in my last column, I revealed to Salon readers that I had been burrowing under the covers with a set of Christian sex manuals and was flabbergasted by their simultaneously liberal and punitive attitudes about sexual pleasure. Truly, the Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away, and you need to read the biblical fine print to discover the exact moment when your blessed orgasm becomes an abomination.
One of the most intriguing sections I looked at in "A Celebration of Sex" by Dr. Douglas Rosenau was a chapter on extramarital sex and, in particular, the pages on how to "Affair-Proof Your Marriage" -- a plan that sounds like a brisk spring cleaning, but surely must be more difficult than that .
A weird aspect of '90s sexual politics is that even as Americans become more laissez-faire about everything from leather sex to vibrators, they place more emphasis than ever on monogamy as the most important quality of any relationship. Physical fidelity between lovers is THE prize, the indication that one has a loving marriage, that one is disciplined, honorable and a living example of integrity.
I've never subscribed to monogamy. Since the AIDS-panic mind-set took hold a decade ago, I find that this aspect of my love life is the most eyebrow-raising flag in my already controversial life. Those discussions about "open marriage" and "if you love her, set her free" that were so respectable in the '60s and '70s are now seen as the germ-infested pipe dreams of a bunch of shortsighted hedonists.
Yes, I find myself in a extreme minority: I believe in love without a leash; I admire loyalty that is not bound by sexual fidelity. I don't think monogamy is the great "natural" plan it's cracked up to be.
Most married people strive for monogamy, not because they are deeply religious, but because it's a short-term, conformist solution that will keep the emotional peace and security of their union. In real life, what's usually accomplished is the appearance of monogamy, where one pretends that one's erotic thoughts are always and forever turned toward one's partner. If that fagade is cracked, the pain is double-edged, not only because the promise has been broken, but also because the lie of the fagade has even more agonizingly violated our belief in the honesty between intimates.
The Christian sex manuals I reviewed show a real sensitivity to the importance of honesty between lovers, as well as advice that seems destined to set them up for failure -- albeit with a glorious redemption waiting in the wings if they're ready to repent
Let's look at some of their guidelines:
"Make a decision and commit to the fact that you will never have an extramarital affair."
If there's something in your life that you don't want to act out, you better have a more sophisticated plan of action besides swearing "never." You need a plan that includes what to do when the unimaginable does happen, a reaction that doesn't treat your actions as an unforgivable character defect.
The Protestant advisors in these books seem to expect that marriages will confront either the threat or the reality of adultery somewhere along the road. So when they lay down this "never " business, it seems designed to activate the all-important guilt mechanism later on, and not to serve as any sort of prophylactic.
"Do not keep secrets or allow sexual feelings and fantasies to go
I agree 100 percent. If you can share your fantasies and desires with your lover, you take those thoughts out of the realm of "cheating" and use them to foster a more intimate level of communication.
"Keep all sexual fantasies that you willfully create focused on your partner."
This is the most unrealistic part of the biblical plan for marital fidelity. Many people will go through a long-term relationship without acting on any of their erotic daydreams, but to expect people to tailor their fantasies at every turn is just asking for a nervous breakdown. Fantasies are not "created" or consciously built by the mind to begin with, and the Christian anxiety about that fact is what makes psychology and religion such difficult bedfellows at times.
"Set limits ... Do not share details of your marriage with a person of the opposite sex ... Don't air your dirty laundry, even to a stranger on a plane."
I'd like to add to this one: Next time you're on a plane next to a total stranger, and you ask her what she does for a living and she shyly tells you that she writes about sexuality, do not assume that she wants to spend the next five hours in coach hearing how your fiancée doesn't really like sex and she's just come out of a battering relationship and was told that she'll never be able to have normal intercourse again in light of her recent traumatic abortion and your own anxieties about your premature ejaculation and fascination with her former lover's penis size ... STOP! Instead, just say, "Isn't that nice!" and go back to your in-flight magazine.
