Do the Clintons have an open marriage?

The Bill and Hillary saga could be a catalyst for a mature discussion of sexuality and love instead of a rehash of the tired woman-scorned melodrama.

Published June 9, 2003 6:53PM (EDT)

If letters to my sex advice column are any indication, gay people perceive Hillary Clinton's struggle with her husband's infidelities much differently than straight people do.

Gay men have the same questions as heterosexuals: What did Hillary know and when did she know it? Did she throw a hissy fit or was she calm, cool and collected? Was Bill Clinton sufficiently apologetic? Did she forgive him? Did she stick by him because she's a "feminist doormat" or a forgiving Christian? Is their marriage a monument to political expediency or a testament to the resiliency of love?

But gay men also came up with a question that seems to have escaped most heterosexuals: Do Hillary and Bill have an open marriage?

The press has no problem writing about thongs in the Oval Office and cigars in oval orifices, but they get oddly uptight at the thought of unconventional marriage.

That's because their readers -- mainstream America -- do not believe it's possible to be in a deeply loving, committed relationship and still have sex with other people.

But many gay people do. And that's a fundamental difference between gay and straight perceptions of the Clinton scandals.

That's not to say that gay men aspire to relationships as porous as cheesecloth, but a good portion of them have been in relationships that allowed them, with certain rules, to wander. Many know it's possible to be emotionally committed and sexually unfaithful.

Most of the letters I've gotten since the blitzkrieg around Hillary's book, "Living History," have come from men who caught their partners cheating. Like Hillary's critics and fans, they think they only have two choices: break up or learn to forgive.

But there's a third choice, a choice that Bill and Hillary may have exercised, but to survive politically, could never admit: allowing sex outside the marriage.

Is it possible to have a successful marriage with that kind of framework? Yes. But first you have to ask yourself this question: Can you look into the eyes of your lover and whisper, "I love you; I want us to be together for the rest of our lives," and then bang the new person at the gym without diminishing the love for your partner?

It is here, in this question, where you'll get the full explosion of contradictory human responses. It is here where you'll see the delicate tendrils of social custom mix with indestructible biological imperatives and plutonium-grade hypocrisy. A more vivid comedy, a more anguished drama, you could not create.

Compare the public uproar over Bill Clinton's affairs and this indelicate fact: Kinsey's study showed that adultery occurs in 50 percent to 80 percent of all marriages. That was in the 1950s. Imagine what it is now.

The almost universal inability to stay sexually faithful proves that monogamy is as unnatural for heterosexuals as it is for homosexuals. It's even unnatural in nature. Recent studies show that among primates (the animal order we belong to), only two species of monkeys are monogamous. Birds are worse. Only 10 percent are monogamous. Even bluebirds, long admired for their instinct to mate forever, sometimes like to do a little wife swapping. They are monogamous except for one unexplained phenomenon: The male did not father 20 percent of chicks parented by bonded bluebirds.

"True monogamy [in nature] is rare," said Dr. Stephen T. Emlen of Cornell University, an expert on evolutionary behavior, in an interview with the New York Times.

So why do we attempt something that nature itself deems so unnatural? Because it can often lead to the attainment of something unique, a level of love, commitment and unity that may not be achievable otherwise.

I say "may" because I'm an agnostic on the answer. I don't believe monogamy is an immutable moral law precisely because society says it is. Society has been wrong on almost everything when it comes to sex and love. Much of what society has said is fake, dangerous and sick (homosexuality, interracial love come to mind) I experience as genuine, safe and healthy.

Society says monogamy is a moral imperative, but my own experiences leave me questioning it.

I "wandered" in my last long-term relationship. Not that sexual liaisons happened often. My insistence on decorum prevented the frequency of my "himbo" eruptions from reaching Clintonesque proportions.

Shame and guilt followed me like shadows after every encounter. Were they the consequences of violating a moral law? Or a holdover from antiquated thinking? More likely the answer is found in my roots --- Jewish by birth, Catholic by upbringing. Meaning, I was going to feel guilt and shame whether I violated a moral law or not.

Either way, I was left with an unanswered question: How could I so deeply and profoundly love my partner and still have sex with other guys?

At first, the answers seemed obvious, at least by society's measure: Because I didn't really love him. If I really loved him I wouldn't be fooling around on the side. Society's second answer is that I truly did love him, but that there was something wrong with the relationship and I was trying to make up for it with other people.

What society refuses to see is a third possibility -- the possibility that human beings are capable of experiencing two contradictory feelings at the same time and that one does not negate the other. Maybe true love doesn't prevent you from wanting casual sex. And maybe casual sex doesn't diminish profound love.

Is monogamy a core moral value we violate at our own peril? Or simply a cultural imperative, designed to keep families from breaking up and allowing parents to distinguish their children from their neighbors'?

There's not much empirical or anecdotal evidence proving that monogamy is possible or even necessary for a relationship to thrive. Ask any long-term couple the top five reasons why they're still together and none, I mean none, will say, "Because he's sexually faithful to me."

If sexual commitment is so unimportant in keeping couples together, why is fidelity considered so moral?

I'm not sure. All I know is that I struggle with the eternal question facing every man: How do you build a meaningful life when your inner pig snorts like there's a trough around every corner?

The Clinton saga has always had the potential to open up honest -- and sometimes painful -- discussions about the nature of relationships. With Hillary Clinton's book, pundits have squandered yet another opportunity to explore the endless configurations of love. Instead, all we've gotten is the same tired diatribe of a woman wronged by a womanizing man.

By Michael Alvear

Michael Alvear is the author of "Men Are Pigs But We Love Bacon," a collection of his sex advice columns, to be published by Kensington Press in May. He lives in Atlanta.

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