Sex Science: Is Marriage Over? by Brooke Magnanti

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When I got married almost three years ago, it was amidst a perfect storm of circumstances: living with someone I loved and facing down the prospect of having big changes in our lives at the same time. Like many women of my generation, I was not swept off my feet by a dark and handsome stranger who promised a life of romantic bliss (though he is both dark and handsome). I married a man whom I love very much, who was probably the nicest person I’d ever dated, and who – crucially – could put up with having me around every day. We all watched our parents’ marriages break down in the 70s and 80s;we all know that happily ever after very seldom is.

And yet the ideal of the captive, perfect romance still exists: 50 Shades of Grey, for all its sexual acrobatics, is still the tale of a man who must possess a woman and the woman locking down his sexual fidelity forever. We still queue round the block for chick flicks in which the cute-but-flawed girl who thought she would
never marry meets the mysterious-baggage man who changes everything in his life to win her. We still think pop songs about men essentially stalking women until they give in, and women walking out the door at the first sign of cheating, are a template for how things should be.

So where does this leave modern marriages? In spite of the fact that ever fewer numbers of people believe in an omniscient sky god taking out his anger at you postmortem for coveting the neighbour’s wife, people are still marrying, still making that leap into the conceptual and statistical improbability of ’til death do us part’.

And where does that leave affairs, clients of sex workers, enjoyers of porn and the rest of us? Again, if we’re no longer beholden to Middle Ages expectations of married life – expectations that were, let’s remember, codified at a time when average life expectancy was a lot lower – what does ‘forever’ mean? When many couples choose to remains childless, or have no familial wealth to pass on, why are we still doing this, anyway?

Those questions and a lot more are what drives the narrative of Catherine Hakim’s new book, The New Rules: Internet Dating, Playfairs, and Erotic Power. In it, the controversial writer and respected sociologist calmly dissects the differences between the cultures where it’s okay to throw a strop at the first sign of relationships going off piste, and those where adultery is not only usual but expected.

I have to admit that as much of a sexual libertine I would like to imagine myself to be, I was taken aback by an Italian man who romanced me when I was single. It was only when his brother rang me unexpectedly that I realised Franco was married. When I confronted him with the revelation, he just shrugged. It was not, as far as he was concerned, a “thing”. (I ended the relationship.)

But at the same time, I rationalised having married clients when I was an escort with the thought that if the men weren’t with me they’d just be with some other escort anyway. And if they weren’t with escorts at all, surely it was better for one’s husband to have a paid affair unlikely to lead to emotional attachments, rather
than shagging some girl in the office who might get pregnant, or worse, fall in love? Terrible hypocrisy, I know.

Hakim documents the websites where married people shop for discreet affairs, and plenty of case studies of people talking about their experiences of playing away: unsurprisingly, the internet has opened up a massive market for those who like to keep their extracurriculars on the down low.

And that, I suppose, is where my sympathy for a lot of the people involved drops. We already know attraction does not lie down dead once the ring is on and everyone’s said “I do”. It’s the notion that people are lying to someone else in order to do it – unethical sluttery if you will – and the damage that lies can breed that
smarts more than the sex. I’d love to wake up in a world where affairs happened but didn’t have to happen in secret. Where the implicit was explicit, and tit-for-tat revenge affairs not as sadly common as they are.

There is no polyamory in The New Rules, and that I think is a shame because it’s a genuinely new, genuinely challenging set of ethics that deserves to be analysed alongside so-called “traditional” marriage. We can be good spouses and still explore our sexual lives; we can even do so once married and with children. We can
have sex with, and even love, many people at the same time without being hypocrites. It does happen. But we don’t yet have a widely supportive culture where this is a “thing”.

Hakim has been brave in reporting the world of secret ‘playfairs’ in detail and without judgment, but I cant help but wish the world was different. If pop music is any barometer, though, it’ll be a long time before that happens.

But then, I’ve only been married for a couple of years. What the hell do I know? Ask me again in 2030…

Brooke Magnanti is author of The Sex Myth which explores many fascinating myths about sex.

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  • adam commented on September 15, 2012 at 19:44

    michelle langley’s books about infidelity are well worth reading, lots of good material, for instance her idea that much of the battle of the sexes is down to women being conditioned to repress their sexuality and men their emotions

  • Brooke Magnanti commented on September 16, 2012 at 11:24

    Thanks, Adam. That’s an interesting perspective – I think very often when we consider men’s infidelity we think of it as “just sex”. But my experience as an escort, and the experience of many sex workers I know is that only a fraction of clients are after “just sex”. There’s a lot tied up in what we idealise as a “real” man’s behaviour, isn’t there?

    I do wonder if the view of women’s sexuality isn’t at least starting to change though – see for instance the cougar phenomenon – but whether that will filter through to thinking of women being sexual at all ages and states of commitment is a different matter though…

  • jemima101 commented on September 18, 2012 at 19:11

    think there are structures beyond polymory too, which at times can drift into too posh to swing. The desire to have a life partner, that helpmate of old, needs to be separated from sex. It used to be considered normal for people who were not married to seek close companionship and it did not have to be a sexual relationship. I am thinking of relationships such as Sherlock and Watson, it is only modern eyes that have seen the need to eroticism.

    I personally am married, and also in a long term relationship with another, (all acknowleged and above board) I do not describe myself as poly though because that seems to carry the idea of having the same relationship with all members. This I clearly do not do, instead different aspects of mt life are explored and expressed with the two men, in much the same way as when I am a mother I am not being a writer, except in the most tangential way.

    I think we will be able to move forward if we break the relativity modern idea we can find everything in just one person. Breaking the link between sex and love is one step in this.

  • Brooke Magnanti commented on September 21, 2012 at 17:56

    Haha, “too posh to swing”… I’m going to have to steal that one…

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