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Jewish World Review Aug. 4, 2003/ 6 Menachem-Av, 5763

Suzanne Fields

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The male descending (from Mt. Sinai) | In the old vaudeville joke, Moses descends from Mount Sinai with a stone tablet under each arm. He has good news and bad news: "The good news is, I got Him down to 10. The bad news is, adultery is still on it."

Adultery is only a joke for those not devastated by it, of course, and the assumption for thousands of years has been that it's the man who is more prone to be prone in an improper liaison with a woman not his spouse.

There are lots of reasons for this: women risk pregnancy (even in the age of the Pill); men find it easier to separate sex from love; men (usually) have the power and money and women (usually) take care of the children.

But major shifts in the power balance in marriage have altered adultery, too. The incredible shrinking double standard in matters of sex (if not always in matters of the heart) has created a shift of epic proportions in the nature of sexual infidelity.

"The sex differences in infidelity are disappearing," psychologist Shirley Glass, a Baltimore psychologist who has studied adultery for two decades, tells Psychology Today magazine. While this suggests that adultery is an equal-opportunity opportunity, what's startling about the new research is that men are getting more emotionally involved with their extracurricular partners.

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In the original 1980 study, most male adulterers did not want to disrupt their marriage and the sexual affair usually did not make much impact on the husband's satisfaction with his marriage: "You could be in a good marriage and still cheat."

This anomaly was built mostly on the wife's sense of powerlessness, and the latest finding suggests that female emancipation has changed perceptions. Men have become more sensitive - just as women say they wanted him to be - but the sensitivity usually rewards the working woman, not the wife.

Today's adulterers are more likely to find fulfillment with a workmate. "The work relationship becomes so rich and the stuff at home is pressurized and child-centered," Shirley Glass says. "People get involved insidiously, without planning to betray."

As a result, adultery is more threatening and disruptive to the marriage and more likely to lead to divorce. Working wives have more sexual opportunities, too. (The milkman has disappeared, along with the cliché and the glass bottle.)

The sexual revolution, like all revolutions, has wrought unintended consequences. While cultural changes are not thought to influence biology, it's clear that the messages exchanged between men and women have changed behavior.

Men - some men - get facials and pedicures just like women, and usually in unisex beauty parlors. The newest group to come out of the clothes closet is the man who wants a makeover to liberate his feminine side. "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy," a reality TV show, explores the ways five gay men use their decorating and aesthetic savvy to refashion a heterosexual male into a straight with style. This gives postmodern revision of the old radio show, "Queen for a Day."

The effete urban heterosexual even has a name. He's a "metrosexual," a term originally applied satirically to the self-consumed male consumer of traditional women's products, such as bath oils, face creams and perfumes (and plastic surgery.) It's now a label worn with pride by the homosexualized straight man who's moved from "drab to fab."

Steve Jones, a professor of genetics at University College in London, describes the decline of maleness in a book aptly titled "Y: The Descent of Man." We all start out in the womb as female, and then the chromosomes and hormones take over, and the fetus becomes vulnerable to ambiguous influence with the Y, or male, chromosome in something like retreat.

Environment becomes a powerful influence on those who are prey to ambiguity. "Gender differences have been consumed by social change," writes the geneticist. "We are in the midst of an ascent of women matched with an equivalent descent of men."

Of course, one man's research is another man's interpretation. All of these studies coincide with yet another study that casts doubt on the old saw that opposites attract. Men and women in the latest scenario seek mirror images of each other in their pursuit of a mate. When 978 college students were given a "partner-picking" scale of values, they preferred mates who were most like them.

But perceptions of self and others, like everything else, change. That's what makes fashions. Moses, who never studied "gender change," got it right 3,000-plus years ago. The news still comes in both good and bad.

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© 2001, Suzanne Fields. TMS