Mark Oppenheimer has a beautifully wrought article on Dan Savage. He covers the It Gets Better project, as well as Savage’s cultural Catholicism and his non-monogamous marriage. A great passage about how our culture might be trapping us caught my eye:
If you believe Savage, there is strong precedent, in other times and in other cultures, for nonmonogamous relationships that endure. In fact, there has recently been a good deal of scholarship proving that point, including Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá’s “Sex at Dawn,” one of Savage’s favorite books, and Stephanie Coontz’s definitive “Marriage, a History.” Like Savage, Coontz says she believes that “people often end up exploding a relationship that was working well because one partner strays or has an affair that doesn’t mean anything.”
But, she says, we are to some extent trapped in our culture. It is one thing for the Inuit men to have “temporary wives,” whom they take along on trips when they leave their other wives at home, and for pregnant Bari women, in Venezuela, to have sex with multiple men, all of whom are considered responsible for the eventual child. Their societies have very different ideas about marriage. “I think you can combine a high tolerance of flings with a de-emphasis on jealousy in long-term relationships,” Coontz said, “but usually that is only in societies where friendships and kin relationships are as emotionally salient as romantic partnerships.”
In the 18th century, according to Coontz, American men could mention their mistresses in letters to their wives’ brothers; they could mention contracting syphilis from a prostitute. Men understood the masculine prerogative, and they countenanced it, even at the expense of their own sisters. “That would be unthinkable today,” Coontz said. “For thousands of years it was expected of men they would have affairs and flings, but not on the terms of honesty and equality Dan envisions. I can certainly see the appeal of suggesting we try and make this an open, mutual, gender-equal arrangement. I’m a little dubious how much that is going to work.”
I find the focus on men a bit frustrating, given Catherine the Great, Cleopatra and the like, but the point is correct: exceptions to extra-marital affairs happened for a different reason in a different context.
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