Not long before my second wedding, I acquired the worst reputation in my then workplace, a community-based mental health service. This happened despite the fact that my chronically underdressed colleagues of every gender and sexual orientation sported pierced eyebrows and tattooed bum cracks. Still it was I, the unpierced and non-tattooed, the conventionally engaged one, who managed to upset our institution’s elastic moral status quo.
One night, during after-work drinks, we got to talking about our sex lives. Not wanting to fall behind the picaresque tales I’d heard, I mumbled something about the ‘agreement’ my husband-to-be and I had which emphasised emotional, rather than sexual, fidelity. A sharp silence cut into our bubbly table. ‘What’s the point of getting married, then?’ asked a woman who had just told a graphic story about partaking in an orgy. ‘If I ever get married, I know I’ll be very loyal.’ She glared at me fiercely. Soon after, the conversation turned to parenting concerns.
Publicly at least, distrust, even condemnation, seem to surround non-monogamy. The common wisdom suggests that when couples open up their gates to let strangers in, something about them must be very wrong. While scientists cannot reach consensus about whether humans are naturally monogamous or not, the consensus amongst leading therapists and the general public remains that a sexually and romantically exclusive relationship is the only practical, and moral, option.
In her bestselling book, Mating in Captivity, which explores sexuality within committed relationships with uncommon honesty, therapist Esther Perel argues that non-monogamy remains one of the last sexual taboos in the new millennium. At a time when Sexpo exhibitions have become mainstream entertainment, Dolly magazine advises girls on how to perform fellatio while wearing braces, and labiaplasty is increasing in popularity, we still, according to Perel, consider monogamy to be the only realistic option while non-monogamy is seen as an indicator of ‘a lack of commitment or a fear of intimacy.’
While I agree with Perel that we tend to associate desire extended beyond our partner with immaturity and an inability to commit, I think we also attach to it even more severe flaws. Sheer egoism, for example. Or even ‘monstrosity’, which was what American novelist Frederic Tuten suggested in an interview for a New York magazine where he proposed that people can live non-monogamously but should never speak about it publicly for their own safety.
Ironically, Tuten’s interviewer, Philip Weiss, chose to ignore his subject’s advice, and in the same article admitted his own desire for extra-marital sex, instantly fulfilling Tuten’s prediction. Once he acknowledged something many of us may at least occasionally feel, whether we are in happy, unhappy, sexless or sexually satisfying relationships – that itching for something additional – all hell broke loose. Readers responded with electronic condemnations, wishing upon him a range of misfortunes to put the biblical plagues to shame.
Angelina Jolie didn’t rate any better. Fans delighted in her confessions about incorporating knife-cutting into her bedroom repertoire as much as they did in her humanitarian work in Africa. But they were less amused by her publicly stated interest in opening up her relationship with Brad Pitt. In the ensuing outrage, Jolie stood accused of driving Brad to alcoholism.
These examples reflect our general attitudes; statistics show that today we expect faithfulness from our spouses even more than ever, with the opposition to extramarital affairs in the USA and Australia reaching over 90 per cent amongst respondents of large surveys. Yet frequently our relationships do not live up to these expectations. Ironically, statistics on adultery prevalence are also consistently getting higher, settling at about 45 per cent, while some researchers estimate 60 to 70 per cent of committed relationships are affected. Then, of course, there are the statistically unaccounted for who keep (at least for now) their loins exclusive for their partners but consume internet pornography, or flirt in cyberspace. Since infidelity is prevalent, it seems that our current attitudes rule out not other lovers, but negotiation between spouses. People cheat now possibly more than ever while trying and/or pretending to be monogamous.
It is not just the infidelity blockading the fortress of monogamy, but also the sky-rocketing rates of divorce, which often don’t even include de-facto break-ups, and recent statistics show that sexless relationships are common. Perhaps the current vehement opposition to non-monogamy as a legitimate relationship choice occurs precisely because it is increasingly harder to remain faithful.
Historically, people craved diversity in their love lives even when individual happiness was not yet accepted as our birthright and when the average life of a marriage could be as short as fifteen years. Nowadays we could spend fifty years or more with our partners. Within such a timespan, the temptation to stray must be more persistent. Besides, contemporary communications technology makes it easier to conduct affairs.
To my mind, and based on my own experience too, it is naïve to think of monogamy as the only workable relationship option in a society, where we may spend so many years with our spouses, and where temptations are as rife as divorce. In these circumstances, it makes sense that some permissiveness in relationships can actually invigorate and preserve, rather than destroy, them.
Lee Kofman is an author of four books, including the memoir The Dangerous Bride (Melbourne University Press), and co-editor of Rebellious Daughters (Ventura Press), an anthology of memoir by prominent Australian writers. Her short works have been widely published in Australia, UK, Scotland, Israel, Canada and US, including in Best Australian Stories and Best Australian Essays. Her blog was a finalist for Best Australian Blogs 2014. More information at www.leekofman.com.au