Baby, let's all screw around: The great monogamy vs infidelity debate

In recent years, infidelity has acquired a subversive cachet that makes old-fashioned monogamy seem safe and repressed. After centuries of being bullied into monogamy, we are now urged to embrace more enlightened open relationships.

Lakshmi Chaudhry June 02, 2012 13:14:18 IST
Baby, let's all screw around: The great monogamy vs infidelity debate

"They are sooo lucky," sighs a designer friend, admiring the free and open relationship shared by a gay couple of her acquaintance, "My husband would never go for it. It's all good as long as we're talking about him having the affairs. The moment I say, 'What about me'...that's it! End of discussion."

In recent years, screwing around has acquired a subversive cachet that makes old-fashioned fidelity seem dull, safe, and repressed. After centuries of being bullied into monogamy, we are now being hectored by avant garde intellectuals into embracing infidelity.

"[Monogamy is] similar to voluntarily amputating a healthy limb: a lot of anesthesia is required and the phantom pain never entirely abates," writes Laura Kipnis in her bestselling polemic, Against Love, comparing the modern monogamous marriage to "a domestic gulag." The more recent "The Monogamy Gap: Men, Love and the Reality of Cheating" by Eric Anderson describes fidelity as a form of "sexual incarceration."

Baby lets all screw around The great monogamy vs infidelity debate

Higamous, hogamous, who wants to be monogamous? Certainly not any sane, healthy sexual being. Reuters

Sounds like a typical phoren mindset? Not so, avers Mihir Srivastava in Open magazine, who claims, "Fact is the idea of an open relationship has many takers in India" who "see it as an acknowledgment and acceptance of — even respect for — their partner’s needs."

Higamous, hogamous, who wants to be monogamous? Certainly not any sane, healthy sexual being.

The great monogamy vs infidelity debate inevitably falls into a well-worn track. Traditionalist tout fidelity as a mature, responsible and civilised commitment to forego base impulses in favour of our higher nature. Their critics attack the same as an artificial and stifling construct imposed by a repressive society to imprison our biological desire for variety. And while the anti-monogamy rhetoric sounds more liberating, their premises are every bit as flawed as the arguments of the moralists.

One, the urge to cheat is biologically hardwired into our genes, unlike monogamy. The evidence is culled from biology, anthropology, animal behaviour, and psychology, but most damning are the infidelity stats. Conclusion: most of us will cheat given the opportunity and when there is no fear of consequences.

Ok, so we're wired to cheat, but we are just as genetically disposed toward exclusive pair bonding. Anger, jealousy, and insecurity is every bit as "natural" as our sexual restlessness, and the psychobiological evidence can make a compelling case for either. Both anti-monogamists and traditionalists ask the same: we suppress certain biological urges while privileging others.

Two, remaining faithful is hard work. In monogamy, writes Kipnis, "desire is organised contractually, with accounts kept and fidelity extracted like labour from employees.." But desire is every bit as "organised contractually" in open relationships which require carefully negotiated ground rules. No friends, not at home, only out of town... the list is endless.

At a previous job in San Francisco, our polyamorous office manager spent much of his time carefully allotting every minute of his spare time. I can't spend Monday with Melanie because she will be with her girlfriend, so I will do movie night with Sara, but does that break the twice-a-week rule I came up with Callie.... My staid desi marriage seemed stress-free in comparison.

Three, we can control our desire. If monogamists want us to suppress our desire for others, open relationship advocates assume we can determine how we desire them. Srivastava's claim that "open-ness actually consolidates" a relationship, and that "such an arrangement can last as long as any other relationship" is absurdly naïve. Inviting another person into the marital bedroom is inherently risky. Unruly emotions like love, lust, and infatuation rarely follow the rules, traditional or otherwise.

As even Kipnis admits, “The thing is, there’s consequences of getting into bed with someone that are unpredictable... There is usually this dropping of a cherry bomb into the domestic scene. In some ways that’s a good thing, if you think that exploding traditional marriage setups is good, but it can also be a devastating thing, no matter how enlightened you are.”

Four, gay, straight, same difference. In making his case, Srivastava references the opinions of three experts – all of them male and gay, including Anderson – and claims that what works for male-male couples holds true for heterosexuals. And thereby sidesteps the glaring fact that straight couples carry enormous cultural expectations about marriage and gender.

In a blistering critique of Anderson's males-only research methodology, Guardian's Catherine Hakim notes that most of the straight subjects in his males-only study "certainly did not want their partner to have the same privilege." Hence their preference for old-fashioned infidelity which allows a man to exercise his age-old prerogative while safeguarding his woman's chastity. A heterosexual male's desire for variety hardly makes a compelling case for a truly open relationship. And a relationship that involves two men doesn't tell you much about the equation when a woman is involved.

Five, kids don't matter. As Hakim notes: "In effect, Anderson is promoting the gay sexual credo as equally valid for heterosexuals, most of whom will have children sooner or later... He has no idea whether this could work for everyone, for married people, for women with lively young children who are too tired for sex even with their spouse."

Srivastava too brushes past the issue of children as one of the "potentially thorny issues" that he claims will "recede" once you make the leap. But children need a stable and predictable home. When male philanderers roamed far and wide, it was the job of the woman to ensure the same. Even in these more enlightened times, all couples, gay or straight, become more "conservative" once they have kids.

The reality is that there is no "right" or "wrong" when it comes to our sex life — it is what it is. Society offers us a menu of choices, limited by its norms and conventions; each offering an imperfect solution to our contradictory impulse to bond and to stray. And we choose what works (most of the time) for us. It is absurd to uphold one option over others – because it is more moral, 'natural', healthy etc – be it infidelity, open relationships or monogamy.

We want what we want (or think we want) – and we deal with our desires in our own fashion, sometimes well, sometimes not. Sex is messy, unpredictable, complicated and deeply personal. Kinda like life. And, sorry, we can never have it all.

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