John H. Richardson doesn’t have many fans in the in-tray:
Looks like a shoo-in for a Poseur Alert. “Enacting a hero’s journey”? Puh-lease.
If there is one cause that doesn’t need a rebel, it is sex. Having sex, enjoying sex, is enough of its own reward that I don’t think we also need to burden it with the strings of “brave rebellion” or Christlike exaltation, thank-you-very-much.
Here’s a tip, for anyone who thinks adultery is nothing more than a “physical enactment” of a “glorious and terrifying truth” – start with saying the actual truth, you fucking coward. You want to live a polyamorous relationship? Fine. Tell them that. That’s honesty.
Do we live in a prudish society? Yes. It’s a hell of a lot better than living in Saudi Arabia, but America is still puritanical in its own way. But let’s talk about the main crux of the article: adultery. Basically Richardson says that monogamous relationships are bad for us and that men who only sleep with one woman get a backlog of semen, while monogamous women become cold and frigid. Men are horndogs, women are frigid. Bill and Hillary. It’s a tired cliche.
I’ve been in a few relationships in my day. I’ve never cheated. Did I want to cheat? Sure. I’d see a cute girl and the thought would definitely go through my mind. But here’s the thing: I chose not to cheat. I am not some animal in heat who can’t help himself. I can make choices. And those choices are not going to irreparably harm my fragile male ego.
Or as another puts it, “Sex is great, betrayal is not.” Another:
I’m all for tearing down the religiously derived cultural taboos associated with our sexuality. And my reservations with the religious connotation notwithstanding, I’m even fine with thinking sex as a “moment of grace” – something that elevates the human experience in a profound and deeply felt way.
But holding up adultery as an act of heroism? I mean, not just excusing, but actually praising them? Come on.
I think you’ll have many people making this point, but what Richardson seems not to acknowledge is that it’s not the sex act that makes those two instances of adultery wrong. It’s the breach of trust and integrity in the context of a solemn commitment. If Richardson wants to continue the conversation about the place of marriage in our society and its value, that’s fine. If he wants to argue against a cultural pressure to construct that “invisible prison” for ourselves, great. But the point is that we construct that prison for ourselves, and in doing so we forge an agreement of mutual trust with another human being. It’s the violation of that trust, willingly accepted, that’s wrong.
Was Larry Craig committing an “honest” act when he stopped suppressing his true, deeply felt desires? I guess in a vacuum you could argue that. But he was committing a superseding cowardly act by pledging fidelity to a wife whose trust exposed herself and their family to a great deal of emotional turmoil. True courage would have meant accepting his identity before those whose trust and emotional dependence he willingly took upon himself. In so doing, his sexual escapades in a bathroom stall would have wrought no damage upon innocents, and would qualify, in my view, for the treatment Richardson affords them.
That’s the simple and obvious test: is there a victim? There is something to be said about a certain “prudeness” that pervades much of American culture. But you can make that point without openly lauding adulterers. I don’t have any problem at all with blowjobs or gay sex in bathroom stalls if that’s your thing. It’s the damage your visit upon others that’s wrong. I don’t really see how one can argue otherwise.
I won’t go into the smarmy, trendy, postmodernist tone this piece strikes, though Richardson certainly makes that a big enough target. What I will say is that I think the only thing he gets right is his inching towards an understanding of sexuality as something natural. I think that premise in talking about sex helps us reach toward a fuller understanding of both homo- and heterosexuality, and how sexuality pervades so much of our psychological lives and social interactions.
As for the idea that “adultery is a brave rebellion against the invisible prison we build for ourselves,” biologically speaking, that may well be. But what exactly does Richardson mean by “brave” here? What exactly is “brave” about something that comes completely natural to us without even thinking about it? What’s “brave” about fucking the intern and not telling your husband or wife? Richardson doesn’t come close to approaching the social complexities that come with our decisions surrounding sexuality and how it affects those around us (indeed, something he would likely count as a quaint remnant of a more “traditional” worldview). The bottom line (and I unfortunately speak from experience here) is that you can really emotionally wound people with your lustful caprice. Like, really fucking hurt people.
Not to mention the completely moot point that in espousing such a liberated view on sexual moors, Richardson falls into a trap he likely wishes to escape: prescribing behavior to others about their sexual behaviors.