Every time I teach the section on marriage in my Intro to Anthro class, I inevitably face the same question. The book lists four types of marriage: monogamy, polygyny, polyandry, and group marriage. and someone always asks “What about swingers?” (Of course, I live and teach in Vegas…) The question points to a limitation of the concept of marriage not just for anthropological understanding but even within our own everyday usage.
Writers Em and Lo confront these limitations in their current New York Magazine piece The New Monogamy, addressing the kinds of open relationships that some married couples are evolving in order to both maintain their commitment to each other and manage their attractions to other people. Em and Lo’s “new monogamists” represent a new twist on the more well-established swinger scene, combining professional lifestyles, post-feminism, and a modern psychotherapeutic understanding of sex, relationships, and the self in an attempt to navigate the pitfalls of tradtional marriage in a society increasingly ill-equipped for long-term exclusive bonding.
There are a couple of irritating quibbles in the article that I’d like to get out of the way before moving onto the meat of the topic. First, the framing of the New Monogamy as not just a move away from cultural norms but from human universals is not only gratuitous but wrong. “For much of human history,” the authors write, “monogamy (or, at least, presumed monogamy) has been the default setting for long-term love.” We do not know what sexual/emotional relationships were like “for much of human history”, but judging from the ethnographic evidence gathered over the last century or so among today’s populations, the norm has likely been serial monogamy (as we find in many foraging societies today; see e.g. Marjorie Shostak’s Nisa), likely with numerous temporary relationships “on the side”, and polygyny, which is today accepted and often preferred in 80% of contemporary cultures, with no reason to assume it was any less common in “much of human history”. Monogamy as practiced in the United States is a function of our particular history, especially the inheritance of British agricultural traditions and the impact of the 19th century Industrial Revolution.
The other issue I have is the constant reiteration of stereotypes of open relationships as the province of either “earnest, hairy polyamorists” or “doughy, middle-aged swingers”. While there are obviously precendents for today’s New Monogamists in the Haight-Ashbury hippie culture of the Free Love generation and in the key parties and wife-swapping of ’70s suburbia, various kinds of open relationships have been practiced from the dawn of American history (to their credit, Em and Lo mention the 19th century utopian Oneida Colony) and have cut across a wide range of American social strata. The point that their subjects come from neither a bohemian subculture nor a suburban middle-class but rather a professional, urban, and upwardly mobile mainstream can be made without the repeated images of purple muumuus and Tupperware.
With those objections out of the way, I can move onto the more substantial topics at the heart of the article. Em and Lo speak with a selection of couples — straight and gay, as well as mixed straight/bi relationships (on which more later) — who are struggling to accomodate their decidedly non-monogamous sexual desires while continuing to nurture the marriage commitments that they still find meaningful. Ranging from shared fanstasization about Friends–style fantasy lists of famous people and collaborative surfing of online personals to fully open sexual relations, each of the couples has attempted to divorce their sexual desires from the romantic committment of their marriage without divorcing their spouses. For instance, Diane and her boyfriend have agreed to allow flirting, dirty phone talk, and cybersex over IM, “as long as no one ends up actually making out with anyone else”; Mike and Jessica indulge in three–ways, four–ways, and even a full-blown orgy; William and Dan have a closed relationship — unless one or the other is out of town; and Siege and Katie follow a code of “body-fluid monogamy”, indulging in safe sex with whomever they like, even in their home while the other is busy in the other room.
The key to these relationships — as Ann Landers could have told you, if the word menage-à-trois had been in her vocabulary — seems to be communication. Many of the partners had seen previous relationships dissolve when their partner cheated on them, and in retrospect many felt that it was not the cheating so much as the erosion of trust and honesty which had created the problem. So they share fantasies, experiences, and even partners, all under the aegis of pre-negotiated rules, in order to preserve the trust relationship and (hopefully) forestall jealousy, suspicion, and betrayal.
Trust, sharing, communication, honesty, commitment — the language is straight out of Oprah and reflects an intersection of ’70s self-realization, 80s self-help and relationship manuals, and ’90s post-feminism. The women in these relationships are active professionals, empowered both by their social status and by their own sexualities, unwilling to limit their sexual urges for the sake of a husband like their mothers and grandmothers were typically expected to do — and like their fathers and grandfathers were not expected or obligated to do. The arrangements featured in this article have been designed as much out of the women’s need to assert and satisfy their sexual needs and desires as for the men’s, and explicitly with equality in mind.
One of the pull-quotes in the article notes that, with all the concern for communication and equality between partners, “perhaps this time around, seventies-style swinging and slutting will actually be feasible — and fair.” And yet it bears asking whether this assumption of equality has been realized in actuality. The easy response is that given the label “slutty” and the lack of an equivalent label for men engaged in the same behavior, there is still an obvious inequality — but I think the issue runs much deeper than that.
How much deeper begins to be clear when Em and Lo breach the subject of bisexuality. In many of these set-ups, the men are straight and the women bi, and rules have been adopted limiting both husband and wife to female extramarital partners. For the men, the thought of another man involving himself in their relationship is threatening in a way that another women’s involvement is not; consider Siege’s statement that “I just don’t want her messing around with other guys. Because I don’t find men attractive, my only instinct would be to punch them.” All of the mixed-sex couples seem much more willing to experiment with her sexuality than with his.
