Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Why Men (but not those at The Weekly Rader) Cheat:

EVERY MAN WANTS TO sleep with as many different people as possible.

Or, so claims Phillip Weiss in his bold and bewildering essay "The Affairs of Men," that appeared in last week's New York Magazine. According to Weiss, men of all ages are driven by a desire for sexual variety; in fact, Weiss comes clean, so to speak, and confesses that he is a luster--so much of one it "jolted [his] marriage." The agonizing longing for different partners has been his cross to bear all these years, and now, at age 52, he's ready to be strung up on that cross.

His thesis is that men's overwhelming desire to sleep around is taboo to talk about and even more taboo to write about: "When I decided to write about it, the novelist Frederic Tuten offered a warning about the sanctity in which Americans hold monogamy in marriage. 'You can go against it in life, but don’t speak against it. It makes you a monster. Who speaks against it? And this creates a dichotomy, between what we live and what we profess.'"

That's great rhetoric, but maybe both Tuten and Weiss have different experiences of literary and cinematic history than I do, because when I think about it, most great literature, beginning with trifles like The Epic of Gilgamesh and Homer's Odyssey have explored, even celebrated the man-dabble. More recently, many of the best (8 1/2, The Apartment, Crimes and Misdemeanors) and most popular (Fatal Attraction, 40 Days and 40 Nights, American Gigolo, Wedding Crashers) movies either chart or poke harmless fun at infidelity. Friends character Joey Tribiani is a walking monument to the charming and rarely-judged Lothario. In short, men's interest in sexual forays are not closeted. They are so well known, they are now parody.

Nor, does speaking against monogamy make one a monster. Take Wilt Chamberlain, for example, now famous for bedding more than 20,000 women. His need for "strange," (to quote both Weiss and Kris Kristofferson) actually boosted his reputation. So much so that most people under 35 probably know him more for his scoring in the bedroom than on the court.

By no means is TWR advocating infidelity, we are simply correcting Weiss's rhetorical assumption that to speak in favor of the sexual buffet (as Ben Franklin did) is new and transgressive.

More interesting than this claim is his assertion that women don't share the male interest in sex and that they really don't have a fascination for a diversity of sexual partners. Visual culture often gets things wrong. Popular culture overdoes just about everything. Most mainstream news isn't really news. And, most memoirs and confessions are in general, enhanced. But, even in these flawed genres, it is common to see women who want a diversity of experiences, a range of emotions, and a portfolio of sexual experimentation. Sex in the City, Looking for Mr. Goodbar, even The Golden Girls.

What Weiss pays too little attention to is the underlying emotional infrastructure that mediates and moderates fidelity, marriage, and what we might call the monogamous unit. Weiss says throughout that men in America are not allowed multiple partners. That's simply not so. Married men are, typically not allowed multiple partners. Most married men in America have taken an oath to do a number of things, one of which is essentially not to sleep with other people. And, chances are that topic of conversation has come up now and again after unwise party flirting or some other harmless offense, so even that oath wasn't taken before bridesmaids, preachers, and a bouquet, it was probably done via casual conversation in a bed after too much sangria.

For a number of reasons, both medical and emotional, most of us are not wired for a long-term, adult, emotionally committed relationship in which our partners get free passes to do other people. We are, however, wired for attraction, and we are wired for curiosity, and we are wired for fantasy. What is interesting to me is why Weiss makes the assumption that to want is to have.

There is something fundamentally American about Weiss' article--a crankiness, like that of a boy in Toys R Us--that he can't have what he wants. He feels cheated. Indeed, there is an undercurrent of ownership, of conquering, of possession that runs through his article, which makes me think that his desire for adultery may be less about men needing to sleep around than it is about him needing to consume.


  1. In Annie Dillard’s “The Maytrees” (2007), she argues, so to speak, that “love is an act of will.” The novel is a meditation on whether and how lasting love is possible, from both an imagined post-WWII Provincetown poet named Maytree and his wife, Lou, who he left after 14 years. Here is Maytree speculating on his “new love” Deary, years after leaving (near-perfect) Lou:

    “Three explanations for love’s recurrence presented. Perhaps everyone gathers or grows an enormous sack of love he hands whole from one beloved to another. In this instance, the beloved is love’s hat rack. Or, second, love is delusional. The heart never learns and keeps leaping the length of its life, rising to lures made of rubber hiding hooks. Or, third, perhaps he never really loved Lou, let alone his other girlfriends, and, having learned love by loving, had found in Deary his true mate at last.” (p.128)

    All three explanations, Maytree goes on to note, “apostasized” (abandoned, departed, renounced), since he obviously still loved Lou, as well, and none of the explanations (except for the absurd true-mate-at-last hypothesis, which nobody with any sense or maturity believes) actually takes love, particularly lasting love, if such a thing indeed exists, seriously. Love, then, is “directed will,” a “custody of reactions,” a “rare evolutionary lagniappe” (129). [Maybe Dean will know what a “lagniappe” is, based on his geographical origins!]

