Archive for the 'Infidelity' Category

“Sin Boldly”: the trap of the emotional affair

From February 2009. I thought I’d have two Potter Stewart references in as many days.

A friend of mine with whom I’ve had many conversations about feminism and older men/younger women relationships wrote me a note last week about a close acquaintance of hers, a young woman of 21 who is having an “emotional affair” with a man of 44.

I’ve blogged enough lately about age-disparate relationships, and I intend to do much more writing on the subject. Today, I’m interested in writing about this strange and troubling beast called the emotional affair, a phenomenon enormously abetted by modern technology.

I’m not treading on new ground when I remark that when it comes to love and sex, humans are generally very good at deceiving themselves. We are particularly good, as a rule, at justifying certain kinds of betrayals because they don’t meet our own contorted and legalistic definitions of what constitutes genuine infidelity. The paradigmatic example, of course, is that of Bill Clinton. A great many of us believed, and still believe, that our 42nd president was absolutely sincere when he denied an adulterous relationship with Monica Lewinsky; he had constructed for himself a moral calculus in which only intercourse constituted authentic infidelity. In 1998, as the nation watched the Clintons’ all-too-public agony, a great many folks were challenged to think about their own little webs of deceit and justification. If the politicians we elect are mirrors for our best and worst aspects of ourselves, then President Clinton — a man of extraordinary gifts and extraordinarily banal frailties — reminded us of our own capacity for duplicity.

Most people have no trouble labelling oral sex with an intern behind your wife’s back as adultery. Bill Clinton is easy to admire, and easy to ridicule. But lesser men than he — and a great many women too — have shown a similar capacity for self-deception. And we are particularly prone to this sort of self-deception when it comes to affairs that don’t have a physically sexual component. For those of us who define fidelity in terms of what actions we don’t undertake with other people, it’s all too easy to slide into an emotional affair.

For the purposes of this post, I’ll define an emotional affair as a non-physically sexual relationship characterized by mutually intense psychological intimacy, accompanied by words or gestures that traditionally are reserved for one’s romantic partner. That’s a vague definition, of course; emotional affairs are notoriously difficult to define. (One thinks of the perhaps apocryphal Potter Stewart remark about knowing obscenity when he saw it.) The slipperiness of the line between “good friend” and emotional “lover” allows those involved in these affairs a great deal of plausible deniability, both to themselves and to those around them. “We’re just friends”; “It’s totally innocent”; “You’re reading too much into this” are the sorts of things that can be said with genuine sincerity in response to suspicious queries from others. Continue reading ‘“Sin Boldly”: the trap of the emotional affair’

Can Handsome Men Be Faithful?

My Tuesday column is up at The Good Men Project: Can Handsome Men Stay Faithful? Excerpt:

…I identify a bit with Anthony Weiner, as I suspect quite a few men do. I was a bright, nerdy kid in high school with grades as high as my dating prospects were low. The girls on whom I had crushes considered me the dreaded “nice guy, but”—the sort in whom they felt comfortable confiding their own stories of heartache over sexy, tough, bad boys. As the pop psychologists would say, I had low social/sexual capital.

In college, things changed. I lost a little weight and got a more flattering pair of glasses. I also found a confidence that honestly seemed to materialize out of nowhere. I remember the shock I felt at 20, standing at a party, clutching a red cup of beer in my hand, and realizing that the pretty girl standing in front of me was flirting with me. Like so many guys who bloom a bit late, I went through a lengthy and regrettable period where my main focus was on seeing just how much my growing social capital could get me.
I was married and divorced twice before I was 30, and chronically unfaithful through both marriages. I wouldn’t call myself a sex addict, but like Anthony Weiner, was hungry—even desperate—for validation. The actual sex I had with women was less important than the thrill I got from knowing that someone new was willing to sleep with me. I was chasing affirmation more than orgasm. The thrill wasn’t in getting close to new naked skin, the thrill was in knowing that yet another person found me desirable. It was as if I were trying to collect evidence that I wasn’t that nerdy, awkward boy whom everyone had teased in high school.

Just as Anthony Weiner was more interested in having women praise his naked body than in seeing their nudie pics, I cared as much about being told I was “hot” as I did about sex itself…

Read the whole thing.

Weinergate, penis pics, and the longing to be hot

In response to Anthony Weiner’s press conference yesterday in which he admitted using the internet to send semi-nude pictures of himself to young women, Irin Carmon suggests at Jezebel that this latest scandal is — like many others before it — rooted in male narcissism.

All over the Internet, men are photographing their own bodies and sending the shots to women who are maybe not their wives and girlfriends. It’s a risk for most any non-professional, but it’s one that predictably costs male politicians like Anthony Weiner — and the men before him — so much more. So why do they do it?

“Hottttt.” That’s the Facebook comment on a video of Weiner speech that launched Meagan Broussard’s Internet flirtation with the Congressman, complete with cockshots clothed and maybe less so. “You’re so hot,” was Rielle Hunter’s opening line to John Edwards; eventually, he thought it was a good idea to make a sex tape with her.

In the Venn diagram of narcissism, the overlap of men in political office and men whose sexual narcissism verges on self destruction is increasingly visible. If you want to blame the Internet for anything, blame it for manifesting — and giving an outlet to — what surely must have always been present: Men (and they are still overwhelmingly men) who not only want your votes but for you to adore their waxed pecs. And they think they can get away with it.

Carmon isn’t entirely off base. But she misses the key point, though it’s one she hints at. “Hot” has such extraordinary power in these men’s lives not because they are all narcissists (though some may meet the clinical definition of that term) but because they so rarely hear the word. Powerful men who risk everything to send pictures of their penises or pecs to strange women aren’t filled with cocky self-regard. They’re filled with a desperate hunger for a very specific kind of validation.