"Do not permit an intimate friendship with an opposite-sex person to grow without tight boundaries" (e.g., no playing "therapist," refrain from sexual jokes and banter, etc.).
I find it funny that in this day and age, a Christian sex advisor imagines it's "safe" to have an intimate same-sex relationship. I always wonder when straight women complain to me about their boyfriends: "Is this a come-on, or am I supposed to be your sob-sister?"
In general, I am in favor of couples having strong relationships with all sorts of people outside their marriage, because the truth of the matter is your lover cannot be all things to you at all times. Having friends who can listen to you with a special ear, give you their unique reactions, make you laugh, share their life with you -- that's a vital part of your relationship to the world and much better than living in some sort of two-person bunker.
"Spend no unaccounted time together with opposite sex colleagues, committee members, schoolmates and exercise partners."
Yes, beware the Stairmaster Dance of Seduction! Well, this is where Rosenau's advice is getting positively Taliban-esque. I mean it's not much further from here to segregated eating tables and veils.
If you can't be with your friends without all hell breaking loose in your marriage, yes, you've got a problem. It's certainly awful to be the one who feels neglected, or the one who never feels like it's a pleasure or comfort to come home. But many times, one half of a couple feels resentful that only one of them gets to go out and have fun -- you know, the classic scenario where Fred's out with the boys while Wilma stays home with the kids. That's not even jealousy, it's an equally crucial relationship dilemma: fun envy. Each partner needs a nice amount of "unaccounted" time to remain sane.
"Be explicit with your mate about what is and is not appropriate behavior." For example, "A homemaker never allows her male neighbors in the house unless her husband is home."
A little heavy-handed, but true: Lovers need to tell each other what they feel vulnerable about and not assume that their beloved is on the same wavelength. For example, it would never occur to me to forbid a neighbor to come on over if my husband wasn't home, so if I were married to Dr. Rosenau, I can see how we'd need to work out some sort of compromise.
"Pay attention to your guilty feelings."
I'm all for that, but probably not for the same reason. Judeo-Christians have long been bamboozled in the guilt department. Is our shame caused by an affront to our conscience, or are we just cringing under the preacherly Zeitgeist of the day? I remember I once felt miserably guilty in 1968 for playing with a Ouija board, and Sister Magdalene told me I'd surely go to hell if I didn't confess it. So much for guilt.
People feel guilty about lots of things that are out of their hands, or would not be seen as negative in another time and place. When I feel guilty about something now, I don't ask myself what bad thing I've done. I ask: Where is this coming from? Family superstitions? My church background? The state? My own ethics?
If you feel guilty, is it because you've deceived your partner -- or is it because of a lack of desire, or a desire for someone else? Those are three very different problems, and your guilt will get you nowhere on any account.
"Build an accountability network."
With whom, now that you've stopped speaking to fellow plane passengers, workmates, school chums and exercise partners?
Good friends are who you turn to when the I'll-Never-Ever-Do-It scheme falls apart. You need people who love you, and respect your partner, to talk to whenever you feel estranged in your marriage, which happens with or without adultery.
"Never think you are invulnerable."
Yes, because you are only weak, weak human flesh! Didn't you get thrown out of the Garden for being such a smarty-pants? And that Eve, she just fell for the first phallic squirmer that handed her a line! Men and women have been such an incredible disappointment to Jehovah. That's why he periodically throws a big flood or plague, because he just can't stand us anymore, and besides, he made us, and he can dispose of us just as fast. God is the original uptight property owner.
I, too, get pessimistic about the human race, and wonder if we can ever love each other with the faith, generosity and creative appreciation that we aspire to in our most civilized moments. The idea that any one person is another's chattel is a very powerful concept in our history, and we've had more centuries of slavery than we've had of emancipation. The last chain links to go will be the ones shackled to our private lives, the "personal" belief systems that our spouse and children belong to us, as property, as status symbols, as matched sets. I'm not saying it's easy to apply heavenly principles of emancipation to a marriage -- but if we could, we would produce a nice bit of heaven on earth.