Sex Happens 

It's not cheating, it's just nature

Most Americans were shocked that retired four-star general and CIA Director David Petraeus resigned after admitting to an extramarital affair. Few should be surprised.

Modern life distances humans from many natural experiences, but not without some negative consequences. Heating and air conditioning let some of us live in 24/7 comfort, but mostly by digging up fossilized carbon deposited over millions of years and releasing it into the atmosphere—something that’s bringing our entire species ever closer to disaster.

Sadly, we’ve also unnaturally altered our sex lives.

In their 2010 book Sex at Dawn, psychologist Christopher Ryan and his psychiatrist wife, Cacilda Jethá, reject the notion that we moderns know how to do sex. From studying behavior in primitive cultures and among our primate cousins, they conclude that the modern social requirement for lifelong fidelity has seriously messed us up.

These researchers argue that we’re hard-wired to experience sexual interactions with numerous partners, but societies began suppressing that inclination during the Agricultural Revolution 10,000 years ago when people (most commonly women) began being treated as property—a social shift that spawned both monogamous and polygamous marriages.

During the 20th century, Western society further defied natural inclinations when it began to expect men to be completely faithful—something it had previously required only of women. In Ryan and Jethá’s ideal natural world, we’d live more like ’60s hippies or free-loving bonobo chimps and less like sexually repressed Victorians.

So let’s get back to the good general. His fall from grace occurred after a female doctoral candidate came to Afghanistan to interview him for a dissertation. Her thesis morphed into a biographical book.


My curiosity piqued, I Googled images of Holly Petraeus—the general’s wife of 37 years—and the “other woman,” 40-year-old Paula Broadwell. It was obvious to me that few normal, healthy males would have conducted themselves much differently. Or they would have at least committed Jimmy Carter-style “adultery in the heart.” Broadwell is an astute, articulate, attractive, ambitious, athletic (and those are just the As) West Point honors grad and Army Reserve major. In short, even with a 20-year age difference, she and Petraeus had a lot in common.

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And hasn’t experience taught us by now that humans who find each other attractive often find a way to have sex, despite social taboos and placing their careers and marriages at risk? World War II general and former President Dwight D. Eisenhower had an affair with his driver, Capt. Kay Summersby. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s lover Lucy Rutherfurd was at his bedside when he died, and his wife, Eleanor Roosevelt, also may have had a paramour, Lorena Hickok. The extra-marital dalliances of former Presidents Kennedy and Clinton are well-documented. Even prominent religious figures are known to “go all rock star” and fall off the fidelity wagon.

In some countries, such revelations are passé, but Americans still act as if infidelity is rare. Sexologist Alfred Kinsey found in his studies that 50 percent of males and 26 percent of females had extramarital sex at least once during their lifetime.

We should ask ourselves if we’ve become a completely degenerate society or if something else is at play. Unlike most other creatures, humans have an instinctual urge to mate year-round. In harsher times, many of our ancestors and their offspring didn’t live long, so a high reproduction rate may have been a survival necessity.

But today, we’ve overpopulated most habitable real estate and are hitting the limits of critical resources. We’ve also developed techniques to prevent unwanted pregnancies while still carrying around the urge to constantly reproduce (Mother Nature or nature’s God made the act damned pleasurable, and the need for intimacy, including touching, intense), so people continue to have or desire lots of sex. That’s where our social-compliance programming toward monogamy and fidelity collide head-on with our instinctive desire for closeness with more than one person.

We moderns have a tough time managing that conflict, so:

  • Some resort to cheating while attempting to maintain marriages.

  • Some hire prostitutes.

  • Some negotiate don’t-ask-don’t-tell “open” arrangements with significant others.

  • Some find swinging works for couples wanting additional sexual gratification.

  • Some engage in polygamy, which has lost some of its stigma thanks, in part, to two Utah-based TV series.

  • The practice of polyamory allows for open and honest relationships with multiple partners and is a gender-equal alternative to monogamy.

So, sex happens and is going to continue to happen. Perhaps we’ll also experience a social evolution. Do the careers of talented leaders like Petraeus and others making significant contributions to society have to end up on the rocks, simply because spouses are thinking about or actually engaging in sex outside of marriage—in other words, acting like normal human beings?

Freelance writer Jim Catano, a proponent of polyamory, wrote the June 1, 2011, cover story “Bigger Love,” which looked at the local polyamorous community. 

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Jim Catano

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