In a piece I wrote for the Good Men Project in March, I suggested:

So many straight men have no experience of being wanted. So many straight men have no experience of sensing a gaze of outright longing. Even many men who are wise in the world and in relationships, who know that their wives or girlfriends love them, do not know what it is to be admired for their bodies and their looks. They may know what it is to be relied upon, they may know what it is to bring another to ecstasy with their touch, but they don’t know what it is to be found not only aesthetically pleasing to the eye, but worthy of longing.

I’ll bet Anthony Weiner doesn’t doubt his own intellectual or political abilities. Like many men who are good at what they do (and Weiner has been one of the most able members of the Democratic caucus for years), he exudes a confidence that borders on arrogance. I don’t think that’s feigned. But like so many men sliding towards middle age, there’s an unmet hunger for sexual validation. Men like Weiner know women may be attracted to their power or their status, but they want more — they long for validation that their bodies aren’t gross and disgusting. They want to be “hot.” Continue reading ‘Weinergate, penis pics, and the longing to be hot’

“I have been today who I longed to be”: of monogamy, fidelity, and the case for virtue

This post first appeared in 2008, before Tiger Woods and Schwarzenegger’s love child. But the same arguments keep coming up. And I’ll keep pushing back.

Amber Rhea gets the hat tip for this article in New York Magazine: The Affairs of Men: The trouble with sex and marriage. That’s the title in the magazine, anyway, but when you click on the link, the title that comes up is What Makes Married Men Want to Have Affairs?, which is a very different sort of question. Asking why men want what they want is never, ever, the same question as why men do what they do.

The author, Phillip Weiss, gets us off to a depressing start:

When the Eliot Spitzer scandal broke in March, I had only sympathy for him: another middle-aged married guy tormented by his sexual needs. I’m 52 and have always struggled with the desire for sexual variety. Everyone gets an issue, and that’s mine; it’s given me pleasure and pain, and jolted my marriage. I’d only talked about my issue with any honesty over the years with about six or seven people, and when you leave out my wife and a therapist, they are all men.

So the conversation had a conspiratorial male character. When people at dinner parties cried out, “What was Spitzer thinking?” I whispered to a friend that I knew damn well what he was thinking: He wanted some “strange”, to quote the old Kris Kristofferson line. Or we passed around JPEGS of Spitzer’s date, Ashley Dupre, and commented on her luscious body. The governor’s plight had the effect of outing me. When I told one married friend about my torment, he cut me off. Everyone in our situation has had one or two episodes. Straying, wandering eye, a blowup. If you have a pulse

What situation is that, I wonder? The situation of the middle-aged married male, caught between his promises and his urges? Apparently. Here’s Weiss’ stunner:

An article of faith among the men with whom I discussed these issues (and an idea ignored, if not contested, by most of the women I know) was that the hunger for sexual variety was a basic and natural and more or less irresistible impulse. I haven’t ever seen anyone who doesn’t deliver on every single demand their sexuality makes on them. We make the mistake of thinking some people have a stronger will, they don’t, says a forward-thinking friend. There is no more unnatural principle of social organization than sexual exclusivity. But like other of my male sources, he didn’t want me to use his name. Don’t get me divorced! was the refrain. All of these guys nursed a fantasy, as quaintly surreal as an old tinted postcard, of a perfectible world in which we might have sex outside our primary relationships and say that it doesn’t mean anything.

Yikes. Let’s just say, the piece goes down hill from there. The bold emphasis above is mine; it illustrates the classic fallacy of what I call the “myth of male weakness”. Here’s how the fallacy works:

1. Men naturally desire sexual variety.
2. That desire for sexual variety is very strong.
3. That desire is, in fact, so strong that it can never be resisted, and in the end, will always trump the will. It’s only a matter of time. Continue reading ‘“I have been today who I longed to be”: of monogamy, fidelity, and the case for virtue’

“I’m not faithful because I love my wife. I’m faithful because I love myself.”

You’re working in the modeling industry now? Good thing your wife is both beautiful and tough; that must help you stay faithful.

– a (now deleted) Facebook comment that appeared yesterday on my link to my post about the Perfectly Unperfected Project.

I got that comment just as I read an email from a good friend of mine, who wrote:

I saw Geraldo (Rivera) on Oprah talking about his past as a playboy. He is now married for the fifth time to a gorgeous woman at least 30 years younger than him. He says that he has put an end to his womanizing because she is “all the woman he needs” and that he no longer “needs” to look anywhere else. I’m sure, at least on the surface, his wife takes this as a compliment. But I was disturbed by it. The obvious implication is that his affairs were due at least in part to his previous wives not being “enough” for him

This isn’t a post about Geraldo, or about my new work within the modeling industry. It’s about fidelity.

I am not faithful to my wife merely because she is beautiful. I am not faithful to my wife because I am afraid that she will beat me up (she is a kickboxer) if I cheat. I am not faithful to my wife because I have a reputation to uphold, and I know that my career(s) depend on my living out my professed values in my private life. Make no mistake, I am in awe of my wife’s enduring loveliness; I am keenly aware of her physical strength, and the thought of a divorce makes me shudder. And of course, I know damn well that my work as a mentor, a writer, a public speaker on issues of gender, relationships, sexuality and self-image hinges on my ability to be whom I claim to be. But none of these things are the real reason I’m faithful.

