Wednesday, July 20, 2011

"Now if he can only convince my wife."

The highlight of the Heidelberg week is "market day," the twice-weekly partially-farmers' (there are also pineapples and lemons) set-up of stands in the main square. The rhythm of the week is set by these days, days when seemingly more-than-adequate piles of euros disappear because the tomatoes and peaches and such will look so good. (I recently saw some lovely garlic at one stand, deemed it too expensive, and ended up paying over a euro for one also-delightful but still bulb of garlic at another.) My favorite stand is the Austrian one, with the pretzels and mmm, Austrian cheese. Oh, and the beautiful tomato stand, with the only vegetable-stand worker who doesn't grimace at foreigners, and who, quite the contrary, tossed in some free tomatoes of the more expensive variety. (First one's always free, if we're going to be cynical...) Other than that, I've decided to take a mini-break from my dissertation to attempt a maybe-one-day-publishable academic article based on part of said dissertation. Much copying and pasting is involved. So until I have more compelling things to write about, I won't promise to stop the 24/7 Dan Savage coverage. (It did occur to me that, given the extent to which my work is about shifting definitions of the married couple, this is busman's-holiday-ish, so, thus tagged.)

So. Nick Troester on Savage has made me both more sympathetic to Savage's argument, and more sympathetic to the part of me that considers Savage a great prophet of our age. I agree that it's important to remember that Savage is not so much envisioning a world in which romantic life goes to the circus as assuming that monogamy will remain the norm, and looking for ways to reduce the misery that can cause for some people in some situations. And when this is the message Savage sticks to, I think he makes a good point. He's right that someone who learns that their spouse never ever ever can or wants to have sex again might do well to discreetly but honestly look elsewhere. He's right that extramarital affairs shouldn't destroy families if at all possible. And he's right that monogamy doesn't mean ceasing to detect that a Brad Pitt clone just got on the subway. Given the extent to which a) there is an expectation of fidelity even in extreme circumstances, b) people assume infidelity should lead to divorce, even if practically speaking it doesn't always, and c) people embrace the seemingly romantic but in fact highly creepy notion that once in a relationship, one must cease to have the capacity for physical attraction to other people (because, good grief, what happens if/when the relationship ends?), Savage is fighting the good fight, without even much challenging monogamy as an ideal.

Where Savage is wrong, though, is in his message - reiterated in the post Nick links to - that "monogamy is hard." Hard compared with exactly what arrangement? Certainly not more difficult than attempting to find a continuous stream of different partners when single, 45, and not fabulously wealthy. And negotiated non-monogamy, however valid in certain "marginal" cases, sounds incredibly complicated. The problem here, as I may have mentioned in Miss Self-Important's comments, is that Savage has, in recent months, started to begin his answers from the standpoint of assuming a couple won't be monogamous, both that monogamy is the more complicated route in most cases, and that an urge to "see other people" isn't just a desire to leave a relationship - an assumption he makes even when no kids are involved. (I should be citing specific podcasts, I suppose, but for the time being, this has been my overall impression.) The typical situation is no longer a spouse whose sex drive's kaput, but rather a couple in which - and this gets back to MSI's remarks - one person wants something specific that his partner for whatever reason can't or won't provide.

That, and Savage has yet to really grapple with the impact "monogamish" has on women. It's nice and all that Savage has located some individual women who don't see his stance as particularly rough for women, but this is a bit like arguing against affirmative action and claiming your view is Good for the Blacks because look, here are two black people who agree with you. Problem is, in the world of actual heterosexual couples, there are plenty of men who like the idea of non-monogamy for themselves, but not for their girlfriend/wife. This, as I mentioned before, is partly just chauvinistic double-standards and male entitlement, but partly the not entirely false assumption that (b/c of nature or nurture) women are less likely to have sex without emotional involvement. There may well be plenty of women who'd want something on the side, but who've been socialized not to see that as an option. Savage no doubt opposes that kind of socialization, but if he's discussing the world that actually exists, monogamish-for-heteros won't be so equitable.

Note this letter from a man from Boca Raton - quite possibly the guy who gave Jerry the astronaut pen, then demanded it back - to the NYT Magazine in response to the Oppenheimer piece: "Bravo to Dan Savage for his forthright thesis exposing the meshugas that is monogamy. Now if he can only convince my wife." Badumbumching!


Andrew Stevens said...

He's right that someone who learns that their spouse never ever ever can or wants to have sex again might do well to discreetly but honestly look elsewhere.

And how exactly does one go about this honestly? Savage has recommended this route to people who have already tried (and failed) to negotiate with their spouses who are, quite understandably, concerned that this will lead to the end of the marriage. (It does, you know, quite often.) Is it your contention that he's correct and that one should then sneak around on one's spouse, breaking one's word, because sexual satisfaction is more important than keeping one's promises?

Nicholas said...

"Hard compared with exactly what arrangement?"

I've always taken his point to be that it's just hard in general, as is any other relationship arrangement. Cultural norms that suggest it's natural and therefore should be easy, or, worse, 'hard' but with the implication that anyone who's an adult should be able to do it without difficulty, tend to obscure the difficulty of sustaining a healthy monogamous relationship. (In my experience with this, conservative evangelicals and Catholics will go back and forth between which assumption underlies the expectation of easy monogamy)

But I do agree with you on the point re: women, and the more general problem of coercion in relationships that the monogamish option raises but Savage never really seems to address.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


"Is it your contention that he's correct and that one should then sneak around on one's spouse, breaking one's word, because sexual satisfaction is more important than keeping one's promises?"

