Thursday, July 07, 2011

Your Savage coverage continues UPDATED

While I've been a fan of both of their writing for a good while, when it comes to issues of social liberalism/conservatism, I tend to agree with Dan Savage far more than I do with Miss Self-Important. Yet I found myself largely in agreement with MSI's recent take-down of Dan Savage's critique of monogamy. This, I suspect, has something to do with the fact that where Savage falters, MSI and I appear to agree, is visible simply at the level of common sense. No particular political or religious slant is required to see where things might not go smoothly if the presumption of monogamy were eliminated.

Basically, while the OMG-non-monogamy reaction to arguments like Savage's is usually applied to shock regarding non-monogamous marriage, what this would mean for that institution, as far as I'm concerned, the issues are at least as profound when it comes to introducing non-monogamy into pre-marital relationships, the sort that might end in marriage, or might not. Like I said, my fear, with Savage's monogamy-neutral stance, is that, in deciding that bringing in "other people" is fully compatible with staying in a relationship, young adults would start marrying partners they're kind of eh about, despite still being attracted to other people to the point of wanting to actually pursue relationships with those other people. The assumption of monogamy helps you be sure that when you settle down, you do so with the right person. By "right person," I don't necessarily mean Fate, just someone you can see yourself remaining monogamously tied to, even if, yeah, no one ever knows exactly what they (let alone their spouse) will be up to 15, 35 years down the line. Like I said, a presumption of non-monogamy isn't so great for the other partner who, fine, gets to avoid the hurt of being dumped, but who's not with someone all that enthusiastic.

What came up in the comments at MSI's, and what I ought to have mentioned before, is why this is a problem for everybody involved. Say you're 19, or 25, and you're in a relationship that's going OK, not great. You find yourself interested in other people. You can either a) dump the person you're with, or b) open up the relationship. Option (a) assumes monogamy - if others remain interesting, this gf/bf isn't it. How limiting!

Option (b), however, involves self-identifying as 'just not a monogamous person.' While there are no doubt some out there who are just not monogamous people, there are so, so, so many people who had a wandering eye when in so-so relationships, but in the one they end up in (or in ones in which it's the other person who loses interest first), they're fully capable of monogamy and indeed prefer it. This is, of course, that old cliché - 'he never told me he loved me, then three weeks after we broke up, he was engaged to someone else' - but there's truth to that. This is why when your bf/gf says, 'I just can't do monogamy,' you're right to be suspicious, not that cheating has necessarily occurred, but that the person you're with simply can't do monogamy with you. This is a safe assumption, even if .0001% of the time, the guy/gal really can't do monogamy, period.

As even Savage will grant you, monogamy's a whole lot more practical than any arrangement that has to be "negotiated," especially if kids are involved. (More on that in a moment.) So even if you leave out OMG traditional marriage, OMG traditional morality, think of Jesus, think of the children, it is, all things equal, a heck of a lot easier to be happily monogamous than to arrive at (optimistically) an equivalent level of happiness through negotiated non-monogamy. So it's inefficient, if nothing else, to decide that some huge percentage of the population is unfit for monogamy. Better that both partners in a relationship in which one or both are eh get the chance at monogamy that splitting from each other offers.

OK, so that's Part I. Part II: It's important, as MSI notes, that for all Savage's requests that children be protected, that marriages remain intact for their own good, he never seems to realize that children can be born outside wedlock. Now, perhaps unlike MSI and the social-conservative writer she links to, I don't think this is an issue of, heteros should only have sex with people they're prepared to have a kid with. Aside from that being unrealistic, it's unnecessary given the availability of effective contraception, and can potentially lead to ill-suited marriages between people who really just wanted to have sex. What I do think is, you want to be very sure the other person's on the same page. With college students/college-bound/recent-grad young people, often enough the man and woman are both horrified at the thought of a pregnancy. If it's near-implausible that either one wants there to be a pregnancy, or even that either would be even kinda-sorta OK with that result (even if both are, objectively speaking, pro-choice), more than one effective method of contraception is used, and pregnancy's a very unlikely outcome.