Like Geraldo, I’ve been married several times. Like Geraldo, I was a cheat, chronically unfaithful for many years. My cheating, however, never had anything to do with the beauty or the personalities of the women with whom I was in what was supposed to be a monogamous relationship. I cheated for other reasons, many of them: I cheated because I wanted validation, I cheated because I liked “new skin” (the chimera of everlasting novelty), I cheated because I wanted to prove that I wasn’t the dorky awkward kid I had once been (see Mick Hucknall, whose story reads very familiar to me), I cheated because cheating kept me safe from becoming too dependent on one relationship. I cheated because I was afraid. I cheated because I could.

My infidelity and promiscuity were not the fault of the women to whom I was committed. I didn’t cheat because they were insufficiently beautiful, or because we didn’t have sex often enough (or the right kind of sex.) Nothing — nothing that they did or didn’t do could have kept me from cheating because I was in the throes of a compulsion that I alone had the responsibility to solve.

I learned how to be faithful from my late mentor and Twelve Step sponsor, Jack. Jack had been unfaithful to his wife in his drinking days before coming to AA. In AA, his sponsor told him “You need to start being faithful to your wife.” Jack complained, “But how can I be faithful? I don’t even think I love her!” His sponsor snorted. “Of course you don’t love her. You don’t know what love is yet. But the reason to be faithful isn’t because of her. It’s because you made a promise. You owe it to yourself to be the kind of man who keeps his promises. If you cheat, you cheat on yourself first. And if you know you’re a cheater, you set yourself up to drink.”

“Oh”, Jack said. He told that story to me and to countless other sponsees over the course of his nearly four decades of working a program. And he learned to be faithful to — and to love — that same wife.

Jack’s story and mine were different in many ways. But what he impressed upon me all those years ago has stuck with me ever since. When we make a promise to someone, we make a statement about ourselves. We’re saying that we’re the sort of people who can make promises — and keep them. So when we cheat on a spouse or anyone else with whom we’re in a monogamous relationship, we’re breaking the promise we made to ourselves. As I wrote in another post, we become what we pledged not to be. And we don’t become what we pledged not to be — a liar and a cheater — without doing serious harm to our own self-worth. (Aristotle pointed this out, back in the day.)

I don’t stay faithful to Eira because I love her. I stay faithful because I love myself. That doesn’t mean I don’t love my wife: I do, with all my heart. But the feeling of love waxes and wanes in any marriage. If I am faithful out of love for her, I do what Geraldo did in his Oprah interview: I shift responsibility for my own actions away from myself and on to my wife. It’s not her job to keep me faithful, either by being lovable or by being sexy. If another woman tries to seduce me, that’s poor behavior on her part– but another’s enticement doesn’t absolve an adult man from responsibility for his actions. Men are not so vulnerable individually and collectively that the very fabric of society can only be held together through women’s sexual self-control. That’s the myth of male weakness: the false notion that women are biologically “stronger” than men when it comes to the capacity to resist sexual temptation.

All of my sexual and romantic energy flows towards my wife, not simply because I love her (which I do) but because I believe in what it is that we are accomplishing together. I believe in our partnership, but I also believe in myself. I know myself well enough to know that I am a man of great passion, but also a man who thrives best in a committed, monogamous relationship. (Hence the penchant for marrying early and often.) But I couldn’t really bring what I needed to bring to a monogamous relationship until I grasped that it wasn’t the job of love, or desire, or a woman to keep me faithful. Fidelity was and is all about me, not because I’m a narcissist, but because my capacity to love my wife and my daughter and my students and my business partners and my friends and my family and the whole damn world rests on my capacity to love myself. And if I love myself, I will be the sort of man who honors his commitments when it’s easy, and when it’s tough. I know how painful it is to be a liar and a fraud; that awareness more than anything else drove me to the point of suicide. And I’ve come to know how good it is to live a congruent life, where my words and actions cohere.

I love my wife. But that love is not what keeps me faithful. The love that keeps me faithful is the love for the man whom I was called to be.

Feelings aren’t facts: on friendship, fidelity, and fleeting fancies

I’ve written before on male-female friendship, most notably here. The short answer to the old question “can men and women be friends?” is “yes”, and there’s a part of me that’s always astounded when I run into serious adults who say otherwise.

I was reminded of my old post and the larger debate when I saw this series appear at Slate over the past ten days: Strictly Platonic: Friendships Between Men and Women. Slate offers several articles dealing with a variety of issues that arise around male-female non-romantic friendship, and there are some well-written contributions from both halves of these pairings. I enjoyed reading all of the short essays, and recommend them. (Including a nice explanation of how Plato gets dragged into the whole thing.)

I especially appreciated this Juliet Lapidos post on sexual desire within friendship.

This past winter I asked Slate readers to fill out a survey on “platonic friendship.” I said I was looking for subjects with a “platonic friend,” so it’s unsurprising that more than half of the 549 respondents who answered all of the relevant questions profess no attraction of any kind—they’ve never had sex with their friend, never talked about sex, and never thought seriously about it. Just over 5 percent are on the opposite extreme, and report significant sexual tension or ongoing sex. There’s a range of experience in the middle—mostly versions of the dating-to-friendship narrative, or accounts of fleeting romantic interest.

The survey indicates that the question “Are straight men and women able to forget sex and engage in a truly non-romantic fashion?” is too narrow. It’s wrong to think of platonic friendship as a binary proposition—in which couples either avoid sex entirely and make the relationship work, or they don’t and it doesn’t.Sexual feeling within friendship exists on a Kinsey-type scale, and moderate attraction does not necessarily ruin or invalidate the relationship.

Bold emphasis mine.

I think that last sentence is vital. Many folks will admit that friendships between men and women can exist and thrive, but only in those instances where neither party has any sexual attraction to the other. But according to this view, if flashes of mutual desire surface, the friendship will inevitably transition into a sexual relationship or the friendship will end. If just one party “wants something more”, the strain of that wanting will invariably create a barrier between the two erstwhile friends, driving them apart with guilt and resentment. Or so the pop psychology argument goes.

First of all, this argument ignores the very real human capacity to weigh costs and benefits and consider friendship to be a particularly valuable example of the latter. Sticking with the heterosexual examples, a man and a woman might both be pledged to other people in monogamous romantic relationship. They might both be deeply invested in those relationships and in honoring the commitments they made. The two friends might also be keenly aware that if they were each single, then a very different kind of relationship would involve between them. Continue reading ‘Feelings aren’t facts: on friendship, fidelity, and fleeting fancies’

“A relentless catalyst for the other’s growth”: a positive definition of monogamy

What does monogamy look like?

I got that question, phrased precisely that way, from a friend recently. He wasn’t asking for a definition, and he wasn’t asking for a defense of the institution. He was asking about living it out in practice.

I told my friend I wasn’t necessarily the best person to ask; though long a defender of the principle, until well into my thirties I proved capable of honoring monogamy only in the breach. Fidelity didn’t come naturally to me, something I’ve noted before. My friend told me that this was precisely why he was asking who it was he was asking — I had a “before and after” story he found moderately compelling, and he trusted that my relationship with my wife today is as it appears to be: faithful on both sides.

I’ve touched on this issue before in various posts, but I’ll summarize a bit today. First off, monogamy needs a positive definition. It can’t be summed up by what one doesn’t do with other people. I’ve never liked the “I’m monogamous because when I’m in a relationship I’m not sexual with other people” stance, not because I disagree with the statement, but because it’s far too limiting. Monogamy is about where we direct our physical and emotional and sexual energy, and not just where we don’t. In other words, monogamy is as much about single-minded devotion to one other person as it is about scrupulously avoiding sex (or emotional affairs) with others. If the energy isn’t flowing towards our partner, then we can’t claim we’re really monogamous if all we’re doing is keeping it bottled up. Monogamy and sexual self-denial are very different beasts.

Bottom line: monogamy is as much about how I love my wife as it is about how I don’t express that particular kind of love to others. It is defined by intensity as much as by exclusivity. That intensity has waxed and waned over our nearly eight years together; it has been profoundly impacted by the birth of our daughter. But it remains more than shared bank accounts and parenting duties and the enduring pledge not to be sexual or romantic with others. Our relationship is, at its core, a contract of mutual support and a pledge to act as a relentless catalyst for the other’s growth. And if you know me, or you know my wife, you know just how relentless we can be.

Flirtation, adultery, student-teacher boundaries — again!

I get a fair number of emails from college students, almost always young women, who found this blog after having googled the phrase “student crushes”. I reposted the piece that I did on Tuesday after receiving two such emails at the beginning of the week, both from women who had crushes on older, married, male professors.

Let’s review: professors should not date students who are enrolled in their classes, for some excellent reasons. We shouldn’t suborn adultery for some equally important reasons, as I wrote in January ’09 in a post called Helping Him Become What He Pledged Not to Be.

And while I don’t have a problem with professors dating their former students (though the ideal would be that a student would be sufficiently “former” as to have left the campus entirely), I do have a very serious problem with decentralizing the relationship status of the parties in this discussion. I think we can have a serious discussion about whether or not professor-student romantic relationships are invariably unethical and a bad idea. I take that negative position, but know that others — in good faith and at times with very thoughtful reasons — can take the opposite one. But I don’t think that it’s possible to make a compelling case in defense of adultery. While it is possible to critique monogamy as an institution, it isn’t ethically viable to defend dishonesty. And at its heart, the sinfulness of cheating is not in the sex, but in the lie it creates. As I wrote fifteen months ago:

One of the great tragedies of infidelity lies not in what it does to others but what it teaches us about ourselves — that we are fundamentally untrustworthy. And it is hard to be happy while living with the dissonance between one’s language and one’s life.

So let me be clear. I’m happy to chat with folks — in “real life” or through this blog, email, social media and so forth — about the ethical and human issues surrounding this topic in which I am deeply invested. What I’m not interested in doing is co-signing any behavior that dishonors another person’s monogamous commitment. Relationships can end, of course, and romantic statuses can shift. But when we’re dealing with people who have pledged fidelity to others, we have an obligation to do all that we can to help them honor that commitment. Honoring the commitment to fidelity can include breaking up prior to sleeping with someone else. But it cannot include idle flirtation, emotional affairs, or outright seduction.

Older married men who flirt with younger women do so, generally, for ego validation. The longing to know that one still has “it” can be overwhelming, particularly for a fellow who hasn’t really dealt with his own fears about ageing and mortality. But whether he is a politician or a plumber, he needs to grasp that young women — heck, women of any age — are not yardsticks with which to measure the sexual appeal he longs to know has not diminished. When the greying Romeo is a married professor flirting with his own students, that behavior moves from being unfortunate and unwise to reckless and irresponsible.

And that’s a message that apparently needs frequent repeating.

On being insufficiently supple: more silliness from the infidelity apologists

Because of the Tiger Woods business, we’ve had a lot of posts about infidelity up in December. Amanda Marcotte gets the cap tap for the link to this article in today’s Daily Mail: Why an affair could be the key to a healthy marriage. Some of what’s in the Tamara Cohen piece is the familiar lament about how much more civilized the French are about these things, and a French expert on affairs gets trotted out. Maryse Vaillant, struggling to say something new and even more absurd about a very old and familiar subject, offers this gem of insight: men who do not cheat may lack strength of character. Not a typo.

