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.