Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Does America Need More Adultery?

The contrast is striking. At a time when America is in a frenzy about workplace sexual harassment— defined as extending from bad language to sexual assault— psychotherapist Esther Perel is advising couples to learn to live with adultery. Not just to live with it, but to use it to promote better intramarital sex.

In truth, by my own theorizing— see my book The Last Psychoanalyst-- some cultures tolerate adultery and others do not. Some European cultures allowed men mistresses, courtesans and concubines. They allowed women to practice called courtly love. The reason was simple: marriages were mostly arranged; they were political and social alliances; they were not about romantic love. Cultures that arrange marriage tolerate adultery.

In Western Europe these cultures were largely Roman Catholic. Protestantism introduced the practice of love marriage when women, in particular, were given more freedom to choose their mates. Then adultery fell out of favor… and tended to be stigmatized. See the tale of the scarlet letter.

Why did the transformation take place? Simply put, too much adultery caused too much relational confusion. No one knew who was related to whom with any degree of certainty. Thus, love marriage aimed at producing a more structured social order, not necessarily better orgasms. The point needs emphasis. Marriage was not designed to give people the most decadent, mind-blowing sexual experiences.

As I have pointed out in the past Freudian psychoanalysis has had as its goal to make the world safe for adultery. Thus, a European like Perel is simply importing a sophisticated European attitude into New York. One might amuse oneself by pondering the thought that New Yorkers aspire to become sophisticated Europeans, especially those who were raised in more Catholic cultures, but such seems to be the case.

Think about this: would a culture that valued marital fidelity have less incidences of sexual harassment? After all, Harvey Weinstein was not just a serial harasser and even rapist… but he was also married. So was Matt Lauer.

Put this down to: be careful what you wish for. If you think that you can neatly separate these issues, you are mistaken.

In any case, Americans are increasingly getting their adultery groove on. If we are to believe Zoe Heller— we have no reason not to believe her—we own the proliferation of adulterous affairs to women’s liberation, among other things:

Notwithstanding the problems of definition and the vague statistics, the consensus among social scientists is that the incidence of infidelity has been rising in recent decades. This is mostly attributed to the fact that modern life has increased and democratized the opportunities for illicit sex. Women, whose adulterous options have historically been limited by domesticity and economic dependence, have entered the workforce and discovered new vistas of romantic temptation. (Men are still the more unfaithful sex, but their rates of infidelity appear to have remained steady over the past three decades, while, according to some estimates, female rates have risen by as much as forty per cent.) Senior citizens have had their sexual capacities indefinitely prolonged by Viagra and hip-replacement surgery. Even the timid and the socially maladroit have been given a leg up, courtesy of the online pander. Adultery may still be, as Anthony Burgess described it, the “most creative of sins,” but, thanks to Tinder et al., engineering a tryst requires significantly less ingenuity and craft now than at any other time in human history.

To be slightly more clear, and to dispel the insinuation that liberated women are more trampy than their foremothers, I would point out that single career women seeing their marital prospects diminish might very well choose to seduce the married men in the office. I know it's unthinkable, but that does not prevent it from happening.

Strangely enough, Heller adds, we still are intolerant of adultery. We are tolerant of every other kind of sexual coupling… but not adultery.

While we’ve become considerably more relaxed about premarital sex, gay sex, and interracial sex, our disapproval of extramarital sex has been largely unaffected by our growing propensity to engage in it. We are eating forbidden apples more hungrily than ever, but we slap ourselves with every bite. According to a 2017 Gallup poll, Americans deplore adultery (which is still illegal in some two dozen states and still included among the crimes of “moral turpitude” that can justify denial of citizenship) at much higher rates than they do abortion, animal testing, or euthanasia.

This merely suggests that we are hopelessly naïve. Human cultures do not make such neat distinctions. Once you say that just about everything goes when it comes to what happens between the sheets, you cannot simply draw a random line and expect that people will respect it.

As it happens, Esther Perel wants us all to be more insouciant, more European about adultery. One has not read her book so one does not know whether or not she mentions risk factors like: unwanted pregnancies, STD transmission, and divorce:

The couples therapist and relationship guru Esther Perel believes otherwise. In her new book, “The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity” (Harper), she argues that we would be better off coming to a more compassionate accommodation of our unruly desires. Decades of administering to adulterers and their anguished spouses have convinced her that we need “a more nuanced and less judgmental conversation about infidelity,” one that acknowledges that “the intricacies of love and desire don’t yield to simple categorizations of good and bad, victim and culprit.” Our judgmental attitude toward our transgressions does not make us any less likely to commit them, she argues—“infidelity has a tenacity that marriage can only envy”—and it keeps us from understanding why we transgress. The desire to stray is not evil but human.

One feels a quota of sympathy for Perel’s argument that women who find their husbands cheating should be less self-righteously moralistic and should not be so fast to throw the bum out:

This approach, Perel believes, does little justice to the “multifaceted experience of infidelity.” It demonizes adulterers, without pausing to explore their motives. It focusses on the traumatic effects of affairs, without acknowledging their “generative” possibilities. “To look at straying simply in terms of its ravages is not only reductionistic but also unhelpful,” she writes. Affairs can be devastatingly painful for the ones betrayed, but they can also be invigorating for marriages. If couples could be persuaded to take a more sympathetic, less catastrophic view of infidelity, they would, she proposes, have a better chance of weathering its occasional occurrence. When people ask her if she is against or in favor of affairs, her standard response is “yes.”

Heller continues:

In order to come to any adult reckoning with an affair, the betrayed must avoid wallowing too long in the warm bath of righteousness. For a period immediately following the revelation, a certain amount of wild rage and sanctimony is permissible, but after that the rigorous work of exploring the meaning and motives of an affair must begin.

And in a reductio ad absurdum, Heller concludes:

In practice, it must be said, her method seems to demand heroic levels of forbearance on the part of faithful spouses. They are asked not only to forgo the presumption of their own moral superiority but to consider and empathize with what has been meaningful, liberating, or joyous about their partners’ adulterous experiences. The affair that has caused them so much anguish may have been prompted by boredom or a longing for sexual variety, or it may have been a bid for existential “growth, exploration, and transformation.”

You will note that Perel does not much care about the moral aspect of any affair, the sense of betrayal. I have not read her book, but I wonder how people find out about such infidelity. Do they tell each other? Do they offer heartfelt confessions? If so, then the Perel approach might encourage people to seek a human growth experience—the psychic equivalent of human growth hormone—and divulge their secrets. I believe that it is better to be more discreet, not to be open and honest about betraying one’s marital vows. And not to imagine that a sprinkling of of therapeutic fairy dust will heal it all. 

If you would like to confess to a confessor, be my guest. At least the secrecy of the confessional is inviolate. But, think twice before hurting your spouse with tales of your infidelity. And don’t imagine that your weak character can be redeemed by psychic growth.


Jack Fisher said...

A few points:

1. Christians, as well as protestants, would find ample support in the Bible for marital fidelity. I find no reason to believe that average English protestants are any more promiscuous than Irish Christians. Marriages arranged for dynastic purposes play by other rules, and this is true for cultures worldwide.

2. Crimes involving moral turpitude would have immigration consequences only if there is a state conviction, which I can't recall ever running across.

3. Adultery is a crime whose enforcement would be more Constitutionally repugnant that socially useful.

Christopher B said...

Given that infidelity among married women is increasing while the rate among married men is not changing, my guess is that Perel is mostly concerned that we increase our tolerance for women who stray from the marriage bed.