If you are too young to remember Monica Lewinsky’s affair with President Bill Clinton as it was first revealed to a gobsmacked nation, you missed a cultural phenomenon the likes of which I have never seen before or since. Everyone was riveted. No matter how unseemly the details became (or maybe because they were unseemly), no one could turn away. It was all anyone talked about. Stern-faced news anchors found themselves saying things on the air they could never have imagined.
All of that has bubbled back into our consciousness lately because of Lewinsky’s just-published piece in Vanity Fair, “Shame and Survival.” It got me wondering, What if Monica Lewinsky had been married when she had her dalliance with the President? Would people have been talking about her in the same ways?
A sampling of some of what was said, out loud, by prominent voices is captured by a 1998 piece in the New York Observer, “New York Supergals Love That Naughty Prez,” about a panel discussion on the topic. Here are a few of the quips and quotes, with descriptions of the authors as they appeared in the article:
Erica Jong (her Fear of Flying introduced the concept of the ‘zipless f#@k’):
“Here’s a cute, sexy, young President…He might stimulate the fantasies of all the young women who work in the office. And particularly the ones who are a bit father-obsessed and obsessed with older men and feel neglected.”
Marisa Bowe (editor of Word):
“…I just thought, Oh, she looks so sad. Like, poor girl.”
Maguy LeCoze (restaurateur and owner of the restaurant where the discussion took place):
“…everyone was saying, Oh, poor little girl. She’s 21…”
Francine Prose [She moderated the debate; she was not introduced in the story but she is an author]:
“…the thing I kept hearing over and over again was that Monica Lewinsky’s not that pretty.”
Nancy Friday (author of The Power of Beauty):
“If you’re married and you’re having an adulterous affair, you don’t talk to anybody about it.”
Susan Shellogg (retired dominatrix and writer):
“I think the President is reckless for not practicing safe sex if she has stains on her dress. She was not using a condom. That’s a big story.” [Bella’s editorial comment: She?]
My colleague Wendy Morris and I have done a series of studies over the years on perceptions of single and married people (discussed here). Sometimes we just asked people to talk in an open-ended way, telling us the thoughts that come to mind when they hear “single” or “married.” In other studies, we created brief biographical sketches of men and women in which everything about the people in the sketches was identical, except that sometimes the person was described as single, and other times, the exact same person was described as married. Other people, such as Tobias Greitemeyer, have also done systematic research on perceptions, misperceptions, and stereotypes of single people.
The theme of “the little girl” that ran through the discussion of Monica Lewinsky is fairly predictable from our research. In one study after another, people rate the single person as less mature and more child-like than the married one, even when they are described identically. The identical descriptions include age. Singles are rated less positively than married people even when both are said to be 25 years old, or both are said to be 40 years old.
In Chapter 6 of Singled Out, I made fun of the myth that if you are single, “It is all about you: Like a child, you are self-centered and immature and your time isn’t worth anything since you have nothing to do but play.” Erica Jong believes that even when women are old enough to be working in an office, there are still those who are “a bit father-obsessed and obsessed with older men and feel neglected.”
Something else significant jumps out of these quips: pity. Oh, the poor thing. What single person hasn’t heard something like that before?
Then there’s the dig that Monica’s not that attractive. That’s something that gets hurled at single people, too. As Greitemeyer showed in his research, even when there are no real differences in attractiveness (as indicated by ratings made by people who are not given information about marital status), people still say that that the married people are more attractive.
What about the belief that “If you’re married and you’re having an adulterous affair, you don’t talk to anybody about it.” I don’t know of any research that tests that directly, but there is a study suggesting that there are many topics about which married women talk to their friends just as often as they talk to their husbands. Those topics include childrearing philosophies, division of housework and childcare, communication within the marriage, decision-making, and more. I think it is an open question as to whether married people are more or less likely than single people to discuss their affairs with other people.
As for sexual recklessness, people are more likely to ascribe that to single people, too. But research shows that it is the people in close sexual partnerships such as marriage who are especially unlikely to practice safe sex. (Discussed here.)
There is a huge academic literature on infidelity. Type “infidelity” into the database of scholarly articles in psychology, and more than 1300 references come back at you. But so far as I can tell, there is no systematic study answering the question of interest here: Are people any more (or less) judgmental if a married person is having an affair with a single person, as compared to another married person?
I even checked with some of my favorite sources, including the one who wrote that great review of decades of research on infidelity in America, and someone else who wrote a terrific article about the evolution of coupling. They couldn’t come up with anything either.
On another set of topics:
You may also be interested in “How to make happy people feel bad” and “What’s wrong with this effusive account of a great experience?” Long-time “Living Single” readers will probably figure out that answer instantly.
There are a few recent articles that I will try to find time to blog about, but in the meantime, if you are interested, you can take a look at them now: