I realized a startling fact about myself recently—one that’s had me rethinking and reevaluating my own personal thoughts on sex positivity and relationships:
I’ve told a lot of people to cheat on their partners.
I felt a little hypocritical. After all, I fancy myself the relationship queen. All of my major relationships have lasted two years or more and have been monogamous or, as Dan Savage might say, monogomish. Yet, I’ve cheated on each of my partners as if it was a natural occurrence, and then got pissed if one of them cheated on me.
And I’m not the only one. After the Ashley Madison fiasco last year, people lost their shit, not just because their partners were cheating on them, but because a website catering to infidelity existed at all. It became a public moral outcry. In 2013, Gallup released a poll of the moral acceptability of 20 issues. Of their sample of 1,535 adults, only 6% believed having an affair was morally acceptable. (Meanwhile, belief in the death penalty shot up a few points, but I digress.) Furthermore, adultery is still illegal in 21 states.
As a culture, we’ve gotten it into our heads that once we make an emotional and/or sexual commitment to another person, we somehow own that person’s body. That is simply not the case and, at the same time, I don’t want to see my husband fucking around on me anytime soon.
So I’ve been dealing with some cognitive dissonance about relationships and this idea of monogamy. After telling so many other people to cheat on their significant others, do I really have the right to be pissed off if my husband cheated on me?
After a little soul searching and a lot of debate, I think I’ve found the answer:
Yes and no.
First of all, the concept of monogamy stems from a patriarchal society bent on preserving wealth and lineage. Women were the baby-makers, as it were, and if there’s a kid involved the dad’s less-likely to renege on the monetary end of the bargain. Women were property to be bartered for, and had little to no choice in the mate they acquired in the deal. Our modern ideas of marriage reflect some of those same practices—the rings, the pure white wedding dress, the vows “till death do us part.” It’s all very precise…and binding.
There is also the fact that monogamy isn’t natural. Of more than 5000 species of mammals, only a few mate for life, including humans. Everything else is fucking around like it’s their jobs. Humans too! And it kind of is our job, at least, from an evolutionary perspective. The whole preservation of the genes thing wouldn’t have happened without a little action. Some research suggests that cheating might also be engrained in our biology. The hormones dopamine and vasopressin have been linked to infidelity, and the ways in which some people might deal with sex. Vasopressin influences sexual motivation and dopamine makes us feel good. According to Dr. Nicole Prause in an email to Medical Daily:
“Since the primary motivation for engaging in sex has long been pleasure, it reasons that the same mechanisms that attract some people to pleasures in general, might also attract them to broader sexual practices.”
In a nutshell, sex is designed to feel good on a biological level, otherwise, primordial man might not have been motivated to preserve the species. But besides humanity’s predisposition to, for lack of a better way of saying it, “fuck anything that moves,” there is a significant majority of people who are happy and comfortable in a monogamous relationship—such as yours truly. Monogamy isn’t unnatural in any sense, and sex, even the extra-marital kind, can be negotiated in ethical ways not harmful to us, our partners, or relationships.
Even so, I think there are ethical reasons to cheat on a partner or spouse, and still identify as monogamous, at least, socially so. Disability, chronic illness, substance abuse, libido, and, yes, infidelity are all factors that might lead a person to cheat. Differing sexualities or sexual kinks can also play a role. When partner A likes getting their toes licked and partner B is completely squicked out by feet, therein lies a sexual disconnect.
Being unfaithful, however, might also come at a price. Emotions can sometimes gunk up the works, blurring the boundaries of the extra-relational affair as well as our relationship with the primary partner. Poly people, or anyone in sexually open relationships sometimes have to navigate this: when one partner is getting too much or too little action there can sometimes be emotional baggage to contend with. In order to cheat, or even be open to more than one relationship, I think we need to be in tune with our own emotional needs, expectations, and sexual desires, as well as being emotionally and sexually empathetic to our partners.
That said, there is something to be said about the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. Flings like the office Christmas party where things got a little out of hand with that hot dude from accounting, or the business trip to Vegas you took where curiosity got the best of you and you put a dick in your mouth for the first time. Sometimes a fling is just a fling, and mentioning it to your partner can be more damaging to your relationship than just keeping your yap shut. Accidents happen, even in sex. But, when certain affairs begin taking away from your primary partner, perhaps it’s time to start exercising a little bit of that empathy I was talking about earlier.
Unless your partner is a douche bag—which is sometimes the case because, well, some people are just selfish assholes. If infidelity is your thing, if you get your rocks off on cheating on an unsuspecting partner despite everything being roses at home, you might be one of these selfish pricks. If you want to have your cake (your partner) and eat it too (your affair), then you might want to rethink your relationship and your emotional capacity toward a committed relationship. Also, the use of sex as a relational bargaining tool, leading someone along on an emotional leash with the promise of a little action, is wrong. In simpler terms, this is abuse, and if you are doing this you are an asshole who probably doesn’t deserve your partner anyway.
In America, the politics of sex boil down to this:
Is it moral?
But morality is subjective. An extreme example—murder—could be rationalized under some conditions as a moral thing to do. Does it make it right? Not necessarily, and not without all the information. When it comes to other peoples’ sex lives, however, we rarely have all of the information. Each person in a relationship experiences that relationship differently. That is why communication is so important. However, I’ve learned some people lack the interpersonal skills, the emotional wherewithal, or the language to communicate properly…especially in a culture as saturated in sex as America, and yet still afraid to broach the subject honestly.
So do I think it’s okay for you to cheat on your partner?
But only you can make that final decision, and ultimately deal with the consequences of your actions if and when it comes to that.
As for me? I feel like too many people have their noses in other peoples’ bedrooms telling us what sex should look like, especially when it doesn’t look the way we do it. But being sex positive isn’t about policing other peoples’ sex lives. Instead, it should be, as sex educator and author Emily Nagoski defines, “Each of us get to decide how we feel about our bodies and what to do with it.”
And sometimes, for whatever reasons, people decide to cheat. It is all part of being autonomous, sexual beings and nobody has a right a right to judge your autonomy—except, maybe, the person you’re cheating on. Just be prepared to take that leap, because it may or may not come back to bite you in your ass.
Until next time,