So much depends on where the threshold is. If the issue is, you're married at 25, and at 27 you learn that your spouse for medical reasons has no sex drive/is actually gay/refuses to have sex with you in particular, but you already have a kid, then perhaps it's unreasonable to ask that you be celibate until your child's out of the house, let alone until the end of a marriage. Perhaps, if the issue is medical, it's better to stay with your spouse to care for them than to do the "noble" thing and get a divorce so that you can be properly "single" for your next sexual encounter. These, however, are extreme situations, not 'it's been 10 years and I could do with some variety.' I think it's possible to support where Savage is going with this for the extreme scenarios, without being as dismissive as he is these days of monogamy.


I'll accept what you say about how this conversation goes among religious Christians, but I'm still lost in terms of where Savage is going with this. By the standard that declares monogamy "hard" every possible choice a person old enough to make choices can make is "hard." But it's arguably a lot more difficult, in so many situations, to go through life needing to deal only with yourself than to be in a socially-sanctioned relationship, one that makes it easier to raise kids, etc. While of course relationships require compromise and sometimes more monogamy isn't necessarily so challenging. I think Savage was onto something when he was leaving it as, don't think you/your spouse are/is bizarre for still having the capacity to be physically attracted to another person (in life, on screen, etc.). From the calls and letters he gets from people who have nervous breakdowns about their partners looking at porn, flirting at a party, etc., it seems he's arguing against something popularly believed well before he begins to challenge sexual fidelity. But being in a relationship without actually getting involved with other people is, for adults, probably as easy as life is going to get.

And... yeah, I kind of wish he'd admit that certain aspects of hetero relationships (namely the presence of women in them) are beyond his expertise, given how often he offers advice that would be just fine were it not for this that or the other that's specific (for social or biological reasons) to women. He obviously means well, mostly, but throwing in a post about how The Women are on his side was plenty off-putting.

Andrew Stevens said...

Clearly we have different weightings on the relative importance of the duty to keep one's promises and the duty to one's own sexual satisfaction. I'm certainly not arguing for a divorce in the case of medical disability; I'm saying that chastity is not that great a sacrifice. Nor do I believe it's unreasonable to ask for chastity until the children are grown, even for a 27 year old. (I am not here arguing against negotiation with one's partner. If your partner agrees to release you from your promise, that's an entirely different story and, were I in the position of the disabled/gay/whatever spouse, I could certainly envision being willing to consider such a compromise.) I would be with Savage if the disabled partner were also disallowing masturbation/use of pornography or whatever. That probably would be a bridge too far.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


I'm not sure if we have different opinions on this, so much as that I don't feel that I can know what it's really like for someone in that situation, and that it's a bit much having not been in that situation for me to tell those who are that they just need to tell themselves "that chastity is not that great a sacrifice." 18 years of chastity, years one will never get back (and if "one" is female, it will be much more difficult exiting that period of chastity on the other side), could, if nothing else, cause the spouse who does want sex to resent the one who can't/won't comply. Obviously if someone in that situation feels they can opt for 18 years of chastity, more power to them, but the question is about people who feel they can't to the point that they've asked their spouses for permission to have sex outside the marriage.

Andrew Stevens said...

I'm not saying I don't understand and have sympathy for the person's situation. But to give the specific example I've been harping on about (it was a recent Dan Savage article titled something like "Another One for the Monogamusts"), I have a lot more sympathy for the disabled wife. I think her refusal to give permission is quite understandable, even if I think perhaps she should have decided otherwise (but I don't have anything like the information about her marriage that she does, so I am, unlike Dan Savage, completely unwilling to substitute my judgment for hers). Her ability to retain her husband's affection has already taken a severe nose-dive. It is a perfectly natural (and likely correct) fear to worry that once he starts scoping out his other options and determining his sexual compatibility with those options that she is more, not less, likely to end up abandoned.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

Which post do you mean? I found this: and am not seeing anything about a "disabled wife" not giving permission for something. Maybe a different letter?

Andrew Stevens said...

This one.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

Ah. Look, I think the whole don't-know-until-it's-you argument cuts both ways - I don't know what I'd do if I were the man or the woman in that situation. It's nice for all of us rationally to say that we'd be OK with a spouse's infidelity under extreme circumstances, but maybe that wouldn't be so. But in this particular letter, I don't see where the wife has refused to give permission. I see " I feel pretty confident that having open marriage would be off the table—she is very jealous." and "she becomes very defensive and will typically cry and say that she fears that I'll leave her." It sounds either like he's broaching the subject all wrong, or like what she herself - even if she'd claim otherwise if asked - would have preferred is if he'd just gone and done this without telling her about it, and her fears that he'll leave are coming from his having forced her to confront something she might well have turned a blind eye to.

Part of the difficult is, of course, that Savage is huge on disclosure, honesty, etc., but it's precisely in cases like these when the best scenario for all involved might well be immense discretion. Once again with the disclaimer, what do I know?

Andrew Stevens said...

Savage's advice on disclosure and honesty is usually sound. In this one, he went awry. I don't know what the right solution is. I do know that deception and dishonesty isn't it.