At the Atlantic today, I look at the new Gallup poll that shows a record number of Americans disapprove of infidelity, a figure up substantially since the 1970s. Why has sexual dishonesty become the last remaining taboo?
We expect couples who marry young to “struggle”—a common euphemism that encompasses everything from fights over money (of which there is almost invariably not enough) to extramarital flirtations and affairs. The cornerstone model presumes, optimistically, that men and women are transformed for the better by sticking it out through the “tough times” that everyone concedes will attend the marriage of the young, the poor, and the naïve. The expectation of struggle doesn’t condone infidelity so much as it concedes its near-inevitability.
The “capstone” model presumes, as one of my friends puts it, that you only should get married “after you’ve got your shit together.” Capstoners believe that marriage is something you enter into only after you’ve finished sowing your proverbial oats—and come into possession of the financial, emotional, and professional sophistication you’ll need to blend your life with another person without becoming dangerously dependent upon them. The capstone model is much less forgiving of sexual betrayal because it presumes that those who finally get around to marrying should be mature enough to be both self-regulating and scrupulously honest. The increased unacceptability of adultery is linked to the rising age of first marriages. The evidence suggests, however, that the capstoners are more than a little naïve if they imagine that a rich set of premarital life experiences will serve as an inoculation against infidelity.
The same Gallup poll that found near-unanimous disapproval of cheating also found rising acceptance of many other non-traditional, consensual sexual relationships. The new ethical consensus that you can do whatever you like as long as you’re not hurting anyone—and as long as you’re being rigorously candid—reflects a thoroughly modern mix of tolerance and puritanical censoriousness. We’ve become more willing to embrace diverse models of sexual self-expression even as we’ve become ever more intolerant of hypocrisy and the human frailty that makes hypocrisy almost inevitable.
Read the whole thing here.
I’m happy to say I’m going to be doing some writing for the Atlantic’s online Sexes section. My debut column went up yesterday: The Benefits of Men and Women Being Friends, Even if One Is Married. Excerpt:
One of the most famous examples of class distinctions in Vance Packard’s hugely influential 1959 bestseller, The Status Seekers, focused on how two married couples would sit when traveling together in a car. Working-class couples would put the men in front and the women in back to emphasize male domination, Packard wrote, while middle-class couples would sit husbands and wives together in order to emphasize the centrality of the marriage bond. For affluent couples, however, the “right thing” would be to pair the husband from one couple with the wife from another in order to enable flirtation and a frisson of erotic excitement.
Packard’s explanation popped into my head more than once as I attended and took part in last month’s Bold Boundaries conference in Chicago. Organized by evangelical Christians but featuring speakers and participants from many other backgrounds, Bold Boundaries challenged the assumption that Packard and many others make: that cross-sex friendships are always charged with sexual tension and danger. Men and women can be friends, every presenter at the conference argued, and not just with their spouses. In a gesture that indicates just how far evangelicalism has evolved, almost every presenter acknowledged the heteronormative framing of the whole discussion, with several pointing out that straights had much to learn from gays and lesbians about navigating friendship. The idea that lust makes platonic friendship impossible between straight men and women was, participants insisted, as antiquated as the cars in which Packard’s subjects arranged themselves more than half a century ago.
My column last week at Jezebel looked at the increasing number of books and articles calling into question the viability of monogamy. Excerpt:
Talking about a “War on Monogamy” can come across like Fox News lamenting the “War on Christmas.” Monogamists still seem to dominate the cultural debate, and those who are open about wanting alternatives still get shamed. The problem is that very few people are making the brief for monogamy (with or without state-sanctioned marriage) as just one among many equal goods. Either monogamy gets held up as an ideal to which all ought to aspire, or it gets denigrated as an “unhealthy” and “unreasonable” straitjacket that we would do well to avoid. It often seems as if the only people defending the viability of monogamy are the ones who insist it is the only morally legitimate (or at least the psychologically healthiest) option. Their sanctimony is an easy target. But there’s an obvious problem in confusing the hypocrisy and self-righteousness of monogamy’s traditional advocates with monogamy itself. The former deserves to be rejected. The latter, perhaps not.
Writing in the Guardian this week, Jill Filipovic makes sense: “Marriage should simply be one model among many for human kinship and a strong family. ” The problem, of course, is that we haven’t yet found a way to talk about monogamy (and marriage) as “one model among many.” After so many years of being told that monogamy is the only legitimate option, we’re now facing a barrage of books and articles suggesting that lifelong sexual exclusivity is something to which no rational modern man or women ought to aspire. “Let people do what they want,” says Filipovic. She’s right: we should let people do what they want. The problem is that as long as we make the case for monogamy’s alternatives by denigrating monogamy as unreasonable, we’re a long way from giving people the full range of options they deserve.