Cohen quotes Vaillant: These are often men whose father was physically or morally absent. These men have a completely idealised view of their father and the paternal function. They lack suppleness and are prisoners to an idealised image of a man of duty.

I love Paris, I really do. I learned to read Anglo-Norman French for my dissertation. The first car I ever rode in was a Peugeot. And I know enough to know that much of what the English-speaking world represents as authentically French is in fact a caricature. But Vaillant is certainly willing to play the part of the oh-so-sophisticated woman-of-the-world for the British and American press. Reading her words, one can almost smell the mix of Chanel #5, cigarettes (Gauloises), and the familiar Francophone blend of pity and condescension for the puritanical and repressed Anglo-Saxons who are making her a richer woman. Lack suppleness? Really?

Real suppleness is the capacity to find endless variety in the same relationship with the same person. The capacity to have affairs is not evidence of admirable flexibility; it is evidence of the fundamentally puerile tendency to get easily bored. A fool needs novelty with new people; the wise can find novelty with one.

Both sinned against and sinning: how Maggie Gallagher gets Tiger Woods and adultery all wrong

Maggie Gallagher, who has devoted much of her adult life to making sure that gays and lesbians cannot marry those whom they love, considers herself something of an expert on what she sees as an imperiled institution. Occasionally, she takes a break from what will surely be, in the end, a failed campaign to protect the narrow exclusivity of the franchise; on these breaks, she likes to shift her aim towards heterosexual women. Her column in this vein yesterday, Sex Makes People Stupid, gets one or two things right and far more things wrong. Gallagher begins:

Girls, can we talk? I don’t really like piling on a man in the midst of a multi-million-dollar public and personal implosion, but here’s one big obvious lesson to be learned from Tiger Woods: Sex makes people stupid.

And not just the men. How else do you explain the mistresses and semipros coming forward to say that a married Tiger betrayed their trust by sleeping with other women, too.

Sex makes people stupid. This is why we need a little thing called “civilization” to intervene between people and sexual passion, so we don’t leave the young-uns to rely on their own genius to figure out certain enduring truths, like: A married man cannot betray you. You are not a betrayee. You are the co-betrayer; you invade another woman’s marriage for your own personal satisfaction. A married man can’t be unfaithful to you. He can only be unfaithful with you, to his wife.

It’s typical, by the way, for Gallagher to bend over backwards (as she does in her first sentence) to avoid any criticism of any heterosexual man, no matter how great “a cad and a bounder” (as my uncle Stanley would have said) that man might be. Maggie is happier training her guns on the women who slept with Tiger and who had the temerity to feel hurt as a consequence.

I’m up to my ears in papers to grade, but I simply can’t let the wrong-headedness of Gallagher’s post pass. Yes, a married man who sleeps with a woman who isn’t his wife betrays his wife. He also betrays his children. But if he tells his mistress that “she’s the only (other) one” or that he loves her when he doesn’t, that too is a betrayal. Gallagher is so blinded by reverence for the marriage contract that she fails to see that betrayal comes in a variety of forms, including this one: we betray others not only when we break public covenants, but when we deliberately use others for our own pleasure while misrepresenting our intentions, our feelings, and our actions. Continue reading ‘Both sinned against and sinning: how Maggie Gallagher gets Tiger Woods and adultery all wrong’

Spoilsport feminists and the monogamy ideal

Andrea sends me a link to this Jay Michaelson piece that ran last Wednesday at the Huffington Post: It’s Not Just Tiger: Monogamous Marriage Is An Anomaly. The title is, one admits, historically accurate; marriage, as Stephanie Coontz has shown so ably, is a dynamic rather than static institution, and it has meant different things in different cultures. Certainly monogamy (at least for men) hasn’t always been expected, and in making this rather familiar and unoriginal observation, Michaelson is on solid ground. But once we get past the title, we’re off to a bad start:

It was understood – in the Bible, in the Talmud, in Protestant Europe, in colonial America – that married men would visit prostitutes. And while this may have been a sin, it was everyone’s sin – and not a particularly serious one.

That’s simply bizarre. I assume Michaelson has read Midrashic commentaries on Judah and Tamar, for example, or Richard Godbeer’s Sexual Revolution in Early America. Godbeer, an old friend of mine, ably demonstrates that the Puritans actually believed that men had more (rather than less) self-control than women, whom they regarded as disordered by the unfortunate condition of hysteria. The notion that in deeply religious Western cultures men were always seen as entitled to sexual release outside of marriage is absurd. Certainly, men were generally (though not always) punished less severely for sexual transgressions than were women, and prostitutes treated more harshly than their patrons — but to say that the record of Western civilization is one that reveals that men’s use of prostitutes was largely accepted is to grossly misrepresent the evidence.

But that’s not the real objection to Michaelson’s piece, which is written, more or less, in defense of philandering. (As a post, it stands as a terrific illustration of how to “praise with faint damns”.) It turns out, according to Michaelson, that feminists — who else — spoiled the fun men had been having for centuries by insisting on companionate, monogamous, egalitarian marriages:

What changed all this was, ironically, feminism. The first feminists weren’t bra-burning radicals: they were pious scolds, who in late 19th century America mobilized for purifying American manhood. They cleaned out the brothels and closed the pubs – feminists were the first prohibitionists. What had for hundreds of years been the common practice of men of all social classes became a great vice to be eradicated.

