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Is fidelity really a feminist issue?

The story that is rocking the rocking the United States seems remarkably weak on real, sordid scandal.

From here in the UK, where we are mired in a sex-abuse scandal so distressing as to be almost unreadable, the revelations that General Petraeus has resigned over an affair with his biographer, Paula Broadwell, seems like a glitzy soap episode, a bit of light relief.

What is troubling, though, is that stories like this bring out the worst in cliché and stereotyping. Petraeus is being presented as the fallen hero: still, according to the New York Times, "coming across as the perfect gentleman", who was seduced by a "homewrecker" who, according to one "senior military source" in Business Insider, "got her claws into him". This is a woman who, the Washington Post tells us, wore "tight shirts and pants".

In the media it has seemed this is either a tale of a powerful man taking advantage of a younger woman, or a story of a great hero brought down by a "military groupie" (a term used in the New York Post). I'm not sure which version I find more odious: the one that suggests women are out to use men, or the one that says men just use women.

It's little wonder conspiracy theories abound around this story. After all, the idea of a man resigning for little more than having an affair with a former colleague seems so reactionary as to be baffling.

Let's remember that around 60% of men and 40% of women have extramarital affairs, which makes infidelity very nearly a majority pursuit. If we expect certain people not to indulge, we are demanding a special level of personal control. And perhaps the job and the salary merit it. But then again, shouldn't we be more realistic about the pressures and temptations of the job? Recently, military journalist Tom Ricks said on CNN: "You put an officer out there on repeated tours and if he doesn't slip, I'd be surprised. What we have today is shocking proof that General Petraeus is a human being."

Currently the prime argument supporting Petraeus's resignation appears to be that people in such crucial positions of security shouldn't be opening themselves up to the possibility of blackmail by having an affair. This is fair enough – except that maybe it's not the affairs themselves that are the problem but our prudishness. If society simply accepted that some people in high office might commit infidelities, those individuals would be less blackmailable.

The finger-wagging around adultery is rife. Biographers, we are told, shouldn't do it, the military shouldn't do it, and those involved in intelligence shouldn't do it. Biographers because it undermines their impartiality, the CIA because it opens them to blackmail, and the military because under the Unified Joint Military Code, adultery is forbidden, particularly if it "has a tendency, because of its open or notorious nature, to bring the service into disrepute, make it subject to public ridicule, or lower it in public esteem".

Meanwhile, women working with the military, according to some articles, fear the scandal will hurt their role as advisers, and that having penetrated the inner circles of power, they will be pushed out again and considered too big a security threat. This reminds us how unwelcome women are in those circles. We are, as a culture, haunted by the tales of seductive spies and sirens like Christine Keeler and the notion that women are the divulgers and stealers of secrets. The female gender brings trouble.

At the same time, a form of denial is being exercised – particularly in the military – about sex in the workplace. The British military has a ban on sexual relationships in war zones, yet an article in Soldier, the official army magazine, urged female soldiers to take condoms with them on postings. Perhaps it's not surprising this traditionally masculine field should be among the last to acknowledge women are really there and present as sexually functioning adults. It's treated as a matter of shock that so many women returned from Iraq pregnant – rather than the inevitable by-product of the fact that men and women were thrown together, under stress, in another part of the world.

It's hard to know what the next twist in the Petraeus soap opera will be. But, I, for one, will be disappointed if there is not, as Broadwell's father has suggested, "more than meets the eye", and it turns out to be just the elaborate tale of a high-profile extramarital affair. That, after all, would hardly be worth the fuss. And it would suggest we are very far from learning how to negotiate a working world where some amount of sex between consenting adults is almost inevitable, and we are still trying to pretend the women shouldn't be there in the first place.

l The world: pages 22 and 23

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