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Tuesday, December 15, 2009  

A Case For Monogamy in the Post-Tiger Woods Era*
UPDATE: Edited to reflect the fact that this isn't about me.

First of all, you should go read Whet on the Tiger Woods freak-out:

Celebrities are the saccharine lab rats of American culture: we expose them to unlimited amounts of the best artificial sweetness modern science is capable of producing, stuff them in glass boxes, and then sit back and watch them get diseases and claw each others' eyes out. It's cruel a science, but sometimes we learn things.

There's a lot more. And I'm with his analysis about 90% of the way. There's a lot of cheap sentiment lacquered onto these scandals. None of us who have ever fallen for an obviously-engineered public image should be shocked when it turns out to be, of all things, obviously engineered. None of us who, consciously or not, set athletes apart from the common run of humanity should be horrified that many of them take us at our word. And no one who calls himself a Christian should be filled with rage and contempt at a human being with practically infinite means and opportunity who ends up doing things that most of us want to do anyway. The victim-pimping that happens in these cases is bad for all of us, since none of us knows what happens in these marriages.

And, as Dan Savage points out:

First, let's pretend that Elin Nordegren cheated on Tiger and that Tiger went after Elin with a golf club. Would Elin be viewed as the sole transgressor in the marriage then? Probably not.

Right. But he continues:

For the millionth time: Men cheat for the same reasons women cheat: because they're bored or horny or unfulfilled or desperate to see someone else naked for a change. People cheat because monogamy isn't natural and we are wired to cheat. That doesn't make cheating right, of course; people should honor their commitments, and blah-de-nine-iron-blah. But we shouldn't encourage people to make commitments we all know they're unlikely to keep. The end.

Vintage Savage. Realistic about the human condition, common-sensibly definitive in his judgments, and yet wrong. Consider those last sentences for a moment. I have a lot of commitments in my life: to my wife, to the congregation I serve as pastor, to the Church I serve as an ordained person, to my son, to my extended family. Some of them are explicit and freely chosen (ordination vows), some implicit and inherited (being a faithful son and brother), but all are important and I fail in all of them on a weekly basis.

Does this vitiate a commitment? Or more to the point, does this render the idea of committing to any relationship something I just shouldn't consider? If we leveled our commitments down to match our conduct, we'd be wretched indeed. I'd like to see Dan Savage take a crack at rewriting the presidential oath of office.

This ends up being another case of a sexual libertarian like Savage sharing the deep premises of the command-and-control types. Monogamy, to both Savage and the scolds, isn't an ideal that can survive despite our failings, it's a contract that is voided through non-performance. It's not the perfection of human love, it's a round hole into which a race of square pegs are being pounded.

And Savage compounds this error by granting monogamy a status equal only to the agreement that creates it. So cheating is like welshing on a bet or promising to rake the leaves and then watching football instead. Therefore anything taking place outside of marriage (or, to a lesser degree, an explicitly committed relationship) is fair game, and marriage is by definition a sexual prison. Truly, if that's all it is, then we probably should just get over it.

All of this is fairly typical for Dan Savage, who (as I say all the time) does a lot of good but whose ethics are basically those of the shopping mall. He plays the role of the Better Business Bureau, making sure that people are upfront about what they offer and what they seek and not engaging in bait-and-switch or selling lemons. It's sex as the perfect expression of modern capitalism: bargain for what you need, or find another vendor.

Of course I think this is wrong at every level. First, commitments are meant to ennoble us, not merely to reflect our inclinations and abilities. "Forsaking all others" is only one of the promises made in a standard marriage rite. The others are pretty hard, too, but most of us would be happier and better people if we lived up to them more consistently.

Second, monogamy is not a contractual obligation voided by non-performance. It is an ideal of human togetherness, of which sexual exclusivity is only the outward sign. The sign is not the thing itself, which is why an otherwise strong (and yes, monogamous) marriage can endure all kinds of failures. In this understanding, sex is not a detachable component part of a good relationship. The whole point of monogamy as an ideal is to weave sex into the heart of a shared life.

This is obviously hard--maybe as hard for those who don't stray as those who do--but that doesn't make it something that should be scorned or cast off as stupid or moralistic. And it's hard because people are people--sinful, broken, short-sighted, and ridiculous. So what really gets me, in the end, about Dan Savage's approach to this issue is his unaccountable optimism. So let's say we stop emphasizing sexual exclusivity, stop encouraging people who chafe at monogamy to really put themselves into it. Is the Xanadu of responsible sexuality right over the horizon then? There are an infinite number of ways to be miserable. I don't buy the picture of the libido-less mom soaking her feet and happily reading a novel while dad is nailing the bored housewife down the block. Just because people can be persuaded that jealousy is bad doesn't mean they won't feel it, and just because people agree to no strings in advance doesn't mean that strings won't form. People are desperate, needy, and irrational. Sitting down and having a talk to confirm your status as an HND ("honest non-monogamous dude," as distinct from the "C[heating]POS") will not fix any of that.

The irony in all this is that Dan Savage is one of the best things that has happened to marriage in America in recent years. I mean, imagine if getting married carried the implication that you have to eat every meal in your own home with your spouse. Imagine that you only know a few dishes, that cookbooks are only available in a few unsavory stores, and that the topic of cooking is generally considered unfit for polite company. Further, assume that everyone who's not married can eat out every night wherever they want.

Crazy, right? But it's not so different than what is still for many people the standard view of married sexuality. Insofar as Dan Savage has encouraged people to ask for what they want, to yield to reasonable requests, and to work hard at making each other happy and satisfied, he's done more to protect marriage than every sermon on the subject ever. Some Christians even understand this.

As for the proposition that humans are not naturally monogamous and hard-wired to cheat, I think those are distinct issues. Evolution could have designed us for pair-bonding, in which case cheating can become a reproductive strategy, too. Maybe a scientist could help us. But it doesn't really matter. We're hard-wired to eat way too much and to make snap judgments about people from other ethnic groups, too. Evolution is not our moral tutor.

*Yes, this is sarcasm.

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posted by Benjamin Dueholm | 8:33 AM
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Ask, and ye shall receive. Here, as well.
 
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