The New Adultery Rules

How you look at things.
May 11 2000 3:00 AM

The New Adultery Rules

The ethics of adultery used to be straightforward. "Thou shalt not commit adultery," said the Ten Commandments. Recently, however, public opinion has grown rather more complicated. While Gary Hart and Newt Gingrich were ruined by cheating, Bill Clinton and Rudy Giuliani have gotten away with it. By a margin of 77 percent to 12 percent, New Yorkers say Giuliani's newly disclosed "friendship" with Judith Nathan, a divorced socialite, "is a private matter and has no effect on how I view Giuliani as a Senate candidate." So is adultery now OK? Not quite. Thanks to the eternal human craving for scandal and gossip, the old strictures against adultery haven't disappeared. They have merely evolved into a subtler, more confused list of commandments.

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1. Thou shalt not flaunt it. The old rule said you couldn't do it. The new rule says you can do it, but we don't want to know about it. Giuliani says his sex life is "private." His Senate opponent, Hillary Clinton, agrees. So does his old enemy, ex-Mayor Ed Koch.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right. Follow him on Twitter.

1a. Thou shalt not hide it. Watergate taught Americans that the cover-up is worse than the crime. That's why Bill Clinton got in so much trouble over Paula Jones and Monica Lewinsky. "The mayor will not lie about it, to his credit," applauds the New York Times' Joyce Purnick.

2. Thou shalt give thy lover privacy. Chivalry requires that while enduring the scrutiny all politicians face, the adulterer must "protect" his paramour. "You can pursue public officials all you want," Giuliani tells reporters. But as for Nathan, he argues, "People who are private citizens should really be left alone."

2a. Thou shalt give thy lover public affection. The paramour may deserve privacy, but the politician reaps praise for "holding hands" and being "affectionate" with her. "Everything about this—illness, love—humanizes the mayor," an analyst tells the Washington Post.

3. Thou shalt be ashamed. The old rule said everybody is tempted, but you shouldn't do it. The new rule says everybody does it, but you should repent afterward. Hence the post-Monica obsession with Bill Clinton's "contrition" and the laments from some quarters at Giuliani's frankness.

3a. Thou shalt not be ashamed. The old school said moral reality should determine perception. The new school says moral perception determines reality. You dignify your adultery by confirming it with dignity. "It is the way one behaves when confronted with his or her actions" that matters, says the New York Post's Andrea Peyser. "The mayor stood before the hungry press corps alone" and "made no attempt to conceal" his affair. "He's got guts."

4. Thou shalt not get accustomed to it. The old rule said a lapse was bad. The new rule says a pattern is bad, but a lapse is OK. Gennifer Flowers was OK. But Paula Jones, Kathleen Willey, and Monica Lewinsky were not OK. Giuliani doesn't have to abstain from adultery. He just has to abstain more often than Bill Clinton does.

4a. Thou shalt accustom the voters to it. This school of thought says the more often you commit adultery, the less surprised your constituents will be each time. By the time Clinton got to Lewinsky, the voters were too jaded to throw him out. Likewise, Giuliani's advisers say voters are shrugging off his affair because over the years he "has made no secret of his estrangement from his wife."

5. Thou shalt not do it behind thy spouse's back. The old idea was that God decides whether adultery is OK. The new idea is that your spouse decides. "It probably helps Giuliani that this story lacks a true victim" since his wife knows about it and leads an openly "independent existence," writes the Washington Post's Richard Cohen.