Once you involve people who are perhaps older, less panicked about pregnancy than your average ambitious and future-oriented 19-year-old, perhaps even with comfortable incomes and audible biological clocks, or even just once you involve multiple people, period, variables increase, and it's tougher to be on the same page. That, and the consequences of an unplanned pregnancy impact more people. Savage - take note, Chris Bodenner - does acknowledge that STDs can be a problem here, but kids, unlike STDs, are frequently a desired outcome of sex. What might result is an above-board version of the Aahnold situation, sure, but also it could be the wife who's then pregnant, not with the husband's child, or perhaps... and so many questions - continue the pregnancy? do we care whose kid it is, and what if some of us do, others not? And, once born, the same issues arise regardless of gender breakdown - what's this kid's relationship to its parent outside the marriage and its siblings born within the marriage? Discretion becomes a bit more complicated when "poly" produces a next generation.

UPDATE

Note this, from Prudie, in response to a 27-year-old woman whose bf of two years has been having an affair, or as much as an "affair" as one can have not two years into a dating relationship, and who seems committed to getting through it: "You two aren't married, you don't have kids, so I'm wondering why this mess seems worth all the work." Whether the relevant threshold is marriage, kids, cohabitation, or a certain number of years together - there's a point in relationships when it makes sense to stay together even if things are not good but not atrocious, when we might be sympathetic to Savage's plea to make it work. That time isn't when relatively little has been invested in a relationship.

7 comments:

PG said...

I hadn't read the NYT piece about Savage's ideas as focusing on polygamy so much as on a monogamy that allows for sexual infidelity. That is, neither Savage's relationship, nor that of most bourgeois gay men nowadays, actually allows for the partners to have serious romantic commitments to other people. It just allows them to have sex with other people. If we pretend that Savage's relationship were with a woman, it still wouldn't allow for his partner to have formed such an emotional attachment to another person that she'd be wanting to have his baby.

There's such a huge difference between marriage without sexual fidelity versus actual polyamory/ polygamy that the two really ought not be conflated. For one thing, the political commitments are very different; Savage spends vastly more energy on altering the federal definition of marriage so that it can be one man and one man, than he does on altering it so it can be one man and two women.

If I'm in a mediocre relationship and see a guy and think, "Hey, he's new and cute, I want to touch," that's not the same as being in a mediocre relationship and wanting to start a relationship with someone else. Aside from STDs and a level of carelessness among heteros that would lead to unintentional fatherhoods, what Savage was talking about really shouldn't be affecting children much. I doubt Mom and Dad's excursions to the swingers clubs impacted Jack and Jeri Ryan's kids -- until Mrs. Ryan got fed up and divorced him over it, which wouldn't have happened if they'd negotiated pre-kids about what their sex life could entail.

Phoebe said...

PG,

"If we pretend that Savage's relationship were with a woman, it still wouldn't allow for his partner to have formed such an emotional attachment to another person that she'd be wanting to have his baby."

This is too idealized to cover reality. 1) People sometimes form stronger attachments than they set out to. The barrier of knowing sex can't happen tends to be what allows those to fade if fade they must, so if the relationship's supposed to be just about sex, that barrier's gone. Something that starts out as negotiated non-monogamy can, if feelings change, feel like polygamy to some or all involved. 2) Even if the "other woman" isn't all that infatuated, even if everyone's following the rules perfectly, she could well be 38, accidentally find herself pregnant, and, figuring this might be her last such opportunity, decide to keep the fetus. There's then a baby born into a very complicated situation.

"If I'm in a mediocre relationship and see a guy and think, "Hey, he's new and cute, I want to touch," that's not the same as being in a mediocre relationship and wanting to start a relationship with someone else."

I don't think Savage would agree with you here - he's always saying that you never know which relationships will be one-night-stands, which will be marriages, because the former can lead to the latter. And he's right.

"Aside from STDs and a level of carelessness among heteros that would lead to unintentional fatherhoods, what Savage was talking about really shouldn't be affecting children much."

And it's precisely the children of those "unintentional fatherhoods" that MSI and I believe would be negatively impacted. Less so - but still to some extent - the children of the "primary" couples.

PG said...

While Savage says that what you thought might be a one-night stand can develop into your lifelong relationship complete with adopted kids, I don't think he's ever claimed that if your one-night stand occurs against the background of already being in a serious relationship (like marriage), you can't keep it a one-night stand. People aren't the helpless victims of their emotions; if they were, marriage would be an impossible project anyway because most marriages run up against times when the parties hurt each other and think they'd be better off away from the other person. I just don't think it's plausible that if you're someone who is sufficiently capable of dissociating sex from emotion that you'd agree to a non-sexually-exclusive marriage, that you'd then feel so strongly about someone after a single one-night-stand that it would be necessary to keep seeing that person until you were engaged in functional polygamy. A one-night stand CAN lead to marriage -- but only if you let it.