I have another piece up at Daily Life Australia (part of the Sydney Morning Herald media family), looking at the risible claims of a “War on Men” that have set the interwebs ablaze this week.
Much of the male rhetoric of the so-called ”gender wars” is rooted in rage-filled indignation at women’s newfound capacity for sexual selectiveness. Dimly aware of an “earlier time” when “women knew their place” (the bygone days of the vulnerability-for-responsibility exchange), these men (and their female surrogates, like Suzanne Venker) direct their anger not only at the women who reject them but at the feminism that empowered women to be more “choosy” about those with whom they mated. Women today can afford to say, as many of my students do, “If I meet the right person, then I might consider getting married – and if I don’t, then I’ll still be fine.” Contrary to what the Abbots and Venkers might claim, that “if/then thinking” represents tremendous opportunity for both sexes. It means women can avoid being trapped in desperately unhappy marriages; it means that men can trust they’re being chosen for their emotional and sexual desirability rather than their bank balance or their staid reliability.
To put it simply, the more freedom women have to say “no,” the more men can trust the authenticity of their “yes.”
If there is a “war on men,” it’s not being waged by feminists. It’s being waged by an unholy alliance of social conservatives and evolutionary psychologists who relentlessly repeat the message that men can only feel powerful when women make themselves powerless. In the modern gender battles, it’s worth asking which side believes in men’s capacity to be fully human. Reading the propaganda, it’s clear it’s not the side of the sexual traditionalists.
Read the whole thing.
I’m off a late summer hiatus (one that involved moving house as well), and back to writing new things. My column at Role/Reboot is up this morning: Should We Be Happy for Cheaters Who Find Love Again?
Infidelity hurts. The fact that cheating is invariably banal and terribly common does little to soothe the shock that comes with learning that a partner has been unfaithful. It’s axiomatic that sexual betrayal causes ripples of damage; children are often devastated, family members deeply hurt, friends confused and disappointed. Few reading this come from families completely untouched by the trauma of extramarital affairs. And whether we regard cheating as the inevitable byproduct of our absurd insistence on monogamy or as a grievous sin against the sacred institution of marriage, we’ve read about, gossiped about, and devoted acres of bandwidth to writing about the devastating impact of marital infidelity on our lives.
Not all extramarital affairs lead to divorce, and far fewer still result in re-marriage between the cheaters. Sometimes, these new marriages are disasters; other times (as appears to be the case with Charles and Camilla) they are far happier unions than their predecessors. While in the case of public figures we’ve never met, their private lives are none of our business, if we’re dealing with a loved one who has married their illicit paramour, it’s almost impossible not to have conflicted feelings. As all the songs go, cheaters often wonder, “how can something so wrong feel so right?” The family and friends of cheaters who end up marrying may wonder, “how can something that started so wrong ever turn out right?” When and how should folks segue from expressions of disappointment to proffering congratulations and best wishes?
Today is Tu b’Av, the Jewish holiday of love. As part of the Times of Israel’s series on “how I met my bashert,” I contributed this short piece: Worth The Wait. Excerpt:
We didn’t meet again until 2002. I was divorced; Eira was single. We were both much older. The professor-student dynamic was long gone, replaced by a chemistry that was as instant as it was overpowering. A coffee date that was supposed to be a quick catch-up turned into a hike in Malibu. That hike turned into a romantic dinner and a first kiss on the beach. A decade on, we’re married with two beautiful children.
We do get second (and third, and seventeenth) chances at love. And so very often, those later chances come in the form of bit players from our pasts, suddenly promoted to starring roles.
Read the whole thing. And chag sameach!
For a second straight week, my Role/Reboot column looks at the much-discussed “having it all” phenomenon, this time taking on men’s failure to pull their own weight on the domestic front. Excerpt:
In recent years, there’s been a veritable explosion of “daddy blogging” by mostly white and middle-class men, some of whom are “stay-at-home” fathers while others are sole or collaborating breadwinners. Much of that writing has been excellent. But Jill and Jessica aren’t talking about the need for more men to share openly about their skills at nurturing children and cleaning house. Those are important topics to be sure; we need to see more examples of the different ways in which men can step into traditionally female domestic roles. But we also need husbands and fathers in public life to share in detail, both about their own struggle to create balance—and what it is that they’re doing to help the mothers of their children get an equal shot at “having it all.”
