Tuesday, August 21, 2007

The myth of monogamy

There was a bit of a stir recently when a Sydney woman wrote about her experience of being a ‘kept woman’ for a year. In 2005 at the age of 35, the pseudonymous Holly Hill advertised for a sugar daddy outlining what she had to offer – yes sex but also gourmet dinners, massages and a professionally qualified ear for listening.

That blog in The Age ran with the story last month and chatted with Holly not just about the concept of offering her various services at $52,000 pa but also her thoughts on monogamy.

Though there was the odd comment in favour of Holly’s experience, overwhelming there was vitriol. It was as if the very fabric of society was being threatened by one woman’s experiment. The common form of attack was character assassination.

There was the slut taunt from women like “A Grumpy Grown-up”:
So what then has Holly really got on offer? I suppose Holly prefers to think of herself as a corporate service provider possessing a constructive relationship with her client.

I'd say it was more of a high school hottie moaning "everybody says I'm a slut" after she's done the entire football team. Naw. She's just Miss Popularity.

Or let’s just call her a whore, as voiced by “radman”:
A whore is whore. You can colour it any way you want it, or justify it any way you want. Same dog different street. If they're happy with the arrangement, then good on 'em. Doesn't change the fact.

Or for those who are ‘not a prude’ like “Ms L” – labeling her as a prostitute became a focus of the commentary:

Because being a prostitute is not being engaged in a relationship. I am the last person on earth who could be described as a prude and I've been involved in all manner of decadent behaviour. But people who look to involve money when it comes to spending time with another person, they're fooling themselves.

Semantics aside, I don’t think Holly Hill mentioned anywhere that she wasn’t a sex worker (for the non-prudes, this might be a better term to describe the arrangement). There is nothing to suggest she has an issue with that. She was asking to be paid for sex (along with other skills) and made no bones about it. Because she decided to do this exclusively with one man at a time, rather than a whole battalion on the same night, is purely her personal choice of how she wanted to work.

In another forum, I would have expected a feminist debate but the “f word” didn’t get a look in. It does remain a conundrum, whether selling sex liberates women, belittles men or makes either a victim or oppressor. I suspect it all comes down to choice. In this case Holly not only defined her job but also got to choose her client/provider. Both parties entered the agreement freely and were equally at liberty to end the arrangement. Not all sex workers have those kinds of choices. But this didn’t seen to be the point of the blog discussion.

The whore debate aside, she also used the book to question society's values around fidelity. Perhaps questioning the honesty of the average relationship was more likely the cause of the venom behind the name-calling. Clearly some people are threatened by the thought that their partner may pay lipservice to sexual fidelity but may not be actually living it. They don’t like people, especially Other Women, questioning the foundations of their relationship. Like the single gal viewed as a potential pariah at a couples dominated 70’s dinner party, in the 21st century a female in charge of her own sexuality is still viewed with suspicion.

From some of the responses to the post, it becomes clear we have a lot invested in longterm relationships. Rob, for example, saw it as a way to assure companionship when he’s older and no longer attractive.

Call me old fashioned, but whatever happened to love? You know, the kind where you grow old with someone and still hold hands when your (sic) in your 90s? Life carries on long after you're young and pretty, and it's nice to know that someone will be there with you through thick and thin even when you're old and wrinkly and no longer desirable to the opposite sex.

But can any of us assume that a marriage vow or a declaration of love assures companionship for life? If Rob stops providing his side of some unspoken bargin, will Mrs Rob really stay with him when he is ugly and impotent? While some responded to Holly’s suggestion of ‘negotiated infidelity’ by dismissing it for lack of romance, it does put honesty back on the agenda. So many couples claim they are truthful with each other yet tell “white lies” about seemingly minor issues. Money is a classic example, especially when all income is pooled in a joint bank account. Even how or with whom time is spent can be fudged in a happy relationship.

So when we make our private commitment to another - do we hand over the rights to our sexuality as well? As a couple dances up the aisle arm in arm, are they both thinking "Fantastic, I'll never have another lover ever again!?" While life may be less complicated if neither partner ever has the desire for flirtation, intercourse or a parallel relationship outside of their primary commitment - annecdotally the odds are against that. The notion of 'negotiated fidelity' perhaps raises the underlying question - do we want to be honest with each other, or will we tacitly agree to a "don't ask, don't tell" policy? Sometimes just the psychological freedom of knowing fidelity is negotiable is enough.

The myth of monogamy has begun to fascinate me in recent years. I have got to talk to an extraordinary number of happily coupled people who have had sex outside of their marriage/de facto relationship. One man talked of it in terms of the secrecy being almost as much of a buzz as the actual physical activity. He described it in terms of being a ‘naughty boy’ again. For him the myth of monogamy was very importat in his marriage, her knowledge of his extra marital sex (if she ever choose to forgive him for it, which was unlikely) would take most the fun away. Others, both men and women, tend to talk about it in terms of it reassuring them of their attractiveness, not just sexually but also of being intellectually of interest to others, when in a long term relationship that leaves them feeling taken for granted or unappreciated. Few talked about leaving their marriage. In fact, non-monogamy, whether negotiated or illicit, appeared to actually be a tool to keep the status quo within the relationship.

So I’d disagree with the conclusion Holly made that infidelity is purely about sex. Her thesis being that if a partner (and here she has singled out women) don’t deliver the goods often enough, it is fair for the one wanting more to outsource it. In my random survey, there were as many women as men who were frustrated by the lack of sex in their relationships. But overwhelmingly the reasons went way beyond the pursuit of orgasms.

Perhaps a more rational view of relationships is to not expect monogamy. What needs to be negotiated is honesty in all facets of the relationship - from shared money to shared beds.

First published in Larvatus Prodeo