May 2007

Michelle Risley

nonfiction

Lust in Translation: The Rules of Infidelity from Tokyo to Tennessee by Pamela Druckerman

In Lust in Translation, Pamela Druckerman romps through ten countries in search of statistics and stories from the philandering class. Her quest to understand “the rules of infidelity from Tokyo to Tennesee” began while reporting for the Wall Street Journal in Argentina, where she was casually propositioned by a slew of married men. Druckerman was as shocked by her bristly, moralistic reaction as by their blithe offers. “Merely by dint of having grown up in America, was I saddled with some kind of Puritan baggage that would keep me from experiencing great pleasure?”

Despite the well-worn national stereotypes, Druckerman discovered scant research on adultery, especially among the middle class. Even finding a reliable, statistics-based global ranking of infidelity took months of searching; she finally stumbled upon a just-finished report from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. (Surprise: Americans cheat more than the French.)

Over a third of the book is devoted to unveiling to Americans’ joyless, guilt-ridden affairs and their agonizing rehabilitations. Druckerman rightly attacks what she calls the Marriage-Industrial Complex, where a torrent of books, therapists, conferences large enough to fill football fields, and Web sites prescribe programmatic remedies that are alternately bizarre, self-aggrandizing (parents are blamed), and puritanical. While the motive for profit is palpable, many of these practitioners spread their messages with an almost evangelical fervency.

People everywhere are shattered after discovering that a spouse has cheated, but only Americans consistently let the trauma overwhelm their lives and deplete a marriage’s more sustaining elements. “Neither of us cries as much as we used to, because of the antidepressants,” one cuckold remarked, two years after his wife’s affair ended. The problem here is not necessarily that Druckerman’s wrong: when it comes to the rituals of love and marriage, Americans do seem to have their own peculiar mantra. It’s her preemptive, dismissive tone; she labors to show why the rest of the world finds our ideas of sex and love perverse and even fanciful. Almost all of her American subjects are frenzied golly-gee caricatures; even those described as intelligent seem naïve; others come across as crazed. (The American section is the only one where Druckerman quotes from internet chat rooms: in any country these are unlikely to serve as a forum for a society’s great thinkers to share their most profound thoughts.) Even the most hardened cynic must ask: Is anyone in America capable of good sense or genuine love?

Druckerman’s assessments of how adultery unfolds in different cultures are equally judgmental, a tendency that, contrary to her intentions, brands the book as a quintessentially American endeavor. The French are by far its most sympathetic, nuanced subjects. While rejecting the idea that they are “ourselves perfected,” Druckerman, who now lives in Paris, gushingly endorses their tendency to intellectualize affairs, their secularity, and their pragmatic discretion. But she only interviews haute Parisians and intellectuals, whose rarified manners and enchanting apartments she almost fetishizes. What’s absent is the rest of the country. Seventeen percent of votes in the 2002 presidential election went to the extreme right, and France has the largest Muslim population in Europe. Neither considerable constituency is unlikely to be cavalier about cheating, but they don’t intrude in Druckerman’s France.

The lack of political context, coupled with a moralizing tone, is particularly distressing in the chapter on South Africa, a country where one in five adults has HIV. Druckerman asks a series of cloying questions to understand why, despite “practically being experts on AIDS,” South Africans cheat so casually. “Isn’t the will to live and to protect their families a lot more primal and powerful than the desire to have sex with lots of different people?” Clearly many have heard the message; a recent study was entitled “I Know Condoms Are Good, but Aai, I Hate Those Things.” While Johannesburg may be brimming with public service announcements about the dangers of HIV, their credibility is consistently sabotaged at the highest levels of government, including by President Mbeki, who actively and publicly recruits the advice of AIDS denialists, a longstanding problem that Druckerman never raises.

Explanations of how dramatic political shifts have led to adultery inflation in China and Russia are brief but convincing. Russians, for instance, love to joke that “There was no sex in the Soviet Union.” Privacy was rare; finding a place to do the deed required cunning and a friend whose apartment was empty for an afternoon. By the 1960s adultery was criminalized; when people cheated it was necessarily kept secret. Reality changed in a heartbeat with the Soviet Union’s 1991 collapse. Sex was suddenly everywhere, though it was never publicly discussed. One sexologist reasons that cheating is now so common because of the looming Soviet zeitgeist. “We in Russia are so used to cheating each other, ” he said “ The Communist system took care of that.” Add to this the shortage of men, vodka, and the fact that, for many women sex has become a concrete step towards upward mobility. Today, Druckerman suspects, Russia is the most adulterous country in the industrialized world.

Observations about the drawbacks or dearth of academic, governmental, and corporate surveys on sex and adultery are entertaining and suggestive, if not illuminating. One key word was absent from a 1987 request for proposals for a sex survey sponsored by a US government institute: sex. In the mid-1990s, a Chinese academic study on how sex survey participants viewed their interviewers revealed that many considered the females questioners “bad women”; this isn’t surprising, given that most normal women reportedly felt “like vomiting” when asked to talk about sex.

Druckerman has a talent for crafting sly, taut sentences. Summing up the schism between how the rest of the world’s post-affair protocol differs from that of Americans she writes: “It didn’t occur to them that talking about their affairs might be an act of public service.” Often, though, her writing is clunky or pandering, as when she repeatedly channels the language of lust to communicate her most recent research discovery. Still, sayings such as the Japanese truism, “If you pay for it, it’s not cheating,” and stories like the one from a renegade Hasid make Lust in Translation lively and readable, even when the situation being described is clearly a personal tragedy.

Sex somehow becomes more complicated after the mechanics have been grasped, regardless of where it’s taking place. Adultery is a further, often fraught complication. Druckerman apparently wants to understand “cultural scripts” that define the idea of physical and emotional intimacy, and the social conventions and contradictions policing an act most Americans view as sinful. Lust in Translation is avowedly “quirky, personal, and sometimes accidental” in its scope. Because the book lacks a consistent social or political context, its success rests upon the precision and resonance of her perceptions, which are often sanctimonious and shallow. However fleeting the moments of pleasure in Lust in Translation may be, take one lesson from the book: don’t bother with the guilt.

Lust in Translation: The Rules of Infidelity from Tokyo to Tennessee by Pamela Druckerman
The Penguin Press
ISBN: 1594201145
304 Pages