Thursday, March 08, 2007

Dan Savage and new sexual ethics...

I am so sick of Cheating Is Always Wrong types insisting with one breath that sex and sexual exclusivity are hugely important. Even the contemplation of an affair, to say nothing of its consummation, represents an unforgivable betrayal. And then in the very next breath, CIAWers insist that sex is so unimportant, so colossally trivial, that a person should be able to go without -- forever! -- if their mate is unwilling or incapable.

You can't have it both ways, CIAWers. If sex is hugely important, then people can't be faulted for wanting some; if it's unimportant, then it shouldn't be seen as a huge betrayal when some poor f-ckers, under duress, are forced to get their needs met elsewhere.

--Dan Savage, March 27, 2007

So what do you think, folks? Radical or reactionary???

In my virginity: once an asset, now a liability post I've already discussed a bit about the natural conflict in modern marriage that arises from the fact that each spouse has the right to insist on 100% fidelity and also the right to refuse sex with one's partner 100% of the time. On the other hand, I'm sure that many will read Mr. Savage's statement and see that olde-tyme wisdom: "If your husband cheated on you, it's your fault for not satisfying him."

My personal take is that his position is pretty reasonable. If you follow his column, his GGG (good, giving, and game) strategy basically boils down to a consistent philosophy of making a sincere good faith effort to accommodate your partner's needs and constraints. His radical idea seems to be that when one partner refuses sex (or wants it to be more vanilla) then that person isn't always the angel and the one that wants more sex or wants to indulge a harmless-yet-eccentric fantasy isn't always the demon.

I think if a difference in libido or fantasies is the only major problem in a relationship, then good communication and good faith effort to be as considerate and accommodating as possible will generally solve it. But sometimes the problems are more serious in a relationship where there are still good reasons not to give up completely.

Dan Savage says:
But here's a pro that's rarely acknowledged: Sometimes cheating can save a long-term relationship. Sometimes only cheating makes it possible for a sexually rejected partner to stay in a relationship that's worth preserving for other good, valid reasons -- like kids, for instance. And sometimes only cheating makes it possible for a person whose partner has a chronic, debilitating illness to stay put and stay sane. In these cases, cheating isn't just the right thing to do; it's the decent and honorable thing to do.

So is Dan right? Is cheating ever "the decent and honorable thing to do"?

With his example of a couple with small kids where one partner has cut off sexual contact completely: Is it more selfish to divorce over it? Or to cheat? Or are both choices selfish beyond the pale? What about in his "chronic, debilitating illness" example?


Jewish Atheist said...

It's an interesting question. I agree fully that both partners need to make a good-faith effort, within reason, to satisfy each other. I think that's part of the deal when you get married. If one party cuts off the other from sex, makes no good-faith effort to improve, refuses to allow his or her spouse to have sex with others, and divorce is unfeasible, I can see his point that cheating might be... if not okay, not terribly awful, either.

The whole thing comes down to the fundamental absurdity that sex and love/commitment are inseparable. Unfortunately, most of us have emotional parts of the brain that care very much whether our partners are having sex with others. Also, it must be admitted, that for most people, having sex with others will very likely have a negative impact on one's primary relationship even if it's perfectly understandable.

Ideally, find a spouse who can meet all your needs and would be understanding if you have needs (strong desires, really) that would have to be met elsewhere. In reality, that's pretty unlikely.

Still, here's hoping.

(N.b. Never been married, don't plan to cheat, don't think I could handle polyamory.)

Jonathan Blake said...

I'm not prepared to say what exactly I think is moral: my mind isn't made up about it. So here's a bunch of random thoughts.

I think Dan is creating a false dichotomy here: either sex is important or it is not. This doesn't allow for prioritizing it against other needs and concerns. Yes sex is important, but it's not more important than eating or breathing.

I agree with jewish atheist that sex and love have become too culturally intertwined. They do support each other, but they are not identical.

If I were permanently unable to do my husbandly duties due to injury, I think the loving thing to do would seem to be to offer my wife the chance to fulfill her needs elsewhere. There is the reality of pregnancy, disease, and emotional infidelity. She may decide because of those risks to make our relationships more important than meeting her sexual needs. Or she may take me up on the offer. If she could enjoy herself while avoiding those problems, I don't see that as inherently less moral than remaining sexually exclusive (and therefore sexless).

