made the point to me that there are a lot worse things than infidelity. She wasn’t saying that because she was casual about formal commitments or marriage, or about, say, the impact of divorce on children. What she was saying is that, well, there are a lot worse things that happen in relationships than infidelity. You can make your own list–I have mine.

Now my uncle–also a family therapist–would disagree; or at least would pipe in with more detail. But what he would be likely to say is that it isn’t the sex or the affair that is the problem nearly so much as the lying, the betrayal. Whether you are having an affair or discover or suspect your partner is having an affair, the stuff that is painful is the stuff about toying with reality, toying with truth, toying with your life and the lives of others while holding all the cards. He would say it is no way to work on your marriage–or yourself.

But the betrayal thing is complicated, which takes us back to “what’s worse than infidelity?” There are lots of betrayals. “You weren’t supposed to be like this, you were supposed to be like that” … “I thought you knew me” … “I thought you liked me” … “I thought we had similar values” … these are generalities: but I bet you have your own particular stories you think of when I list those. The betrayals against a shared reality accumulate, alongside those everyday resentments about housework and money. When couples lose touch with each other and don’t face up to the minor betrayals, the mountain of betrayal looks big and painful. Screwing around is the least of it. But we get kind of sex obsessed when we hear about this one particular kind of betrayal. Instead of a novel, the sex-tinged drama becomes a cartoon.

I’m not saying that any of the affairs we’ve been served up as dark comedy this past year–John Edwards, Governor Sanford, Tiger Woods–are okay, or are not okay. I’m not saying that the affair you are having, or your colleague is having, or that you heard about, is trivial, or not trivial. But all the histrionics about the “devastating impact” of infidelity actually does marriage, or any other kind of intimate union, a disservice. It turns it into a one-dimensional experience about “ownership” and “entitlement.” Moreover, seen through this lens, marriage takes on all the righteousness of the homemaker/provider arrangement between the sexes. There is this massive imagery of the “wronged woman” full of traditional virtues.

Tiger is a puzzle. But in his press conference Friday, he was responding in part to the dehumanizing (and sometimes simple-minded) way we get worked up about infidelity. Tiger’s case lets us notice that our freak-outs about infidelity are also moments to check on what our own values and taken-for-granted ideas are doing to our relationships.

Virginia Rutter