Thursday, February 17, 2011

Give Up Your Vows

Aspects of this evolution in attitudes towards work had intriguing parallels in ideas about love. In this sphere, too, the eighteenth-century bourgeoisie yoked together what was pleasurable and what was necessary. They argued that there was no inherent conflict between sexual passion and the practical demands of raising children in a family unit, and that there could hence be romance within a marriage - just as there could be enjoyment within a paid job.

Initiating developments of which we are still the heirs, the European bourgeoisie took the momentous steps of co-opting on behalf of both marriage and work the pleasures hitherto pessimistically - or perhaps realistically - confined, by the aristocrats, to the subsidiary realms of the love affair and the hobby.


Most of these marriages would be a hell of a lot better if the sexually unsatisfied partner had a discreet affair, but that puts the other partner in a socially untenable situation. “Open marriage” is something for dirty hippies or sleazy swingers, not an upstanding member of society.

...If we want to do something about the high divorce rate, we might want to get real about making sexual satisfaction a precursor to marriage, and also about the role of a discreet, mutually agreed-upon affair as a safety valve. Of course, religion and social norms rule that out-of-bounds.

There's a lone genius—possibly evil and certainly entrepreneurial—behind Ashley Madison. His name is Noel Biderman, and he's the chief executive officer of Avid Life Media, based in Toronto. "Monogamy, in my opinion, is a failed experiment," he declares. It's unclear if Biderman actually believes this—he's married and has two young kids—but like Hugh Hefner before him the business he has created pretty much requires that he say it. Behind his desk, in an office so lacking in embellishment it almost looks like a hastily assembled low-budget film set, is a large flat-screen monitor promoting his company's flagship brand. It reads: "Life is short. Have an affair."

...Research suggests that 20 to 40 percent of heterosexual married men and 20 to 25 percent of heterosexual married women will have an affair during their lifetime. Moreover, men have an evolutionary prerogative to spread their genes as widely as possible, while women are driven to find a mate and try to gain access to the best genes out there by any means necessary.

It is my Buddha Nature to be omni-sexual. If you pluck one string on a well-tuned guitar the one next to it will vibrate because it's the nature of sound waves. Well, my husband picks a certain chord. Then you, you hit this string and you over there, this string. You can't hit her string. Your frequency is completely different. It's not confusing to me. You can't pluck my husband's string and he can't pluck yours.

Rationally speaking, it probably would make a lot of people much happier if the tangled threads of sexuality, love and marriage could be teased apart. Who can even begin to tally up how many decent relationships have been ruined because of a misguided notion that a burning passion, which by definition is temporary, can be sustained over years and decades? You're not allowed to sign legally binding documents under the influence of drugs or alcohol, but people make hugely important decisions all the time while high on the sorts of chemicals that infatuation releases. Maybe the old way had merit, of looking at marriage as a way of protecting property and heritage, while discreet affairs were for getting rid of those irrational passions before they caused damage in everyday life.

For some people, though, sexual attraction isn't just a simple matter of finding someone physically attractive and at least tolerably pleasant to have a couple hours of fun with. Sometimes the qualities that others look for in a relationship are what make a person sexually desirable in the first place. Even as a young, studly musician, I never had any interest in casual sex. Granted, some of that was due to my withdrawn nature which made such intimate contact with strangers too overwhelming to contemplate, but some of it was because I just couldn't find anything stimulating about looking at people like they were a piece of attractive meat, independent of personality.

I know that sounds pretentious and contrived, like the kind of guys who joke about how much more often they get laid now that they've learned to talk like a feminist, but it's true. I was watching Louis C.K.'s recent comedy special Hilarious, and he talked about how depressing it is as a newly-divorced 41 year-old trying to redevelop his atrophied social skills on the dating scene, only to be repulsed by the shallow, predictable identities that people all wear. "Who are you? What are you all about?" "Uh, I'm The Girl That All The Guys Want To Fuck!" You've seen one, you've seen them all, from the bimbos to the broheims. It's like everyone learned their social skills by watching thousands of hours of beer commercials.

