Adultery, wife-swapping and the complicated sexual mores of today

How long after a colleague is killed should a President wait before `making requests' of an intern?
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The Independent Culture
IT IS not surprising that the most successful newspaper in Britain today is Adultery News (sold under the euphemistic moniker of the Daily Mail), which devotes itself almost solely to tales of infidelities, both ancient and modern. In Saturday's shamefully exciting edition, for instance,we might discover the post-Great War tale of the then Prince of Wales's passionate affair with the wife of a Liberal MP, Freda Dudley Ward.

And then, yesterday, came an equally enthralling episode dealing with the illicit liaison between his brother (later George VI) and Sheila, Lady Loughborough who, appropriately, was an Australian. But this was to be found only after we had drawn the net curtains again on pieces dealing with the latest accusations against Bill Clinton, and the delightful story of how a Seventies wife-swapping session cost Richard Branson his greatest love.

Nothing gets us going like bonking out of turn. Not least, apparently, because infidelity justifies a level of interest in the minutiae of other people's sexual lives that marriage never does. When was the last time you read about a husband and wife enjoying a "steamy romp", or revealing that so and so (their partner of 20 years) was a ten-times-a-night man? Never, that's when. By contrast, also in yesterday's Adultery News, a man called Daniel Jeffreys wrote of the US president that "he had engaged in sexual acts that even the most seasoned libertine might hesitate to request" with the young intern Monica L. Crikey, Daniel!

What Jeffreys points to, however - albeit unwittingly - is how complex sexual etiquette has become. The revelations threatening to drive the Clinton presidency over the precipice are not so much the sex itself (all cigar and no talk, apparently), as the timing of the sex. Washington is said to be reeling from the news that, according to NBC, "Monica Lewinsky had a sexual encounter with the President in his White House study, hours after Clinton attended Easter services with his family."

Hours after an Easter service? Hot dog! So Clinton should have left it how long exactly? Would one day have been sufficient? Or perhaps till the end of Easter week? And would it have been all right to have had sex with Hillary just after the Easter service? For Bill, I mean. But in fact Clinton's sin was worse even than a Christian service proximity one. This particular service was "filled with references to the death of Commerce Secretary Ron, killed in a plane crash in Croatia earlier that week".

You can see how tricky this is getting. Just how long after a Commerce Secretary is killed should a President decently wait before "making requests" of a buxom intern? A week? A month? Longer in the case of a foreign head of state? Then there is the allegation that another "sex session" took place as Yasser Arafat waited in the Rose Garden for a rendezvous with the President. It is clearly wrong to keep a guest waiting, but is it also wrong to have adulterous sex an hour before meeting an important dignitary?

It is little wonder that some of my older colleagues hark back to less complicated days. William Rees-Mogg, writing in The Times yesterday, made the unfashionable point that a president who lies to his wife is also likely to be a murderer. Though Mr Mogg (as I like to think of him) admits there is no evidence, as such, of homicidal activity on Clinton's part, he suggests that the 21 deaths of people in some way associated with the Clintons - including eight suicides and five plane crash fatalities - are very suspicious when you consider what Bill got up to with Monica.

This is a connection that many of us make, though usually less eccentrically. Infidelity seems to be both the most interesting and the most threatening of domestic crimes, involving intricate deception and the dilution of valid passion with the nasty fluids of calculation. The modern romantic image that most of us have of relationships is of honesty, openness and commitment. The contract is for sole, vacant possession. In recent years private eyes have got quite a lot of business from women in Britain and America who want to see whether their men can be entrapped into agreeing to have casual sex with a beautiful stranger encountered in a bar or pub. Should they fail the test, they are dropped. And they do all fail.

But the end of a relationship, say the romantics, is not the end of life. True, the thinking has gone, an affair must end the marriage. That's sad, but you then divide the spoils, settle the visitation rights, and get on with the next passionate relationship, which you hope will be the last. This pattern is called serial monogamy. And the only problem with it is that it is completely unrealistic, seriously damages children and will almost certainly result in a repetition of the behaviour that ended the first relationship.

The costs of serial monogamy are becoming better understood. And there are many worse things than infidelity in modern marriages. I know of at least one woman, once intelligent and vibrant, who - over 20 years - has been turned into a shadowy drudge by her belittling, scornful, pathologically jealous, ever-faithful husband. You can't say that about Mrs Clinton, now can you?

But just because I think that adultery is not the ultimate sin, and is usually not worth breaking up a home for (certainly not one with children in it), that is not the same as saying that it is mostly a good idea.

And we could take as our text for worrying about it no less an authority than that Sixties marvel, Richard Branson himself. As his wife Joan says about him, the Virgin boss has always had weaknesses for "sticky cake and beautiful women" (with Bill Clinton it is, of course, the other way around).

In his autobiography Branson tells how he lost his first wife, Kristen, to the rock star Kevin Ayers, as the result of a wife-swapping party. Described, inevitably, in yesterday's Adultery News, the setting was his "romantic houseboat in London's Little Venice. Cushions were scattered on the floor. The scene was set for swapping and seduction." And, apparently, alliteration. Nevertheless, all readers of Adultery News now know to avoid houseboats with floor cushions.

So Richard went off with Kevin's Cyrille, leaving Kirsten behind. And Kirsten and Kevin subsequently fell in love, went off together and had a child, a drug problem and a divorce. Richard spent a few years trying to entice her back, and failed. What he'd taken for sanctioned, positive adultery, she'd interpreted as an indication of a lack of real feeling and sympathy. And she may well have been right; infidelity, like silence, is hard to interpret. Yet interpret it we must.

What then are we left with, we fallible people? To bend a Thatcher phrase, I think that it shows that there are no rules, only relationships. Each one is complex and messy, consisting of the chemical reaction, over time, between two separate pathologies. In that sense, all liaisons are dangereuses. Each one has to be discussed on its merits.

Incongruously, you may think, yesterday's Adultery News also carried a page - twixt Bill and Dick - entitled "The Good Relationship Guide". It makes the (controversial) point that what works in one situation may not in another. We all need to judge less and understand more. Amen.