I've never had casual sex, so I don't know how easy or not it is to emotionally separate sex from love without making it soulless and unsatisfying.

If there is dishonesty to the partner about the extra sexual activity, that in itself carries moral implications. Whatever actions are taken would ideally be with the full knowledge and consent of the partner. I have a hard time saying what would be best if that's not possible. Certainly divorce with children involved should be avoided if at all possible because of its long term effects on them. Perhaps the ills of divorce are greater than the ills of an illicit tryst.

Human beings don't seem designed for lifelong monogamy - serial monogamy with a fair amount of cheating, maybe, but not absolute monogamy - but human society and families seem most stable under a system where father and mother are easily identifiable and partner together in raising children. Consensual polyamory (or better yet, polyfidelity) don't seem inherently immoral, just less stable.

So our animal nature tells men and women to cheat because it is a valid evolutionary strategy, but the needs of civilization call for us to transcend that nature.

Has anyone else read The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature by Matt Ridley?

m said...

oh for farks sakes, the world is rarely that black, white or dan savage.
I am stuck in a sexless marriage, because he can't, won't or don't want to have sex with me. He can, did and wants to with other women, yet will not give me a divorce.

So, no, you can't have it both ways, either he agrees to divorce or will go without sticking his appendage in some other vaginas. I will tear him apart one piece at a time if he cheats again.

Oh, and other than that, our marriage is perfect. I think we were made for each other. Probably in hell.

So, as much as I adore Dan Savage, he knows jack shit about the complexities of straight relationships.

Bull said...

Who would insist that sex is unimportant? Perhaps someone with little or no interest in sex? Or someone who has never had good sex? From my perspective sex is about as essential as eating. Left unfulfilled it becomes becomes an unending hunger but when fulfilled it goes away for a while. So, to me a person that thinks sex is unimportant is like a person that doesn't need to eat.

Anyway, what is a person with normal sexual needs to do if married to a sexual anorexic like above?

This is particularly difficult in the Mormon and other religious cultures where couples often marry with no idea of their sexual compatibility. The realities after marriage can be a huge problem for one or both partners who are then trapped in a relationship that may never satisfy them. Add in discouragement of birth control, encouragement of having children early and often, and strong discouragement of divorce and it's easy to see how spouses wind up feeling trapped.

I cringed recently on the RfM board where they were discussing cheating at the number of people who openly justified their cheating by declaring how they felt trapped by children/family/business with a spouse that they hated and wished was dead.

I think the ideal is that spouses would be honest with each other and reach some kind of arrangement. But, I suspect that affairs destroy many more relationships than they save. The reality is that people are jealous and want/need exclusivity. The other is that sex tends to create strong emotional bonds. So in the end, the affair winds up eroding one relationship and strengthening another with fairly predicable consequences.

Sorry for rambling along, I don't know the answer. I think I'll stick to fidelity unless/until my marriage becomes unsalvageable in which case I'd make the break before moving on with my life.

Anonymous said...

I don't understand why fidelity and infidelity are societal issues. Granted, stds, unwanted pregnancies and stable children are all issues a society needs to deal with.

But in general, it seems to me that this is a very personal issue within a relationship.

I don't think I could make a blanket statement that cheating was always wrong or that cheating was always the only way to save a relationship. I think it depends a great deal on the person and the couple.

When there are children involved - well, I think the parents have a responsibility to be sensitive to their kid(s). It becomes more complicated. But that doesn't mean that a parent has to let that part of themselves die simply because of their responsibility as a parent. That could be just as harmful.

A friend of mine's long term boyfriend had no problem sleeping around philosophically (and he was rumored to have done so often) - although he knew that she would have a huge problem with it. I was a part of a conversation with the two of them where she slammed a public figure for cheating on his wife with the babysitter. In their specific situation (which could be a four page post in itself), I think they probably should have re-examined their relationship. They ended up doing just that, although it took them some time.

Another friend had an "open" relationship - only to walk in on her significant other with someone else. Needless to say, she felt it was shocking and more difficult to deal with than she had thought it would be.

