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Who's who in the Petraeus scandal
November 19th, 2012
04:01 PM ET

Opinion: Blame affairs on evolution of sex roles

Editor's note: Stephanie Coontz is Director of Research at the Council on Contemporary Families and teaches history at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. Her most recent book is "A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s."

By Stephanie Coontz, Special to CNN

(CNN) – How could they not have known they were asking for trouble? In the past few years, Rep. Mark Souder of Indiana had an affair with the staff member who had helped him produce a video promoting sexual abstinence. South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford flew to Argentina for an extramarital tryst, instructing his staff to tell the press he was hiking the Appalachian Trail. Sen. John Edwards tried to pass off the daughter he fathered as the love child of one of his aides.

And now a stockpile of sexy e-mails has simultaneously brought down the head of the CIA and delayed the nomination of the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan to head NATO.

Many Americans believe these scandals reflect a precipitous decline in respect for marital fidelity. If anything, however, such respect has never been higher. In a 2006 poll by the Pew Research Center, 88% of Americans said adultery was immoral - a higher number than for any other of 10 unsavory behaviors they were asked about. According to a 2009 Gallup Poll, only 6% of Americans believe extramarital sex is morally acceptable.

Tolerance for male adultery is certainly at a new low. In letters and diaries written during the Colonial and Revolutionary eras, men routinely bragged about their extramarital conquests - even to the brothers and fathers of their own wives! In the 1850s, it is estimated that New York City had one prostitute for every 64 men, while the mayors of Savannah, Georgia, and Norfolk, Virginia, put the numbers of prostitutes in their cities at one for every 39 and 26 men, respectively.

As late as 1930, Somserset Maugham's play, "The Constant Wife," was considered shocking because the heroine confronted her husband about his affair instead of simply ignoring it, as most women in polite circles did.

Read Stephanie Coontz's full column
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