If the past three months are any indication, 2010 will be a red-letter year for marital inﬁdelity—as in scarlet A for adultery. Between mistresses spilling their secrets and philanderers walking the new perp walk of shame, the age-old adultery script is being rewritten. If Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1850 novel, The Scarlet Letter, was published today, the scorned female protagonist would have a blog, a book deal, even a reality TV show. And that disgracing A she was forced to wear? It would be emblazoned on Reverend Dimmesdale, her higher-profile partner in sin.
This week, Tiger Woods, currently the prime attraction in the new Cheaters Hall of Shame, submitted himself to another round of atonement at the Masters before his return to the links. Fielding reporters’ questions, he admitted “what I’ve done has been terrible to my family” and spoke of the “pain and damage I’ve caused.” It was a reversal of his stance when news of his infidelity broke last November: “This is a private matter and I want to keep it that way,” he said after text messages intercepted by his wife, Elin Nordegren, led to him crashing his SUV outside their Florida house.
Then an unrelenting “mistress” cavalcade —15 at last count—revealed the world’s best golfer had turned his marriage into a public thruway: he risked bringing STDs home by having unprotected sex and, the ultimate indignity, he invited a porn star into his marital bed when Elin was away. The clichéd lines he used to lure them—his marriage was loveless, his wife didn’t like sex—only amplified the betrayal. Within weeks, Woods’s reputation as a stalwart family man and disciplined professional was in ruins. Not only had he violated his marital vows but, seemingly as grievously, he had sullied his public who’d bought into his carefully constructed clean-living image. In January, the golfer staged a televised press conference, at which his wife was visibly absent, to grovel. “I was unfaithful, I had affairs, I cheated,” he said. “What I did was unacceptable, and I am the only one to blame.” He then submitted to the requisite rehab for “sexual addiction.” By then the damage had been done: Elin had moved out with their two children, his commercial endorsements were evaporating, and he had spiralled from hero to laughingstock—from Tiger to “Cheetah.”
In a post-Clintonian era, you’d think adultery would be accepted as a fact of life, like death and taxes. High-proﬁle marriages, prominently the Clintons’, survive it. A recent Associated Press survey claims infidelity is cited as the reason in only 17 per cent of divorces. Yet the stigma surrounding betraying a spouse is on the rise—so much so that a blackmailer last year tried to extort US$2 million from David Letterman to stay silent about the talk-show host’s long-term affair with an assistant. Last month, the New York Times branded biker and reality TV star Jesse James an “adulterous jerk” after he admitted he had put his marriage to beloved actress Sandra Bullock on the line by conducting an 11-month affair with a “tattoo model” who sold her story to a tabloid, which triggered another 10 women to come forth. Facing the firestorm, James borrowed from Woods’s playbook: “It’s because of my poor judgment that I deserve everything bad that is coming my way,” he said before checking into a treatment facility “to deal with personal issues” and to try to save his marriage.
Edward Shorter, a history professor at the University of Toronto, has dubbed the ritualistic shaming of adulterers the “New Puritanism.” “What has changed in the last half century is the fact private behaviour is seen as a proxy of public behaviour,” he says. “It wouldn’t have occurred to anyone to evaluate Kennedy’s effectiveness as a president by using his private morality as a measuring stick.” Not only men are subject to this metric, he notes: Iris Robinson, the 60-year-old Irish politician, and wife of Northern Ireland’s first minister, was forced to step down as an MP last year amid revelations she’d had an affair with a teenager. Even pro athletes whose affairs are legendary—even expected—aren’t exempt, says Shorter: “Woods’s leadership role to youth makes him vulnerable in a way sports heroes 50 years ago were not. Did Joe DiMaggio have affairs? Who knows? Who cared?”
Of course, DiMaggio lived decades before a celebrity-obsessed 24-hour news cycle chased stories broken by TMZ.com. Even the past decade has seen a dramatic shift in press coverage of marital inﬁdelity. In 2000, the National Enquirer broke Rev. Jesse Jackson’s affair with an employee, a relationship that produced a child and raised questions of improper campaign spending.
Mainstream media coverage was minimal, as was public outrage. Jackson settled with the woman out of court, remained married, and returned to his perch as America’s go-to guy in a national moral emergency. Ten years later, the Enquirer is up for a Pulitzer for exposing John Edwards’s four-year affair with Rielle Hunter, a scenario that echoes Jackson’s. Only this time, the dalliance made international headlines, torpedoed the presidential candidate’s political career, proved the death knell for his marriage and now sees Edwards facing federal grand jury indictment—and jail time—for allegedly directing campaign funds to Hunter, who worked as a campaign “videographer.”
Edwards thought he could stage-manage the story as so many politicians before him had: he dismissed the first allegations in 2007 as “ridiculous,” adding: “I’ve been in love with the same woman for 30-plus years.” He even renewed his wedding vows with his cancer-stricken wife, Elizabeth, on their 30th anniversary in 2008. That was a month before the Enquirer published photographs of him meeting with Hunter and her baby girl at a hotel. Again, Edwards tried to spin it, sitting for a TV interview in which he admitted to an affair but denied paternity—a role assumed by his aide Andrew Young in another elaborate ruse. By the time Edwards admitted in January of this year that he was the father—and that his wife had filed for divorce—the spectacle had descended into farce and the only shocking aspect remaining was that the charade had been perpetuated for so long.