Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Thoughts on Monogamy

I really think that after the hysteria of the late nineties regarding divorce rates and single-parent families, and with gay marriage being much on people's minds (go California!), there is something of a cultural moment currently happening around marriage - what it means, why people marry, and what constitutes a good marriage all seem to be open to discussion, both privately among couples, and publicly in the media.

Which is good, I believe, but then I read articles like this piece in New York Magazine, and wonder how we can possibly have a productive marriage moment, culturally, without first having a productive feminist moment. Because while the article purports to be a bit of a fearless examination of "the troubles with sex and marriage" doesn't seem to amount to much, in the end, beyond an unexamined assertion of male privilege.

Start, for instance, with the title: "The Affairs of Men". Immediately, the article has committed itself to telling the traditional story. Men cheat. Specifically, men cheat either because their wives don't provide the sex they need or because, as men, they simply crave variety. Men have needs, but women just aren't that into sex. When the author is pushed by a therapist to question this paradigm - to consider the "sexless" woman as something other than a natural inevitability - the author immediately shuts down this line of inquiry because it makes him feel guilty.

Braverman was impatient with the idea that the marriage couldn’t fulfill this man’s needs. “What does it mean that she’s not interested? How long has she not been interested? We know that age does not end sexual arousal or interest, we know that’s a myth. Was there some argument about something else, feelings hurt? What happened? Did one person feel abandoned?”

I felt that Braverman was missing the point, and making me feel guilty to boot. It was the old male-female morality play.

By "old male-female morality play" I think the author means that men assert needs and then women try to block them from acting upon them. Which is ironic, because what's actually going on here is that women are asserting needs, and a man is denying any responsibility to consider them, let alone try to meet them. The word I'd use is patriarchy, but I suppose that would probably make the author feel guilty as well.

What follows is what you'd expect for such an article...some evolutionary psychology, some musings on porn, a long, fanboyesque meditation on prostitutes, and some insistence that no, really, men are actually the weaker sex.

He and I love our wives and depend on them. In each of our cases, they make our homes, manage our social calendar, bind up our wounds and finish our thoughts, and are stitched into our extended families more intimately than we are. They seem emotionally better equipped than we are. If my marriage broke up, my wife could easily move in with a sister. I’d be as lost as plankton.

The author seems to see this as an example of female power. If that's the case, please can I be powerless like the men the author encounters? I want a wife to cook and clean and take care of my children, be my social secretary, provide endless emotional support, and take care of all those pesky family obligations for me. Cause really...I'll totally let any man in my life have that "power".

And while on the the subject of power, well, I'll just quote the article:

One man told me that when his wife wasn’t available, he snuck out to massage parlors in a “primal state” or watched porn. He felt no compunction about this; it was part of the never-ending battle of the sexes.

“Porn captures these women [its performers] before they get smart,” he said in a hot whisper as we sat in Schiller’s Liquor Bar on the Lower East Side. Porn exploited the sexual desires, and naïveté, of women in their early twenties, he went on, but older women had come to terms with that. “The most one can expect is that women will cede that area, in porn, a period when you can observe us before we have power, because it ain’t going to happen again.”

And men wonder why women mistrust porn?

What makes this a particularly frustrating article is that the author makes a series of tantalizing feints towards a more complex picture of marriage and cheating. For example, he recognizes that female infidelity is viewed differently than male infidelity, but then fails to consider the effects that those social pressures might have on marriage. He admits that male infidelity is not actually biologically hardwired, but nevertheless still views it as fixed. He acknowledges the existence of polyamorous relationships, but consigns them to the purview of those with abnormally high sex drives. He recognizes that the "European" model of marriage carries its own flaws, acknowledges that many people have actually spent a great deal of time considering the question of marriage and sexual passion (but then dismisses their work as "chick lit").

After all his research, the author describes a conversation with his wife.

When I got back from the Kinsey Institute, I told my wife all about the evolutionary data and Erick Janssen’s questionnaire, and she got agitated. “Okay. Let’s have an open marriage. And I have to be out Wednesday night.”

I said, No thanks.

This picture of marriage reminds me of nothing more than the cold-war nuclear standoff between the United States and the Soviet Union, where nuclear holocaust is replaced by the threat of infidelity. What's dreamed of is not so much a new paradigm of marriage, but a return to an older one, when men cheated with impunity and women accepted this as their lot in life. But since that's unlikely to happen, the best that can be achieved is this uneasy truce...I won't so you won't.

God, how depressing.

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