Twentieth century feminism added another layer of condemnation: after all, why should men be allowed to philander while women were expected to remain faithful and stand by their (abusive, cheating) men no matter what? Why are promiscuous men heroes, and promiscuous women sluts? Women aren’t slaves, feminism taught us, and men need to respect them as equal partners in marriage. Infidelity had been a religious sin – now it was a secular one as well.

Nineteenth-century feminists, as Michaelson doesn’t know, were far more concerned with fighting prostitution because of what it did to the lives of women and girls; purifying American manhood was about saving their wives and sisters and daughters and mothers from exploitation and misery. Of course, Michaelson is, like a great many men, attached to the idea that any woman who demands responsibility from a man is a hen-pecking killjoy who fails to understand men’s earthy, rambunctious, eternally puerile nature. And Michaelson ignores the countless male advocates for sexual restraint and fidelity, like Sylvester Graham, John Kellogg, and Anthony Comstock, whose influence was (probably unfortunately) far more significant on Victorian American culture than that of Susan B. Anthony or Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Continue reading ‘Spoilsport feminists and the monogamy ideal’

Tiger Woods and the “misogynistic homosocial economy” of desire

(The title of this post differs slightly from when it was first put up this morning.)

Lots of discussion in the blogosphere these past few days about this Eugene Robinson column in the Washington Post: Tiger’s validation complex. Robinson, who is African-American, is troubled by more than the famous golfer’s equally famous multiple infidelities. He’s troubled by the type of woman that Tiger seems to have pursued:

Here’s my real question, though: What’s with the whole Barbie thing?

No offense to anyone who actually looks like Barbie, but it really is striking how much the women who’ve been linked to Woods resemble one another. I’m talking about the long hair, the specific body type, even the facial features. Mattel could sue for trademark infringement.

This may be the most interesting aspect of the whole Tiger Woods story — and one of the most disappointing. He seems to have been bent on proving to himself that he could have any woman he wanted. But from the evidence, his aim wasn’t variety but some kind of validation…

…the world is full of beautiful women of all colors, shapes and sizes — some with short hair or almond eyes, some with broad noses, some with yellow or brown skin. Woods appears to have bought into an “official” standard of beauty that is so conventional as to be almost oppressive.

His taste in mistresses leaves the impression of a man who is, deep down, both insecure and image-conscious — a control freak even when he’s committing “transgressions.”

There is a long and painful history in the African-American community revolving around the penchant that a great many successful black men have had for pursuing white women. Indeed, the problem (if we can name it that) is a staple of magazine articles and fiction aimed at African-American women. I’m not a commenter on race, so it’s best that I merely note that the reaction Robinson is having is connected to a bitter and complicated history that is a good deal older than the now-disgraced superstar golfer.

But there’s a part of Robinson’s piece that isn’t just about race; it’s about the way in which men of all ethnicities use certain types of women as “trophies.” It is almost axiomatic that female beauty is a commodity which men employ to boost their status with other men. I wrote about this in April 2006, in a post about men, women, homosociality and weight. An excerpt:

Men are taught to find “hot” what other men find “hot.” The whole notion of a “trophy girlfriend” is based on the reality that a great many men use female desireability to establish status with other men. And in our current cultural climate where thinness is idealized, a slender partner is almost always going to be worth more than a heavy one. For men who have not yet extricated themselves from homosocial competition, their own self-esteem and sense of intra-male status may decline in direct proportion to their girlfriend’s weight gain.

Let me stress that this is absolutely not women’s problem to solve! My goal is not to make women who gain weight feel bad; protecting a fragile male ego is not a woman’s responsibility. The key thing men need to do is get honest about their own desire to use female desireability to establish status in the eyes of other men. And here’s where pro-feminist men can do a terrific service by challenging one another and holding each other accountable for the ways in which we are tempted to use our wives and girlfriends as trophies.

“Whiteness” can function similarly to “thin-ness”, particularly for men of color. America has a long and bloody history of violence towards dark-skinned men who were even suspected of a sexual interest in white women. For some men of color, to be with a white woman — particularly one who embodies the all-American “Barbie” ideal — is to say to the world “See, I’ve made it. You can’t touch me; I’ve achieved sufficient power and wealth so that I can have ‘access’ to what was once forbidden and could have gotten my grandfather lynched.” I’m not saying that was Tiger’s motive (Robinson is, and he’s in a better position than I to do so). I am saying that bedding whiteness, in the misogynistic homosocial economy, gives status points.

One of the important challenges we all need to take up is that of separating out what aspects of our desires are organic to us, and what aspects are socially constructed and reinforced. Men who are afraid to date heavier women “because of what my buddies will say” or women who are reluctant to date shorter men “because of how we’ll look together in public” do have, I think, an obligation to distinguish their fear of losing status from their actual desires. As we all know, the human libido is flexible but not infinitely so; it can be influenced but not entirely molded by culture and experience. Most of us have preferences and types, as I wrote in 2005, that are to some degree essential to us:

…feminism is not hostile to the body, nor to human sexual responses to the body. Feminism does ask the hard questions about why our culture suggests only some kinds of bodies are worthy of being deemed attractive! Feminism is critical of the extraordinarily narrow range of women’s bodies depicted as beautiful and desirable in the culture. But there’s a difference between speaking out against the ways in which popular culture limits the definition of beauty and desire, and rejecting the idea of lust and physical attraction altogether.