For many men, the standard to which they compare their own domestic output is the one set by their fathers. Like most guys of his generation, my daddy didn’t change diapers. I do, like so many of mine. But “helping more than dad did”—with all due respect to papa—sets the bar too low. The question isn’t “how does what I’m doing compare to what my own father did?” The question is, “am I pulling my weight compared to what my partner’s doing?”
Many men complain that asking for these details is just so much unnecessary score-keeping. The fact that we haven’t kept score has been what’s allowed this disheartening disparity to persist so stubbornly. Talking honestly about who does what and how long it takes isn’t about determining winners and losers—it’s about accountability.
There’s no question that some men are pulling their own weight; the small cohort of daddy bloggers not least among them. The “daddy shift” toward a more responsible and present fathering paradigm is real. But as the evidence from the Bureau of Labor Statistics makes clear there are too few of us. As Lindsay Beyerstein wrote at In These Times, “if most men aren’t willing to do their fair share of childcare, only a handful of ambitious women will manage to find one of these rare mates. Until cultural mores change on a broad scale, there will never be enough enlightened men to go around.”
My latest at Role/Reboot addresses that evergreen issue about marriage and last names. In our case, it was my wife who insisted on taking my surname after we were wed — presenting me with at least a momentary male feminist dilemma. Excerpt:
One of the unhappiest aspects of the last name debate is that most defenses of one’s own choices end up sounding like harsh judgments of other’s different decisions. Many of those who do defend the traditional practice of having a woman take her husband’s name suggest that to keep separate names indicates a lack of unity. That’s obviously unfair: Commitment has far more to do with devotion than nomenclature. At the same time, my wife regularly encounters pushback from women and men alike who are astonished at her decision to take my surname. Just last month, at a party, an acquaintance of ours gaped in astonishment upon learning that Eira was a Schwyzer too. “But you seem so independent,” she gasped. My beloved cocked her head to one side, took a deep breath, and firmly set the woman straight.
There’s a lot to criticize about a simplistic “I choose my choice!” feminism. Our choices are never made in a vacuum; rather, they are mediated by a host of complex—and frequently sexist—cultural influences. This is why we should always discuss options and explore alternatives. At the same time, however, we can’t fall victim to analysis paralysis. We can’t live out our inherently messy private lives in perfect political consistency.
Read the whole thing.
In my Genderal Interest column at Jezebel this week, I look at the recent proliferation of explicit evangelical Christian sex guides. If You Don’t Have Sex With Your Spouse Every Day, Do the Gays Win? examines the ideological underpinnings of this particularly intense focus on erotic satisfaction in heterosexual marriage. Excerpt:
Books like Real Marriage and Sexperiment aren’t just full of risible advice and tortured metaphors. (Clark-Flory cites this line from the latter book: “God doesn’t want us to experience little sex in the dog bed; he wants us to experience the power and purpose of big sex in the right bed.”) These aren’t even just manuals for how to have an active and fulfilling sex life with the same person until you die. These are battlefield manuals for the culture war. If heterosexual marriage is the cornerstone of civilization, and a hot sex life is (as even plenty of non-religious folks would concede) a key to a happy relationship, then having lots and lots of sizzling Christian married sex isn’t just about making babies or feeling good. It’s about doing your duty in the great struggle against the forces of moral relativism, homosexuality, and Satan.
It’s an old and unhelpful aphorism: a woman should marry a man who loves her more than she loves him. My Genderal Interest column at Jezebel today looks behind this truism, working in references to Lori Gottlieb and the Myth of Male Weakness. . Excerpt:
In this age where hormones and evolutionary psychology are commonly cited as explanations (or outright excuses) for the most appalling male behavior, it makes good sense to teach women to look for an effective and enduring guarantor of masculine reliability. That means encouraging women to make romantic decisions based more on men’s devotion rather than on their own desires. Shorter Gottlieb: “caring” trumps “tedious”, and don’t be so much a fool to insist that you can easily have the former without the latter.
Not only do we believe that men are weak when it comes to impulse control, pop culture relentlessly reminds straight women that they are hardwired to be attracted to “bad boys.” Evolutionary psychologists trot out all sorts of theories to explain why women are sexually drawn to unreliable alpha males, but the end result is that we teach women to be suspicious of their own longings. In a corollary to the myth of male weakness, grandmothers and Gottliebs warn that a woman who is head-over-heels in love and lust will be less likely to see vital warning signs; a woman who finds herself only tepidly attracted to a man will be able to assess his character more accurately. His greater devotion keeps him faithful; her less intense passion keeps her safe — and, presumably in control both of her own emotions and of her male partner.
And then of course, there’s always Auden’s take.