Speaking of which, I wonder sometimes why we associate superficial attractiveness with sexual desire anyway. Is it really the product of relentless advertising? Are we just Pavlov's dogs, trained to connect a certain body type and charisma with all the subtle signals that get the lizard brain going? Is there any logical reason to expect that someone who looks handsome or pretty will be more pleasurable in bed? Or would the evolutionary psychologists say that we're drawn to certain features that somehow indicate good genes?

I have no idea what to think about any of this. This is why I'm a hermit.


  1. I love that you lay this all out carefully and then wash your hands of the whole thing. The things you do for us, eh?

    Personally speaking, I'm sure I won't shock anyone here if I mention I used to bring people home because they intrigued me. Physical attractiveness had very little to do with it. I just wanted to see what made them tick, and sexual leverage is a pretty fun tool with which to disassemble them. Oh dear. I see I've shocked you any way.

    Well, better now than when you have delusions of my saintliness. ;)

  2. Honestly, I thought this post blew chunks. I didn't have a coherent point of my own, just a lot of random observations with no real depth. I don't really know what I think about it all.

    And quit goofing around. I already told everyone you're a nun, so nobody believes your attention-seeking stories!

  3. Well OF COURSE I'm a nun. Everyone knows Catholics are the most sexually repressed sex (oops. sect) out there.

  4. You know what gay men call an "open relationship"? A relationship. In 100% of the long term, stable gay male relationships I know, extra- marital dalliances are allowed (ranging from almost never to often). We grew up having to ignore social morays. Sex is exciting and pleasurable; why would we deny the person we love the most a little extra fun? American heterosexuals are the most insanely jealous people in the world, maintaining the fantasy that their partners have eyes only for them. Ladies, you can no more stop your man from thinking about having sex with other women (and in some cases, men) than you can stop your dog from sniffing the wind. I'm not advocating anything, just trying to be realistic. I think it's a given that heterosexual relationships are going to have different issues than homosexual ones.
    I like that you brought up some interesting questions without pretending to know the answers. This is a good post; in fact, I can't stop thinking about it.

  5. Well, thanks. I liked the theme, it was something different to write about, and since I had four sources in mind that all addressed it, it was like Connect Four or something. I just felt obligated to tie them all together. I just hate not feeling like I can at least add something of my own perspective to whatever I'm writing about. Otherwise I feel like I'm just babbling to hear myself talk. But if the customers aren't complaining, I guess...

    You know what gay men call an "open relationship"? A relationship. In 100% of the long term, stable gay male relationships I know, extra- marital dalliances are allowed (ranging from almost never to often). We grew up having to ignore social morays.

    I'd heard something like that before, but I didn't know if it was just a crude stereotype or not. I think I remember IOZ (bottom of the blogroll) saying something along those lines once (he's a young gay guy in Pittsburgh). Come to think of it, you might enjoy his idiosyncratic take on things, although his commenters aren't exactly a welcoming bunch. He's one of those who can alternately amaze me and piss me off, and a lot of times, when I feel pissed off, I have to grudgingly admit it's because he's forcing me to consider something I'd rather be complacent about. Sort of like being asked to get up and move when you're comfortable on the couch. Grumble, grumble, goddamn you...

  6. And by "social morays", I of course meant gregarious eels. We, uh, had to ignore them. They, uh, don't give good advice.
    I clicked on IOZ once. Interesting,
    but hostile, and that annoys me.
    I don't want to see others as mere sex toys, but I really can't help it. It's just the way my brain is wired. If I see a construction worker who turns me on, he would have to have one fucked up personality to change my feelings. However, I'm actually very shy and had almost no sexual contact with others until I was about 30 and started dating through personals adds. But I never see other people as pieces of meat. I mean, a stranger is just someone I don't know very well. I respect construction workers as human beings even if I'm looking at them like they're objects; they should be flattered.