Most of us — not all — have certain physical “types” to which we are often drawn…A “type” does become a problem when certain physical attributes are presumptively linked to certain anti-feminist qualities (submissiveness, docility, and so forth). Most feminists are rightly troubled, for example, by white men who have an “Asian fetish” that is clearly linked to fantasies about submission and sexuality. But a man who simply prefers brunettes, without attaching any cultural baggage to his attraction, is not violating any vital feminist principle. We are allowed our individual quirks and our individual preferences, as long as those quirks and preferences are not linked to racist and sexist assumptions that certain types of women “know how to treat a man better.”

I’d add the Tiger corollary to that, which is that individual preferences are fine insofar as they are not thinly (sorry) disguised excuses for pursuing a particular type of woman in order to gain validation and status in the real or imagined eyes of other men. Untangling what we want sexually from what we ourselves want in order to meet cultural or familial expectations is a universal challenge. Unlike my postmodernist friends, I do believe we have an identity and desires that are deeper than our culture; our sexuality, although more malleable than many imagine, isn’t entirely a tabula rasa. (If that were so, there’d be far fewer GLBT kids growing up in conservative Christian households than there in fact are.)

Part of becoming a responsible, sexually mature adult is doing the often difficult work of discerning what one craves inherently from what one has been taught one ought to crave, and what one has learned will win approval from parents or peers. It ain’t rocket science, but it isn’t easy either. And while Tiger may “organically” crave youthful white women with Barbie-esque proportions, one suspects that for all his achievements, he has not yet come close to gaining insight and understanding of the role sexuality plays in his life. And the consequences of lacking that understanding are, as we have seen in his case, devastating.

Of Roman generals, Tiger Woods, and the challenge of self-soothing

I’m not interested in blogging the particulars of the Tiger Woods story; countless folks are already doing just that. We have a fondness for Tiger in my family, mind you; my late grandmother, who died in 1998, sometimes enjoyed watching golf on television in her final years. Woods was just emerging as a major star as she declined into her final illness, and she often mentioned to the family the pleasure she got watching him play. And so since her death eleven years ago, we’ve all had a bit of a sentimental attachment to the fellow. The only thing I’ve ever held against him is his refusal to use his considerable heft to nudge the Augusta National Golf club to admit women as members; Woods is, to my eye, excessively reluctant to advocate for social change. (And as a Cal alum, I note that Tiger is a passionate supporter of his alma mater, Stanford — and thus a fair target for derision during Big Game week.)

The issue that I’m interested in is infidelity, particularly those that come about following the arrival of a new child. We don’t know how far back Woods’ “transgressions” date (he and his wife, Elin, were married in 2004 — and their first child born in 2007), the evidence seems to be that they either began or increased in frequency after he became a Dad. Certainly, it’s a familiar story in heterosexual marriages: the husband is discombobulated by his wife’s response to the birth of a child. Suddenly, he perceives that which was rightly his has been withdrawn, transferred to someone else whose demands trump his own. Even the wealthy change diapers and nurse (the issue of breast-feeding and class has been a hot one in the feminist blogosphere); a great many women, in the first year or two following the birth of a baby, experience an understandably diminished libido.

If a man has been inculcated with the unfortunate notion that it is his wife’s job (a la the execrable Laura Schlessinger) to take care of him, he may imagine himself neglected once the child appears. That sense of neglect is rooted in a false sense of entitlement, and that latter sense can often act to justify an “affair”. Of course, it’s the myth of male weakness again — the notion that men have irrepressible needs that can only be met through sexual relationships with women. If a wife or a girlfriend (even for the excellent reason of having just become a mother) reduces her attentiveness to those supposedly overpowering needs, than the myth suggests that a “normal, red-blooded guy” is at least somewhat justified in seeking sexual satisfaction (and soothing) elsewhere.

When a Roman general was given a “Triumph” following a victory, he would be paraded through the streets, feted by the magistrates and worshipped by adoring citizens. It could, of course, all go to his head. During the parade, a slave would famously stand just behind the general, whispering in his ear memento mori – “Remember that you are mortal.” In the face of the temptations that come with fame and wealth, it may be necessary to outsource one’s conscience to trusted professionals. If I were Tiger, I’d use some of my wealth to assemble a team with whom I traveled everywhere — bodyguards whose job is as much to protect Woods from his impulses as it is to protect his person from those of others. I’d let trusted family members (including Elin, his wife) select the “accountability team”. And they’d be empowered to escort the superstar back to his hotel room lickety-split if he starts canoodling with a cocktail waitress. “Remember your vows”, these bodyguards might murmur with polite but forceful tones. If one’s own moral voice is too still and too small to be heard in the face of temptation, why not hire one or several such voices to be with you at all times? There’s no shame in acknowledging one’s vulnerabilities — just in refusing to take reasonable measures to protect oneself and one’s family from the harm those vulnerabilities can bring. Continue reading ‘Of Roman generals, Tiger Woods, and the challenge of self-soothing’

Affirming and redirecting: a post about marriages, friendships, emotional affairs, and how Tolstoy gets it wrong

SamSeaborn asks a question:

a female friend recently asked me over to her place for coffee – she’s like a sister to me and she’s been married for a couple of years. Now she tells me how she’s sexually unhappy in her marriage that she’s wondering about cheating… and obviously felt very guilty about those thoughts. I’ve liberated myself quite a bit from my Catholic guilt, but this is a dilemma for me.

Is there a morally sound way of action for her when she wants to be with her husband (whom I don’t know as closely as her) but he can’t give her what she wants sexually and she can’t even speak to him about this, otherwise she wouldn’t turn to me to talk about these things… her happiness is important to me, and her happiness is very likely tied to a morally sound solution of this issue. So, as someone who has clearly thought about this kind of problem – if you have any idea how to address something like this, I’d really appreciate a brief reply.

