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Wednesday, July 06, 2011

“GGG”: The best conservative argument for marriage ever

Why doesn’t my husband fill my cavities or cut my hair? Because, according to Dan Savage via Mark Oppenheimer, he isn’t GGG for these activities. Fortunately, we never had to negotiate this particular outsourcing of extra-marital labor, because we already live in a society so accepting of the primacy of our dental needs and hair-styling desires that it makes expert providers of these services commercially available to us outside our marriage. So why doesn’t it accept that our exotic sexual interests ought to get the same professional—err—touch? If I would like sex to involve donning a pink bunny suit and being whipped by a clown on an elephant while hanging upside-down from a trapeze, but my husband, who lacks trapeze and elephant-riding training, can’t or won’t accommodate that, why shouldn’t I seek out someone who can? And not someone who will replace my husband, who is perfectly acceptable in other, non-trapeze respects (he makes great scrambled eggs!), but in addition to him? Our marriage isn’t the least bit undermined when I get my teeth cleaned by a dentist or my hair cut by a stylist, so why should getting my sex from the circus be any different?

Even if my husband offered to make a sincere effort at the elephant-and-trapeze, he’d unlikely surpass a professional in his skill. And I don’t select my hair stylists or dentists based on the sincerity of their effort, but on the final product. So why should I settle for DIY sex when I could have professional results? Just as society doesn’t expect me to stick with one hair stylist for life and call that person my husband, it should relax its expectations about sex.

If you are skeptical of this proposal, perhaps that’s because you’re wondering what the point of staying married to someone is if I’m getting trapeze satisfaction from someone else? Maybe that’s a sign that the marriage ought to end? [Clarification: Phoebe points out that she only means pre-marital relationships here.] But whoever said that sexual exclusion was some fundamental aspect of marriage? I don’t want a divorce, just a circus in addition to a marriage! Oppenheimer doesn’t really say what the purpose of marriage is because I guess that would counterproductively narrow the choice-iness that Savage stands for, but whatever it is, sex is no necessary part of it. Still, Savage is “conservative” about marriage because he wants to keep marriages together even if we don’t know why they are formed in the first place. Well, that’s a kind of conservatism, I guess, though a strangely ungrounded one for someone whose argument relies so much on rational contract-making. So we may not know why we get married, but we do know that once we do, we have individual rights to sexual satisfaction (which is to say, the satisfaction of any sexual desire we might entertain, so long as we think through what we want rationally) and these are pretty sacred, if not yet legally actionable. So it follows that if our spouses don’t satisfy these desires, we are within our rights to find other means to their satisfaction. There is no more necessary connection between spouse and sex than between spouse and hair styling.

And what will become of our spouses once we start shacking up with the circus? Potentially, there are the children, though these need not be strictly connected to spouses either. Oppenheimer channeling Savage seems to think it’s somehow psychically better for children to be strictly connected to spouses, though their interests are so unfortunately contrary to the “nonmonogamy” preferences of adults (pesky children!). But it has been pointed out that nonmonogamy may also lead to children who will lack such psychically beneficial spousal connections, and moreover, when individual sexual rights are pitted against the psychic goods of children, we can’t always expect the kids to win out even in the most flexible nonmonogamous arrangement. (At some level of nonmonogamy, do the psychic benefits to children of their parents staying together begin to erode? Like when I install the circus in my backyard?) So, if all else fails, I guess we will still have the scrambled eggs! Long live marriage.

19 comments:

Joe B. said...

This is your most Tushnetian post ever.

Miss Self-Important said...

It's merely the only one that links to her. You're overgeneralizing from that. Wait until I finally post on pedagogical eros and how everyone should have sex with everyone (on campus), then you will revise your judgment.

Phoebe said...

Hmm. Just to be clear, my beef with Savage is that monogamy's worthwhile (among other reasons) because interest in other people ought to be maintained as a sign that a relationship shouldn't proceed. Not that a marriage - esp. not a marriage with kids - should be given up on. Once you give up on the premise of monogamy, if you're 21 and so-so about the person you're dating, you end up marrying that person because hey, marriage doesn't mean giving up on other people. When, in all likelihood, the problem wasn't that you were an inherently non-monogamous individual, but that you married someone you weren't sufficiently enthusiastic about.

But anyway, yes, 100 times yes re: Savage ignoring the possibility that extramarital "negotiations" can themselves produce kids, hetero sex being funny like that. He does regularly mention the possibility of disease, which suggests that in this area, like some others, he's missed that (his version of) gay male life can't just be projected onto straights.

Miss Self-Important said...

Oh, sorry, I was generalizing from the word relationship. But why should the flexibility be only for the marrieds? I don't see why the logic of nonmonogamy should begin there. If Oppenheimer/Savage want to relax social expectations that favor monogamy, then why wouldn't the effects of these new expectations trickle down to those still in pre-marital relationships? If marriage is to mean cohabitation plus whatever sexual arrangement we draw up in advance (which includes arrangements for outsourcing all sex), then how would it follow to demand exclusivity (in deed and desire) from pre-marital relationships? Isn't the idea that "enthusiasm" in your sense of exclusive sexual attraction need not be the only or even any basis for marriage? Why then should it be the basis of courtship?

Joe B. said...

I would've said that even if you hadn't linked to her. In fact I resented the link for watering down the apparentness of the originality of my observation.

Phoebe said...

"Why then should it be the basis of courtship?"

