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19 June 2000

No hanky-panky on Olympus

Men, with biological determinists behind them, now admire promiscuity. Yet the idea that they are th

By Celia Brayfield

When Hollywood calls, you know you must have hit a nerve. Not until the night that Tom Cruise, Oprah Winfrey and Demi Moore were all bidding for the rights to my new novel did I understand that I was on to something big.

Until that point, I thought I’d just written a wisp of post-feminist candyfloss, a ladette response to the Mozart/Da Ponte opera CosI fan Tutte. The opera may be musically exquisite, but in terms of gender politics it’s offensive. This is not just a modern view. Mozart was hardly cold in his pauper’s grave before critics were observing that the story “degrades all women, [and] is hardly likely to please female members of the audience”.

The title translates loosely as “They All Do It”, and the opera concerns two young men who are engaged to two lovely sisters. Enter a cynical older man, who sees women as monsters and marriage as the worst thing that can happen to a man – because of the inevitable shame of cuck- oldry. “The fidelity of women is like the Arabian phoenix,” he tells them. “Everybody’s heard of it, but nobody knows where it is.”

The young lovers protest that their girls are different, so the old cynic makes a bet that, if they do as he says, they’ll succeed in seducing each other’s fiancees. Every time I heard this piece – after a rocky start in the operatic repertoire, it is now redesigned and revived constantly – I was struck by the way the older man slags off women. His tone is exactly that of a bunch of modern girls out male-bashing.

Women circulate jokes about men the whole time. There is an entire samizdat of e-mails, faxes and web pages filled with dodgy wit such as: “Why did the man cross the road? Because he couldn’t get his cock out of the chicken.” Much as I like a laugh, I can’t take this vein of humour. It sounds like a gender vendetta. The tone is precisely the same rabid hostility that you hear in the misogynist literature of less enlightened times, the rants that made Germaine Greer ask: “Do women have any idea how much men hate them?”

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And besides, argued my inner voice as all the pretty arias were sung, it’s men who are the unfaithful sex. Everyone knows that. So I turned the concept around, and wrote a story about two girls engaged to two gorgeous blokes, and an older woman who hates men and sees marriage as the worst thing that can happen to a woman – because of the inevitable shame of ending up like Hillary Clinton. The girls protest and the witch bets them that they’ll be able to seduce each other’s fiances if they do exactly what she says.

When I was pitching this story, I found that I got instant comprehension as soon as I mentioned Hillary Clinton. Indeed, I got barely repressed shudders of terror. I should have realised then that it is now the modern woman’s worst nightmare to end up publicly spliced to a man with a zipper problem.

For a modern woman, an unfaithful partner is a source not only of private pain, but also of public humiliation. Now that women have public profiles and professional status, they also suffer, as betrayed spouses, the implications of sexual inadequacy, poor judgement and downright foolishness, which once threatened only husbands. Add to this the aggressive misogyny of lad culture and you have a hot issue.

Men’s infidelity is something on which men and women seem to agree less and less. Recent newspaper articles have lauded a well-known TV presenter as “a great womaniser” and gilded the reputation of Norman Mailer with the term “roistering”.

While men increasingly admire promiscuity, women are less willing to accept it. A recent Guardian/ICM poll on the royal family revealed that far more women than men oppose the idea of Prince Charles as the national icon because they consider his conduct during his marriage unacceptable.

My own circle of friends is thick with ex-husbands who can’t understand why their wives considered that their marriages were over when “all” they did was have an affair. Even in cases in which the wives in question were pregnant, miscarrying or having chemotherapy, the guys are going around with that air of martyrdom, asking what they did wrong.

This book is my second exploration of the subject. My first, a much blacker tale, featured a serial adulterer among media folk, who meets a melodramatic end at the hands of one of the many women he has betrayed. My plan to cast the serial adulterer as the villain of that story was finally scuppered by the men in the marketing department, who sold him as the hero on the grounds that successful serial adultery was the ambition of the average bookshop manager, typically a bloke in his twenties. The film rights were also sold quickly, but my hopes were dashed when I came across the industry executive who’d signed the cheque for them, out celebrating with a night on the pull at the Groucho Club.

Perhaps, for straight men, we are still in the golden age of promiscuity. Pregnancy is no longer a problem, not so much because of contraception as because men reason that, with equality, women can easily bring up children on their own. Lad culture has promoted the growth of a callow and selfish concept of masculinity in which it is considered unmanly to take responsibility for anything.

We have the biological determinists to explain that men are “hardwired” to want sex with as many partners as possible and to kill each other to get it. Male fidelity is an evolutionary impossibility, according to writers such as Tim Birkhead, whose recent book, Promiscuity, with its theories of sperm competition and sperm choice, was hugely interesting to the tabloids. It seems so girly to mention that there are certain differences between chimpanzees and people. Notably, our young need hands-on nurturing for at least seven years, but can’t reproduce until they’re about ten.