First off, let me say that I think it’s important for married heterosexual folks to have friends of all sexes. I think it’s terrific that Sam has a friend whom he thinks of as a sister. At the same time, I’m not the only person who will read his query with a small bit of concern. Infidelity isn’t just about sexual activity with someone other than a spouse; emotional affairs can be as — if not more — toxic than those that are consummated physically. I wrote about the trap of emotional affairs here, and defined it thus:

(An emotional affair is) a non-physically sexual relationship characterized by mutually intense psychological intimacy, accompanied by words or gestures that traditionally are reserved for one’s romantic partner. That’s a vague definition, of course; emotional affairs are notoriously difficult to define. (One thinks of the perhaps apocryphal Potter Stewart remark about knowing obscenity when he saw it.) The slipperiness of the line between “good friend” and emotional “lover” allows those involved in these affairs a great deal of plausible deniability, both to themselves and to those around them. “We’re just friends”; “It’s totally innocent”; “You’re reading too much into this” are the sorts of things that can be said with genuine sincerity in response to suspicious queries from others.

Communicating with a partner about sex isn’t always easy. Clearly, Sam’s friend is unhappy and frustrated, and has every right to feel the way she feels. But Sam’s certainty that she “can’t” talk to her husband about sex is offered a bit too quickly. It may not be easy, it may not be pleasant, but unless there’s a clear and present danger of being physically injured as a result of raising the subject, one of the responsibilities of a married person is to bring ze grievances — in a loving but honest way — to ze spouse. If she “can’t talk” to her husband about it, the inevitable solution will be either prolonged depression or some sort of affair, either physical or emotional or both. Neither is a “morally sound” option. Marriage doesn’t impose a contractual obligation to suffer indefinitely in frustration and silence; marriage also doesn’t impose (as I’ve written before) an obligation to provide sexual satisfaction. Marriage does impose the obligation to communicate, to compromise where possible — and when not possible, to choose to end the marriage through divorce rather than through an affair or “frozen martyrdom”.

I take Sam at his word that he doesn’t have a carnal interest in his friend, and he isn’t (as Job puts it), “lurking at his neighbor’s door” waiting to step in as the answer to a sexually frustrated woman’s prayer. But I think he does have an obligation to call her out on her flat insistence that communication with her husband is impossible. It may be that this woman’s husband is so intransigent and unreachable that any attempt at counseling or conversation will fail. If that’s the case, then divorce is the morally sound and psychologically responsible option. After the divorce proceedings are begun and the husband has been informed that the marriage is over, then she’s certainly free to look elsewhere for sexual fulfillment. But it’s part of Sam’s job as a friend to point out these options.

Good friends listen to each other and affirm each other. They know that sometimes a companion needs to “dump”, and doesn’t need a solution proposed. (We all know the classic axiom about men and women in conversation, and the traditional American male desire to “fix” a problem immediately.) But good friends, true friends, challenge and push each other. They affirm feelings and validate frustration — and in a loving way, nudge one another towards making important changes. Sam’s friend is stuck, and simply talking about her frustrations to him is unlikely to get her “unstuck”. A loving and firm push in one of two directions — towards either counseling or divorce — is the most helpful thing Sam can offer. Continue reading ‘Affirming and redirecting: a post about marriages, friendships, emotional affairs, and how Tolstoy gets it wrong’

More on avoiding infidelity

Following up on the recent posts about fidelity and marriage and the possibility of platonic friendship, I’d like to build on something a commenter wrote below yesterday’s piece. I’ve included several links to older posts as well. A former student of mine writes today:

until both men and women realize that being faithful is a choice one has to make everyday for the rest of their life and not just some mountain top romantic promise, the temptations will always win out.

I think there’s some good sense in that. Being monogamous comes “naturally” for some, and presents more of a challenge for others. I don’t suggest that lifelong monogamous commitments are best for everyone, and while — as I’ve said almost ad nauseam — I do think marriage is a particularly effective vehicle for personal growth, I don’t think it’s the only such vehicle. Certainly, one of the ways in which marriage presents this opportunity to grow is through the practice of active fidelity. And fidelity is, as the commenter says, a choice one makes every day.

I know very well how affairs happen, having been recklessly unfaithful in earlier marriages. As someone who “performs” for a living, I know all too well the particular temptations inherent in this and similar professions. My wife and I are exhausted much of the time; these days, we’re busy raising our precious baby girl, co-parenting as best we can, working on our respective careers, finding time to volunteer. This week, we’re also in the throes of moving, buying one house and selling another. It’s very easy for the obligations to pile on top of each other until it seems as if every waking hour is about doing the next task, responding to the next call to duty. And while my wife and I make time to validate and connect with each other, we don’t have the leisure we might once have had to do much mutual soothing and reassuring. There’s too damn much to do, not to mention a little creature in the house who really does need lots of soothing.

So if I’m not careful, I can start to feel a bit crestfallen. If I’m not careful, I might start to think “My wife doesn’t appreciate me the way she once did”. (She might say the same about me.) With my body suffering the effects of not working out as I once did (there is very little time for exercise), my ego might begin to look about for some source of validation, something or someone to tell me how good and wonderful and handsome I still am. And of course, I work as a college professor surrounded by young people; I blog and Facebook and interact with colleagues in my usual ENFP way. Lots and lots of people see the “surface Hugo”, and the surface Hugo can come across rather well. And without being conscious of asking for it, I get lots of validation from students and colleagues and readers and friends who don’t know me as well as my wife does. Continue reading ‘More on avoiding infidelity’