I don’t agree with Dan Savage on everything: occasionally listening to his podcast drives me nuts. But most of the time it is a real breath of fresh air. In this video, he very eloquently gets across the message on why responsible non-monogamy is a deeply humanistic, respectful and appropriate ethic which salvages, rather than threatens, the mess we have made of the social institution of marriage when, around the 1950’s and with the rise of feminism, popular culture fundamentally redefined it by, as he puts it, “instead of extending to women the same license and latitude that men had always enjoyed, … impos[ing] on men the same limitations and restrictions that women had always endured“.
The new paradigm was not of course drawn from nowhere: the church had been preaching it for centuries. The point, however, is that we had always allowed ourselves double standards and endured the feelings of guilt and shame that went with them. Those double standards kept some lid on the extent of extramarital sex and the social consequences to which it could lead, but they did not, and could not, eliminate it.
The asymmetry in society’s standards which had slumbered beneath the surface for hundreds of years (ever since the counter-reformationist Council of Trent outlawed divorce in 1563), was clearly articulated in the first version of Napoleon’s seminal civil code, considered (for other reasons rightly) by him as his lifetime’s greatest achievement. The provisions on divorce are worth citing: article 229 states that “the husband may demand a divorce on the ground of his wife’s adultery,” article 230 by contrast that “the wife may demand divorce on the ground of adultery in her husband, when he shall have brought his concubine into their common residence.”
Such discriminatory provisions, of course, could not stand the test of time. Though divorce was again outlawed in restorationist France in 1816, when it was reinstated by the law of 1884, the clause on common residence (itself inspired by canon law, which seems to have been more ambivalent about extramarital relations as such) was struck out, thereby consecrating, for the first time in a legal text, the religious condemnation of adultery (whatever is the correct understanding of that term), paradoxically enough together with a facilitation of divorce on such grounds, which the Council of Trent explicitly excluded.
Dan is right when he says that the myth according to which extramarital desire is proof of lack of love and commitment is not only evident nonsense, but also pernicious to the very institution it seeks to associate itself with. If we go round pounding such notions, which are so obviously at odds with our biological nature, into everyone’s heads then it is no wonder relationships and families are a mess and it is no wonder that affective trauma gets passed from one generation to another. It is not easy to reconcile social monogamy with sexual non-exclusivity, but only because it requires a great deal of deconditioning and the demasking of a great deal of inherited suffering. Attempts to do so, under the likely conditions of asymmetric incentive between the partners, may often end in failure and acrimony or worse. Nevertheless, the idea that there is anything natural in the association between these two ideas has been comprehensively disproved by the accumulated experience of vast numbers of couples for whom it is, by now, a complete non-issue, indeed for whom open sexual boundaries have meant much greater, not less, intimacy.
Dan’s is no self-interested male agenda, of which, being gay, he anyway cannot be suspected; it is a plea for relationships based on real respect, commitment and love between adult and equal human beings. The kind of relationship in which children prosper emotionally, and each partner feels more empowered in going about their life due to the love and stability they enjoy. It is surely high time for society to cast off the vestiges of shame around sexuality which objectively stand in the way of making the institutions work which they purport to defend.