I'm not suggesting that one way or the other is right for any couple.

I think it gets complicated very quickly - and that there are no hard and fast rules.

Texas said...


I think that the "wrong" of cheating amounts to a betrayal of trust. If the other spouse okay with a little sideline behavior then it is not "cheating" in a technical sense.

The question, then, is whether or not that betrayal of trust is justified in certian circumstances.

I tend to think that betrayal of trust is a pretty large ethical matter. If there are such situations where the betrayal of trust is justified given the circumstances, they have to be extremely rare. Also in general, when we make choices which break certian duties for the "greater good" we should really be careful that it is for the "greater good."

Also, I am not sure that Savage is right that there is a contradiction within traditional notions of fidelity. This doesn't mean that they are right, but incoherence is a pretty strong claim, and I am suspicious of it.

T Wanker said...

Well, cl as always, you manage to raise issues that I've been contemplating and thinking about for awhile. Rather than totally hog up your comment space, I decided to start my own post on sexual morality.

Now back to Mr. Savage. My first impression was hasn't anybody read D. H. Lawrence? Some book of his about an invalid and an affair, Lady Chatterly's Lover, I believe was the title.

I agree that cheating isn't always wrong, but not for the rather lame and suprisingly unfresh reasons given by Mr. Savage. Cheating, lying, stealing and even murder given the right context could be conceived to be morally justified and even necessary given the right factual circumstance.

I think what Mr. Savage is trying to do is not so much make a point about sexual ethics, but rather try and prove that if indeed sex is important than rigidity is not the best way to deal with sexuality.

In fact, I went back and read Savage's entire post and he takes a very moral approach in the ultimate advice he is giving to the girl who wrote him. He tells her to break up with her boyfriend that she wants to cheat on because she is obviously not into him sufficiently and needs to end it before they become more entangled.

Sideon said...

What a loaded topic. Some folks find DS to be pretty radical, but I think he's spot on in many cases. To me he defines "brutal honesty."

I think his advice here depends on the couple, their communication, their sexuality (straight/gay) and their agreements. I don't see the answers or issues as black/white. The "chronic, debilitating illness" example is an extreme 'what if,' but it's useful to establish limits or frame the tolerance level within a relationship.

I guess my base belief is that it's really no one's business but the two who are involved in the relationship. The "deal-breaker" for me is the issue of honesty and communication - if those aren't present, then it's not much of a relationship.

I better stop before I open any more cans of worms.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey J.A.!!!

I agree that cheating is almost always detrimental to a relationship, and that a lot of relationships can't survive polyamory and/or an "open" agreement even if the partners originally think they can. On the other hand, I've met people that it seems to work for. It seems to depend on the people, their temperament, and the relationship. So my take would be that it's not necessarily always wrong, but it's wrong to think that it's easy or that it's a good idea for everyone...

Hey Jonathan!!!

I'm not sure the connection between sex and love is just cultural. There's a distinction between physical attraction and romantic love, but I think the two are linked together in the brain in a fundamental way, very much like the consciousness and the body.

I think lifelong monogamy is well within the "normal" range for humans even though having multiple partners (serial or poly) is also normal.

Also, I'm not convinced that staying together "for the kids" is always the best thing for the kids -- raising kids in a very bad relationship can easily be worse for them than going through a divorce. All the stats I've read about children of divorce being worse off than children whose parents don't divorce seem to be skewed by the fact that the non-broken families are largely ones where the parents' relationship is a good one. A valid study to determine whether staying together for the kids is a good idea would be one that compares children of divorce with kids whose parents would have divorced but decided to stay for the kids (excluding the children of parents who don't want a divorce from consideration). But that's a different topic entirely...

Whew, you've got lots of good additional discussion leads there!!!

Sorry, I haven't read that book, but it looks interesting.

Hey Montchan!!!

To be fair to Mr. Savage, there's no way in heaven or Earth that he would say that your husband is justified in refusing sex to you and going out and having an affair. I'm pretty certain his advice to you would be DTMFLY (which is like DTMFA only with the "already" replaced with "like, yesterday").

I have to admit that I don't understand the complexity of your situation either since I'm not sure why you don't divorce your husband if that's what you want. Even if he doesn't want a divorce, you clearly have ground to file yourself.