Less so - but still to some extent - the children of the "primary" couples.

How so?

Phoebe said...

PG,

"People aren't the helpless victims of their emotions"

Helpless, no, but what I was getting at in my last comment was that what keeps emotional entanglements low is to fully (or close to) eliminate the possibility of sex. You don't see how opening up that possibility changes things? Someone married but with a crush on a co-worker (80% of Dear Prudence's letter-writers) is less likely to get terribly emotionally involved if it stays just a crush. Crush plus sex doesn't necessarily equal emotional entanglement, but it sure ups the odds.

"I just don't think it's plausible that if you're someone who is sufficiently capable of dissociating sex from emotion that you'd agree to a non-sexually-exclusive marriage, that you'd then feel so strongly about someone after a single one-night-stand that it would be necessary to keep seeing that person until you were engaged in functional polygamy."

First off, as Oppenheimer points out, what if one spouse is that way, and the other just agrees to it? Next, the issue isn't an emotion-driven slide into polygamy, but rather the possibility that a child will be born out of a relationship outside the marriage, but not one anyone has any intention of hushing-up, either.

"How so?"

Because even though he wasn't super into the mom, and it was just a sex thing, dad's now super excited, now that it's born, to have a new child, he'd always wanted a son, anyway, and is going to pay the kid's college tuition, spend weekends with him, etc. Because, look, meet your new half-siblings whose very existence reminds you of your parents' unconventional sex lives.

PG said...

Oops, I misunderstood your closing sentence in the prior comment -- I didn't realize you meant that the children of the existing relationship would be negatively impacted by the creation of their half-siblings; I'd thought you were saying they'd be negatively impacted just by their parents' having a sexually open relationship.

what keeps emotional entanglements low is to fully (or close to) eliminate the possibility of sex

I guess I don't agree that so long as there isn't sex, there won't be an emotional entanglement. This is why people get stressed by their spouses becoming very close to someone of the opposite sex even if sex is very unlikely. IMO & experience, the way to minimize emotional entanglement is to minimize all forms of interaction with the person (even including the epistolary -- people did fall in love by letter). People who feel a crush coming on should choke it early -- which might entail keeping the crush object frozen as an ideal -- rather than feed it with interactions.

as Oppenheimer points out, what if one spouse is that way, and the other just agrees to it?

Sure, but as I indicated in my comment on your earlier post about the article, I agree with Oppenheimer that this is a problem with GGG. This is not like sitting through "Clash of the Titans" because your spouse loves it and you're keeping him company; the decision about whether a relationship will be sexually exclusive shouldn't be made with one party's unenthusiastic passive acceptance.

Also, the likelihood of a child's being born out of a one-night stand when even one of the parties takes a serious, responsible stance on contraception (as well as avoidance of disease), seems very small. One obvious way to be certain that no pregnancy can result is to avoid procreative sex. As with a recent Savage letter-writer, vaginal intercourse might be that "thing we do only in our marriage" while everything else on the menu is available for one-night stands.

Phoebe said...

PG,

"I guess I don't agree that so long as there isn't sex, there won't be an emotional entanglement."

I don't believe I argued that. Of course that's possible, but drawing a line avoids a good deal. And not just in some sense of, people think they can separate sex and emotion, then their emotions prove uncontrollable. Just - it's simpler for I suspect most people to just think of there being a line, and that anyone who's off-limits sexually is also off-limits in terms of close emotional connection.

"One obvious way to be certain that no pregnancy can result is to avoid procreative sex."

OK, this is where I'm going to disagree most strongly. It's so, so much easier to trust that one's husband, for example, is going to avoid sleeping with others, than to trust that, in a moment of passion, certain acts are rationally kept off the table.
I especially think unplanned/not-wanted-by-all-parties births would be more common among the 35-and-up set - people not in the mode of OMG-I-can't-get-pregnant contraception (as many 20-somethings still are, as a holdover from high school/college), when people might imagine their partners won't have STDs (regardless of realities), and when - and I don't think this can be dismissed! - an unplanned pregnancy might look (not to resort to SATC, ugh, but think Miranda) like, hey, this could be the last chance of having a kid. All of this needs to be taken into account, since that's the age group where "opening up" a marriage that had started monogamous would come up.

Phoebe said...

(Oh, and agreed - you, I, Oppenheimer, agreed re: GGG).