The Dominique Strauss-Kahn scandal, aside from its lurid nature, perpetuates an enduring cliché that does a disservice to ordinary French people. In all the media madness, commentary inevitably that takes the scandal out of context and uses it as a pretext to recycle old cliches about the French in general. Most notably, there's the long-standing cliche that French society is entirely laissez-faire about infidelity. But not all French people are happily passing off their spouses while they tip back their wine glasses and shrug away the tribulations of conjugal life with a jaunty c'est la vie. Au contraire.
So let's step away from the DSK scandal, consider ordinary life for a moment, and get one long-standing Perception/Reality Problem out of the way. Perception: The French are all adulterous. Everyone has, is, knows, or wants to be a mistress. Reality: According to an exhaustive study comparing the sexuality of Americans and the French, Americans are actually more adulterous than the French.
"The difference between France and the States is that in France the extra-marital partner lasts a long time, whereas in the States it's often a one-night stand," summarized Alain Giami, research director for a Franco-American project titled "A Comparative Study of the Couple in the Social Organization of Sexuality in France and the United States" published in the 2001 Journal of Sex Research. Adds Giami: "We've noticed that Americans have more affairs, in shorter duration, than the French. The major difference between French and Americans can be summarized as follows: The French are marathoners and Americans are sprinters."
In other words, we all push the marital envelope, we just wear different running shoes.
Of course we never look at it this way. On the one hand, les liaisons dangeureuses are so intimately woven into France's cultural heritage that to whip up any polemic around the subject would be banal by French standards. On the other hand, we Americans are thoroughly convinced that we have the monopoly on moral values, even though it's often the biggest moral pontificators among us who get caught with their pants down.
The relationship between love and marriage is a relatively recent one, lest we forget. Love, with all its tentacles, has often found its place outside the confines of conjugal life. Volumes have been written about French courtesans who've serviced men of all rank; more contemporarily, French literature and cinema has brought to America a world where innumerable affairs within affairs are nestled like Russian dolls in snug, libidinous stacks. If you take all this at face value (and unless you live in France, how can you not?), everyone is fooling around with somebody else's husband, brother, father, uncle, neighbor, plumber, car mechanic, or music teacher. The French, it seems, just can't take their hands off each other's spouses.
In the real world, however, adultery creates pyrotechnics in French relationships, just like it does in other relationships, and it remains among the number one cause for divorce in France. The French are indeed more at ease with -- and realistic about -- the notion that one single person might not easily satisfy a lifetime of personal desire. They're equally at ease viewing infidelities as a prism through which to explore the complicated terrain of the human heart. But adultery is a dangerous grey zone in France that often tears French couples apart.
If Giami's study flies in the face of our long-standing perceptions about the French, these perceptions still remain deeply embedded not only in our minds, but in history. And Dominique Strauss-Kahn, a member of a privileged elite of French politicians with a hugely inflated sense of entitlement and invincibility, is part of that historical continuum. It's unfortunate that his egregious actions have been taken out of context to perpetuate old myths about adultery and the French. When it comes to ordinary French men and women, adultery is a wilderness they enter at their own risk. In this the French share with everyone, including Americans, a universal struggle between passion and propriety. As Mae West once put it: "I used to be Snow White, but I drifted." Contrary to popular opinion, adultery is not a French trademark.