Hey Bull!!!

I agree this is a very complex situation and that religion tends to encourage people to sweep it under the rug. So I guess it's not surprising that an X-religion blog would be dragging the question out from under the rug. ;-)

That's weird that people were justifying affairs by saying they hate their spouse and wish he/she were dead. That seems like an obvious case for a divorce, but I guess I'd have to hear more about the individual situations in order to judge.

Hey Aerin!!!

Exactly -- I agree this is a very complex issue and we shouldn't expect a simple algorithm like "If X then do Y" to be valid for all relationships. Honestly, though, I think Dan Savage is allowing for more complexity here rather than reducing it.

From reading RfM (like Bull ;-) ), the thing that struck me about a lot of comments about cheating is how many people had a very black-and-white view such as "if a single thought of infidelity crosses your mind or your partner's, then your relationship is through, and you should get a divorce." I think Dan Savage is trying to expand the range of possibilities here, not recommend cheating for everyone... ;-)

Hey Johnny!!!

I agree that the question of trust and betrayal of trust is the real question here, and it's being clouded by the fact that monogamy is a typical assumption for a long-term romantic relationship. There's a big difference between cheating on the sly and non-monogamy that your partner knows about and is okay with. For the latter, I would just say it's often very hard on a relationship, but not a priori unethical. Cheating without your partner's knowledge is dishonest and represents breaking an agreement. There you're already in questionable ethical territory from square one, and the question becomes "Can a breach of trust be justified, and when?"

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey T. Wanker!!!

Sorry, I haven't read that book.

To be honest, I completely agree with Dan's advice to the woman whose letter prompted these comments. From what she wrote, it looked very much like she was staying with an unhappy relationship out of some sense of obligation. Honestly, better to end it before you have an actual obligation and wind up dragging some innocent kids through a divorce.

Hey Sideon!!!

I absolutely agree about the question of privacy and looking at each couple's case individually (see my above reply to Aerin about simple relationship algorithms ;-) ).

I have to admit that I love Dan Savage ;-) and that's kind of why I wanted to talk about this here. What he's saying seems reasonable, but it is very different from the conventional wisdom. And when I see something like that, my instinct is "Let's not just accept it (or reject it) out-of-hand -- let's discuss!!!" :D

Rebecca said...

I agree with pretty much everything people have said here, with the exception of the honesty and communication - in certain extreme situations only, of course. I've never actually been IN this situation, but I think that if, for example, I were disabled (or whatever) and unable to have sex I would absolutely want my partner to be getting what he needed, but I would ABSOLUTELY NOT want to know about it. At all. I wouldn't even want to say, "Hey, it's okay with me if you're gettng a little sump'm, sump'm, just don't tell me about it." Nope - I'd want it to be completely outside my awareness. Because as much as I want the people I love to be happy, I also want them to be MINE. I'm not going to say that's how everyone should be, because for all I know I'm just an abnormally jealous person, and other people could totally handle it.

In normal "I hate my partner and wish he were dead" situations, this does not apply.

Chanson, I love the stuff you write about! I especially love how you usually take a side, but you do so in a way that really doesn't feel judgy or exclusive of any other views.

C. L. Hanson said...

Thanks Rebecca!!!

That's a good point too. And there I'd thought I'd come up with a good simplification by separating the sex from the lying!!! lol

I'm a huge fan of good communication in general, but now that you mention it, I've heard lots of people talk about cases where the one partner doesn't want to end the relationship over "indiscretions" but would rather look the other way and not be obligated to openly acknowledge that it's going on.

Anonymous said...

If I may quote Terry Pratchett from Sourcery:
"What would humans be without love?"
"RARE" said Death.

C. L. Hanson said...

LOL, I guess that's what it boils down to... ;-)

StealthBadger said...

I've never understood the exclusivity thing, beyond a "keep that person from being taken away," or "protect what's mine," both of which are Bad Things to be directing at people. Let alone people you ostensibly care about. It seems if you allow such a powerful, controlling, fearful thing to be the centerpiece of your relationship, it's going to sour everything it's involved with.