While the article suggests a couple of explanations for this double-standard, only one of them really seems to get at the reality of sexuality in the 21st century. It’s unlikely that women are, by nature, simply “more fluid” sexually, especially given the incredible restraints around any expression of male homosexuality; it’s also unlikely that women have more sexual freedom than men in our society, given the way so many other aspects of their lives are socially programmed. At the same time, none of the women seemed to express the feeling that she was being made to perform for the benefit of her partner — and given their economic and personal independence, I find this a doubtful proposition in any case. But I think the authors are moving in the right direction when they guess that “It could be that sexually speaking, women are just not taken seriously: Hot, yes, but as sex toys, not real romantic threats.”
The idea of women as “sex toys”, as objects to be acquired, used, and either discarded or grown out of jibes well with the commodification of sex in general in our increasingly consumeristic society. Sex has come to stand alongside other entertainments as a way of expressing our individual identities, like the choice of a double grande mocha latte, the latest art house film, or an indie CD. One person likes Fellini, another likes fellatio — to each his own. (Or her own, but that would ruin the rhtyhm of the cliche now, wouldn’t it?)
The marketing of sex as product, though, is much more easily achieved in the case of women’s sexuality than men’s. As John Berger noted (Ways of Seeing, 1972), gender roles in Western societies can be summed up by the simple maxim: “men act and women appear” (47). To commodify a woman’s sexuality, to objectify it and make it available for consumption, is easy because we are already predisposed to do so; men’s sexuality, however, is wrapped up with notions of virility, strength, and power — aspects of character as much as or even more than of appearance. I had a graphic illustration of this in a recent classroom discussion on gender, when I asked why so many women find John Goodman sexy. “He has character,” one of my female students responded. When I noted that Roseanne Barr has lots of character and asked if she was also sexy, I received a chorus of “no’s” — and the same student replied that “Character doesn’t count for women.”
Many of the women Em and Lo spoke with summed up this attitude quite nicely, saying they were “sexually, but not romantically, attracted to other women”. That is, they were interested in other women because they found them physically attractive, but were unwilling or unable to imagine other women as potentially meaningful partners in life. For their male partners, then, there was little risk in seeing their wives getting it on with other women — no more risk than seeing their wives pick out a brand of coffee or a DVD. You don’t lose your wife to a product.
You lose your wife to other men, though. Men are agents, not products, and neither the men interviewed nor most of the women could as easily divorce their sexual attraction to men from the potential for romantic involvement the way they could with women. This resonates well with the way many men fetishize lesbianism, even as they deeply fear anything that even faintly smacks of male homoeroticism. When a woman makes out with other women, she’s “bi”; any contact with another man though, especially a gay man, is tinged with panic that the encounter might reveal a man to be — or even worse, turn him — “gay”. Because male sexuality is premised on character and not superficial appearance, a man’s attraction to another man — or a women’s attraction to another man — implies a deeper level of commitment than the consumerism satisfied by the consumption of other women as “living, breathing sex objects”.
The danger of shifting commitment obviously poses a threat to the marriages that the men and women in Em and Lo’s piece are struggling to negotiate. In a society like ours, with personalities both shaped by enculturation practices to be independent and self-serving and to be focused strongly around sexuality as the core of the self, marriage as traditionally understood seems artificially limiting — and we have been trained to see such limits as challenges. The commodification of sexuality is not just a temptation threatening to destabilize the institution of marriage, but can be seen also as an accomodation to that institution, a way of allowing expression of our consumeristic, sexualized selves without further destabilizing the relationship. The stress on “cheating” is important in this regard — in their former relationships, without the possibility for acceptible extramarital sex, the partners were forced to resort to secrecy and dishonesty, which eventually undermined their emotional bonds with their partners, making it all the more likely that they would seek romantic, as well as sexual, release with their new partners. By limiting extramarital encounters to the purely sexual, these couples are trying to prevent the erosion of their romantic relationships — thus making the extramarital relationships into a supplement, rather than a replacement, for their relationships with their spouses.
Of course, we might ask why such a supplement is necessary in the first place, but I think it’s fairly clear. If we did not seek something new, different, and exciting, we would not be very good consumers — and we are very good consumers! And if we did not do everything in our power to attain the objects of our desires, if we did not view social restrictions as obstacles to be overcome, we would not be very good individualists — and we are not only good individualists, but we have to be to function in our highly mobile, highly specialized society. As women have become more and more expected to function as workers and participants in the public sphere, the role of monogamous wife has become as untenable as the role of monogamous husband has been for centuries.
It may be that the institution of marriage itself is becoming untenable, and the couples in this article are not the vanguard of a New Monogamy but are rather leading a fighting retreat. More and more people find marriage simply unnecessary to their lifestyles — what with professional obligations requiring more and more frequent travel, the difficulty of finding satisfying work in the same place as your partner, the risk of boredom in the face of lifelong commitment, and the failure of more than half of the marriages in oursociety, marriage seems particularly ill-suited to modern living. Increasing numbers of people are turning to short-term relationships, casual encounters, and alternatives to long-term monogamous relationships that better fit the demands of their lives. The rise of polyamory — semi-closed networks of friends and lovers often spread out over several cities — represents one adaptation to these demands. It may well be that the only thing supporting traditional marriage in Western society is the fear of disease; as new treatments for STDs become available, we may well see the end of marriage altogether, or at least its diminishment as a primary organizer of social relations.