If it weren’t for our brains, we’d be going the same way as the giant panda. Human evolutionary success is determined by the number of our young who survive to maturity, not by the number of sperm expended in conceiving them. This should make bonding and breadwinning our biological imperative, and inventing penicillin a far more significant activity than random shagging.

The idea of men as the unfaithful sex is a modern one. Philandering (the perpetrators’ preferred term) did not appear in The Nobility and Excellence of Women and the Defects and Vices of Men, a thesis by the 16th-century Venetian writer Lucrezia Marinella, recently published by the University of Chicago Press. Marinella accused men of rage, cruelty, vanity, bad manners, pig-headedness and delusions of superiority, but her chapter on fickleness and inconstancy refers to intellectual instability, not sexual betrayal.

Libertines were not admired in early modern Europe, especially not by other men. The traditional feminist view is that adulterers infringed patriarchal property rights, but the universal tendency of earlier societies to discipline or destroy men who tried to put it about suggests a wider base of disapproval.

Henry Cavendish, described as “the common bull” of all Derbyshire, was disinherited by his mother, Bess of Hardwick, who wrote him off as “my bad son Henry”. Sir Walter Raleigh was stitched up and executed; Casanova was run out of every town in which he pursued his sleazy ambitions. Being noblemen, they were probably the lucky ones.

Later, we note the furtive fumblings of Samuel Pepys, laboriously recorded in code in his diary from an elaborate sense of shame. Boswell was no more proud of his visits to London prostitutes, and brought upon himself the censure of Dr Johnson, who considered promiscuity an evil crime and wanted legislation to stamp out “irregular intercourse” between the sexes.

Infidelity used to be condemned not only because it broke up families and weakened communities, but also because it caused pain to all the women and children involved. Those opposed to the interests of Princess Diana, in the Battle of the Waleses, based their arguments on the principle that anyone who was hurt because their husband was unfaithful must be mad.

Classical mythology, in which so much of the collective unconscious is portrayed, gives the issue central importance in the knock-down-drag-out fights between Zeus and Hera. Hera was an older deity than her husband, a sophisticated reincarnation of much earlier fertility goddesses.

Her role, usually reduced to “the goddess of marriage and child- bearing” by historians, is understood by storytellers as the much wider interests of women as a social force, as public figures, moral arbiters and political activists.

It is worth noting that Zeus was the only serial adulterer on Olympus. Other gods sometimes strayed, but Zeus systematically worked his way through nymphs and mortals by lying and deception. It was said that he lied so much he had to issue a general amnesty for human dishonesty.

Through the narrative backbone of our culture run the beliefs that deception destroys trust; that, without trust, love cannot be sustained; and that raising a family on dishonesty is a bad idea. Hera always reacted to Zeus’s affairs with anger, and persecuted his lovers and their children, including Hercules; Zeus hung her out of heaven with anvils tied to her feet, but she couldn’t quite forgive him.

As a woman scorned, Hera was nothing compared to Pasiphae, the wife of Minos, King of Crete, who revenged herself on her unfaithful husband by giving him a potion that made him ejaculate snakes and scorpions.

In these stories, both the promiscuous impulses of the male and the anger and pain of the female are held to be legitimate, but the idea that all males are to be admired because they are driven by uncontrollable sexual impulses was not part of the picture. Curiously, the most attractive gods, those who were eternally young and handsome, were not typically victims of their sexuality.

The promiscuity of Zeus and Minos seems to be more about their power, or rather the abuse of their dominance. Males who are less than supreme rulers usually meet disaster when they fail to channel their sexuality in a socially acceptable direction. The annihilation of Troy was the least of it.

Stories that come down the female line have a different perspective. There is a Native American legend about a character called Coyote Dick, whose penis went off on an adventure by itself while he was asleep. It went hopping down the road, and then hopped off into the woods, where it fell into a patch of stinging nettles.

Coyote Dick woke up, discovered he was missing his bits and ran off to rescue his penis. He found it and stuck it back where it belonged, but it itched ever afterwards. Which, says the storyteller, is why men are always sidling around women trying to get some friction.

There is a world of difference between the affectionate trivialisation of male sexuality in this story and the river of anger that runs through modern women’s jokes about the way men are supposed to be. This is the humour of those who feel threatened and hurt; it is covert, passive and utterly destructive. It is a defence against attitudes and behaviour that employ infidelity as the ultimate weapon against feminism. It is time to ask if men have any idea how much women hate them.

Celia Brayfield’s Heartswap is published by Little, Brown (£16.99)

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