I do understand the feeling of safety and strength that comes with picking a person and saying "you, you come before all others. No foolin' around without the mutual seal of approval," and I can get behind that completely, from a social and a safety standpoint.

So I can kind of understand what Savage is saying, but I object to "cheating." If the two (or more) of you can decide on limits and boundaries and freedoms and such, and respect that they'll change with circumstance, and just plain Don't Be An Asshat With Your Love's Heart, then that's great. Especially if you start with "that's your body, not mine. Don't bring any gifts that keep on giving back to our bed, I promise not to as well." But if you need to "cheat," then your problems are a lot bigger than sex.

Just my personal opinion and experience, YMMV.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Stealth Badger!!!

That's basically my position as well, and it's probably more common than the "moral majority" would like...;-)

Anonymous said...

Welcome to my life dilemma... Without it, I'd have nothing to write about.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Pete!!!

I actually thought of you (and other bloggers in mixed-faith marriages) when writing this post...

Hellmut said...

The fact that fidelity and sexual satisfaction might be a mutually exclusive preposition is a reflection of the tension between the sex drive and jealousy.

Jealousy is normal and not an acquired attitude for which people should be blamed.

I would be jealous if my wife were to have sex with someone else. That feeling is natural.

The need for sex is also natural.

Personally, I think that fidelity is an important rule that has to allow for exceptions. It would not be in our interest to throw away a relationship over a slip up, for example.

One of my mentors was married to a woman who was depressed and negative to a degree that he became sick as well. Eventually, he left her to protect himself and established a relationship with someone else.

My mentor never got divorced because he wanted to preserve his wife's claims on his pension, health insurance, and social security benefits.

In my mind, that was infinitely more responsible than

Hellmut said...

. . . the alternative.

Sorry, for the mix up. The kids interrupted me half way through.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Hellmut!!!

That's a good example. I think fidelity is the ideal to shoot for, but it's important to allow for some gray area in less-than-ideal situations.

Anonymous said...

Hi Chanson! Thanks for the post and the comments are excellent too.

For some reason this discussion led me to wonder about sex by proxy. Would giving your lover the gift of sexual relations with another be some sort of higher love? Clearly some think it possible to have sex with another while maintaining, if not strengthening, the spousal relationship. However, this seems like a highly exceptional scenario to me; if not entirely bogus.

Mormons experimented with the idea of sharing the spouse in exchange for a godly nature and last I checked the experiment was a miserable failure even on the best days. In my opinion, the failure of polygamy is a kind of proof that we are first and anciently sexual beings with evolutionarily proven sexual/relational strategies...not spiritual beings and gods set to governing a body with animal appetites.

Jonathon Blake,

I've read Matt Ridley's The Red Queen. It was my introduction to evolutionary biology and still one of my favorites. I also enjoyed Richard Dawkin's discussions of gene-level sexual politics in The Selfish Gene.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Mel!!!

Giving your lover sex by proxy with someone else? An unusual idea I'd never considered...

Of course as soon as you brign God into your relationship, you've got at least a threesome, which is bound to complicate things.

Anonymous said...

Oh sweet--the Jesus in our bed thing has been brewing a nasty concoction in my head for some time now. How is it anything but destructive to a relationship to have one or both partners comparing the other with an idealized fantasy?

This is a topic for a blog carnival. I'd love to party on it.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Mel!!!

It seems I've seen other posts on exmo blogs about how in a temple wedding both partners make promises to the church but not to each other, and how that colors the relationship. I can't think of any links for it off the top of my head, but you're right that would make a great discussion topic.

Freckle Face Girl said...

It is all about honesty, mutual respect and the preferences of the couple. Before my husband & I started dating (as friends), we talked about all these thing. We would both rather get a divorce than be cheated on. With that in mind, it is all about communication, intimacy at times, and patience at other times. Each couple is different though.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Freckle Face Girl!!!

That's great that you and your husband have taken the time to discuss your expectations on these issues.

Unknown said...

All single stuff related to sexuality is pretty interesting indeed, due to the fact that it has become such a controversial matter, which everyone is talking about.
I love trying me way to practice sexual rituals, for instance, last time, I decided to take some Viagra Online Without Prescription in order to try a new experience. Moreover, I would gladly do it again!