Monday, December 19, 2011

Here come the swingers: The ideological fallacy of “open” relationships

“I would love to have an open marriage,” sighs a 40-something friend over her fourth glass of wine, “I love my husband, but I know his every touch, move. Whatever you do, it becomes boring.” She goes on to expound at drunken length on societal double-standards, her need for “sensual experiences,” and fabulous gay couples who have it all. “They’re both at the same party and making out with different people. And they totally love each other. That’s amazing, isn’t it?”

The 32-year old sitting next to me concurs with due gusto. It’s not just gay folks — she knows at least two married couples with equally “beautiful” relationships. The world is changing, and she with it. She’s already made up her mind. Marriage is fine, but monogamy is totally out. “I can’t even imagine what it would be like having sex with just one person all my life,” she declares, wrinkling her pretty nose in horror.

I’m thinking: how did this happen? I moved from San Francisco to Bangalore, and I’m still the stodgiest person in the room! Married 15 years and not one affair to show for it. And this despite having no overarching moral objection to infidelity, as such. Many of my dearest friends in the United States have led – and in some cases, still lead — the most colourful lives. And more power to them.

Yet there is something about our new-found obsession with infidelity that makes me uneasy.

Everywhere I turn these days, there’s someone touting the virtues of sexual variety. “Extra-marital affairs are oh so common,” declares my sunday newspaper:

Says socialite Sonu Wassan, “To bring back the spark in the marriage, an affair can act as a catalyst.” Adds Arjun Sawhney, who runs a PR firm, “Humans are not monogamous, so if you feel it’s fine and your partner is okay with it, go for it. Variety is the spice of life.”

The message is no different in an Outlook magazine article that celebrates “a subculture.. which is dancing an unconventional dance to the conventional song of marriage.” Here are middle-class housewives in open marriages, swinger parties with “grope walls” and its organiser who celebrates a new kind of upward mobility:

The internet has broken barriers. Earlier, swinging, like other non-conformist sexual activities, was confined to the rich and fashionable circles. The internet has brought this opportunity to the urban middle class. My parties mostly include married, middle-aged, committed couples who are looking for ways to make their marriage more interesting.

Also clear is the author’s view that these unconventional “pioneers” are to be celebrated. There’s no mention of monogamy of the happy kind. The contrast is instead offered by the “large number of low-conflict, melancholic marriages” of people ranging from their late 30s to the early 50s.” These are the losers who “either felt more comfortable existing within the rules of melancholy marriages/relationships or with breaking them completely through affairs and divorce, than by revising their mindset towards relationships.”

The tone slips from describing – without judgement – alternative sexual lifestyles to prescribing them as a healthy alternative to either monogamy or divorce (or infidelity that leads to divorce). In the guise of sexual liberation, we’re back to judging people’s choices. According to this new ideological polarity, you are either a bed-hopping hero “on the frontlines” or a scared little mouse hiding behind convention.

The argument is also oddly familiar. It reminds me of a conversation about a fellow classmate’s divorce: he fell in love, left spouse, and then remarried.

“What’s wrong with him, yaar? I also have my fun, and that’s okay. He’s a man. But I take care of responsibilities. I’d never do that to my kids,” pronounced my old and very Punjabi male friend, with self-righteous disapproval.

In many ways, the fuss over open relationships is just old wine in a more progressive bottle. Or as another friend wryly put it, “It’s still about finding a way to have your cake and eat it too.” Except this time around, the women get to play as well.

Every fantasy of the “open” relationship assumes — like my school friend — we can bind desire with rules, parameters, and boundaries till it becomes safe. The aim is still to save that all-important marriage from the perils of sexual desire. If we can’t erase the damn thing, let’s just domesticate it instead.

Its advocates offer only the most comforting examples, as in author Holly Hill who blithely declares, “If [my husband] went to the pub, spotted a girl and wanted to go back to hers for a quickie, I’d be like, ‘Go for it, darling!’”

Her logic is alluring: “Because when you have occasional lovers outside of your relationship, you don’t take your partner for granted. In fact, it often helps reinforce why you love your partner in the first place.”

Except what if it doesn’t? What if that roll in the hay leads to infatuation, even love? Soon enough, you’re having dutiful sex with the spouse (surely extra reassurance is required when you’re bonking girls in pubs) – while fantasising you’re with someone else. Hmm, why does that sound familiar?

I’ve heard it over again, from cheating middle-aged husbands, nubile college girls, bored housewives, thirty-something San Francisco hipsters. Monogamy is unnatural, unsustainable, unworkable etc. But so are open relationships in the long run. Sooner or later, one person will get jealous, fall in love, or change his/her mind. That’s life. The minute you institute an open-door policy in your marital bed, everything is up for grabs. The risks are different but no less grave than old-fashioned monogamy.

I’m all for sexual diversity and tolerance. Let a million sexual lifestyles bloom. But whether you choose to swing, cheat or stay faithful, there are no win-win solutions for the travails of modern love. Monogamy may soon be just one choice on the matrimonial menu. But you still have to choose.

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