    Weiss shows, it seems, his own weakness of will, and perhaps wishes to vaunt it as a means of appeasing his desire. But this is hypocritical, surely. Dean correctly points out that the desire for variety has never exactly been excluded from the popular mindset, cultural representation, and even philosophical examination! So what Weiss is really doing is simply whining his woes away, hoping someone will listen and tell him, yes, it’s ok to wander sexually.

    Actually, it is, in a sense. Dillard again: “Anthropologists say almost every human culture on earth gives lip service, and lip service only, to monogamy” (129). Sexologist Andrea Nemerson of “Alt.Sex” Guardian fame once wrote to an enquirer regarding polyamory, dubiously, that while polyamory is hard, it is only one step away from the most natural, and stable, sexual relationship; as she writes: “the natural state is neither perfect monogamy nor polyamory, but monogamy plus cheating.” Polyamory just adds honesty to this basic relationship, which few people can handle. Monogamy, true monogamy (fidelity plus love), is a test of will, and not an especially natural one, that few are actually up to.

    Like Dean, I am not advocating infidelity, though it is surely quite a reasonable practice. I actually find the challenge of loving, and creating lasting love, to be an interesting one with all sorts of creative possibilities. Dillard also notes that to be “scrupulously loving in mind and body [is] to make reparations to the moral universe.” In a morally fractured world, probably fatally so, anything we can do to help shore up the cascading wounds, both our own and others, surely has some moral worth. Lasting love is only one option, of course.

    By the way, “The Maytrees” is an interesting work particularly for anyone with an appreciation for Dillard, or a desire to think about lasting love. (Anyone without an appreciation for Dillard is required to go and read “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek” immediately.) Her greatest skill is not as a novelist, I think, but as an essayist. (Only an essayist would introduce the word “lagniappe” in the mind of a character from Provincetown, I should think!) But she has a powerful mind, an amazing grasp of language, and combines these with a profound humility about human finitude in the face of nature, death, and time.

  2. The Weekly RaderMay 29, 2008 at 12:05 PM

    Thanks, Jeff, for your smart and generous response. I agree that Dillard has many good things to say about gender and monogamy, and I like what you have to say about Weiss.

    As for lagniappe, in Oklahoma it means something extra you get when you buy a lot of something--that 13th donut, the sample of scone at Starbuck's when you buy your latte, the free bottle opener at the hardware store . . .

  3. However, my Oklahoma informant, Benny Hen, tells me that you won't know how that 13th donut tastes unless you try it.

  4. I agree with you Dean: Most of us are not "wired" to handle polyamorous relationships, for the medical reasons Dean alludes to, and because no matter how many times a couple agrees to keeping things open, the underlying climate of fear and anxiety coupled with a sick sense of self-doubt, have detrimental effects on ones sense of self-worth. I speak from personal experience, not because I have ever been in such a relationship, but because I recently witnessed the demise of a close friend's polyamorous marriage. He was the one who went to the buffet and she was the one who said it was alright while harboring a complicated set of emotions that eventually turned her into a subservient shell of a woman. You can only smell another woman on your husband so many times before the stench becomes absolutely unbearable...

    However, I believe, that as I write this, people are making polyamorous relationships work in very healthy ways, though it's certainly not for the weak...

    I think the the most important thing to address is the complicated emotional infrastructure of serious, committed relationships and the ever changing nature of them. Anybody who has experienced true love knows there is a moment when you look at the other person and you know there is nobody else whom you desire and you are satisfied on a physical, emotional, psychological and intellectual level. But such moments are not branded with lifetime guarantees. That is why people fall out of love an why relationships end.

    Also, desire and love are almost impossible to understand. They are what move people. And while we think we can hold them and feel them and wrap our arms around them at night, both are extremely deceiving. I think that many people have grown accustom to a world that moves so fast it feelsuncomfortable to take time, to slow down, to step out of the relationship and think about whether particular desires (which are inevitable) trump the a paticular love and whether love is what is truly at stake.

    And just a quick note on Weiss--he sounds like a child, whining about the fact that as a married masn he can't just go out and sleep with every woman he wants to sleep with. I mean technically he can do that. It's called being single and wearing a condom...