That's my point - that as Savage's own application of this shows, even if you begin by in principle saying non-monogamy's only about keeping things going once things are long-established (esp if with kids), it ends up seeming overly restrictive to ask for monogamy in any relationship. So, while he has a limited point, in terms of a) it being non-tragic that the coupled notice when someone attractive of their preferred sex walks by, and b) it being worse to divorce when there are young children than to move past an infidelity (remember the dual-divorce Vows couple?), the general principle ends up making it just about impossible to figure out if you're with the right person/ "primary partner" to begin with. Not even in a "the one" sense, but just plain if you're with someone you could be happily monogamous with. And it's by all accounts easier - without bringing morality into it - to be happily monogamous than to "negotiate" whichever other arrangement.

Miss Self-Important said...

Joe: Ok, I appreciate the originality of the observation. How is it Tushnetian in other respects?

Phoebe: Ok, yes, then we agree about the problem with the nonmonogamy logic. People have been moving past infidelities for a long time--divorce is not required, only permissible in such situations--but even the idea that infidelity something that requires an effort requires nonmonogamy to be a Bad. If it's a Neutral, then it's not really infidelity; it's just getting a professional haircut.

Miss Self-Important said...

Also, I wonder about the strength of the argument to "stay together for the children" that seems to be undergirding this whole thing. It's obviously an appealing rationale, but it's difficult to see why we should do anything much for the sake of the children if the real priority is individual sexual fulfillment. Why do we even want children if sex is what we're ultimately after--and what we're always owed regardless of other commitments? They don't really fit into a worldview driven by that desire.

Joe B. said...

You're usually whimsical, but this is ET-like hyperwhimsicality involving things like circuses. It also touches on a ton of issues without exploring many in much depth (I don't mean this in a pejorative way at all, just that ET's posts are more thought-provoking than conclusive, as is this post).

The average ET post is something like 78% aesthetics; this post isn't 78% aesthetics, but it has a 78% aesthetic gloss because of the detailed circus.

Joe B. said...

maybe it's just that I think of ET as someone who would like circuses.

Miss Self-Important said...

Ah, well, I can't preach all the time. I'm not licensed for that.

Anarchist Theocrat said...

That hasn't stopped, oh, say, most of American evangelicalism.

Miss Self-Important said...

They're theologically opposed to licensing. The church of academia follows a more orthodox line.

Phoebe said...

Re: children, maybe I can explain this, having read and listened to a great deal of Savage.

He kind of operates on two levels, one socially conservative (yes, socially conservative), one... the one you already know. Sometimes they're more consistent than other times. I think what he's proposing is basically an alternative to 1970s sexual me-ism, to "divorce culture," to the idea that adults should do what makes them happy, regardless of the kids. Savage may not have a grand theory of what marriage is, but he takes it seriously insofar as he doesn't think they should be ended on a whim, or even more than a whim (aka infidelity). He insists that anything unusual parents are up to sexually (and by unusual, I mean anything beyond mom is married to dad, mom is married to mom, i.e. anything activity-specific, anything involving third parties) be hidden from kids, and is unsympathetic to those who wish to "come out" to all as polyamorous. (A problem, as we've already agreed, insofar as third parties can also be fertile.)

Savage himself is just one man, thinking these things through, so I don't think we can hold it against him that it's not all based in some pre-existing or clearly-delineated philosophy.

Where this can fall apart...

First of all, he's mostly answering questions from the young. Both gay 15-year-olds coming out and, more frequently, college-age sorts, gay, bi, and straight, where the problems of 45-year-olds aren't so much an issue.

What ends up happening is, just as he projects somewhat from the experience of gay men, even when he means to speak to, say, straight women, he does the same when attempting to switch to dealing with adult-as-in-grown-up problems. For example, everyone, unless the preface a call/letter with something about how they weigh 500 lbs and suffer from a very visible skin disease, is assumed to have the romantic possibilities of an especially outgoing and attractive college student. When in reality, the middle-aged and even the good-amount-past-college are not in that situation, straight women especially.

The classic Savage call/letter is one from a college kid in a monogamous relationship but about to study abroad in Europe, his advice being that Europe is filled with hotties, so it's best to end or be flexible about the preexisting relationship. In other words, it's about enjoying one's youth. Not necessarily bad advice for that 20-year-old, depending, but not of much use, again, for the 45-year-old. It's not that he's inconsistent or wrong when he advises staying together for the sake of the kids. He just doesn't seem to have given that angle as much thought as the angles that involve hot young adults making the most of what being hot and young has to offer.

Anonymous said...

Where did Nigel's Twitter link go???

mike shupp said...

And these ruminations all began when your husband declined to remove the ugly yellow things from your herb garden? Perhaps if you'd just insisted...

Miss Self-Important said...

Phoebe: Ok, I see that angle on "stay together for the kids" which is specifically "don't do your weird stuff in front of the kids." But this seems to assume that you're already married with kids in what seems like a traditional arrangement, and you've either recently discovered your weird desires or you've recently expressed them for the first time to your partner. But isn't this an imperfect Savage scenario? It means that you were not honest and upfront with the partner at the outset, and you've only now sprung this new info on him/her. If you'd confronted the partner earlier, there might have been no marriage, no kids, and no problem today. (Well, you might be alone with your weird fetish, but at least no one else would be implicated in your woe.) So "staying together for the kids" only comes up in situations where Savage's recommendations were initially ignored and now the task is to hold a bad situation together.

In the perfect scenario, however, we would all anticipate and acknowledge our sexual desires, disclose them early on in every relationship, and end up married only to partners who have complete and up-to-date knowledge about them. Since the entire relationship has always been based on full disclosure and contractual negotiation, it's not clear why one would want to suddenly start hiding things when kids arrive. It's not as though any fetish is wrong or shameful, so long as we're honest about it. And don't we want to teach our children about the importance of full disclosure for their own relationships, lest they end up in an unfortunate "staying together for the kids" tangle themselves later on?

Mother: The Twitter remains, the link is gone.

Mike: Let that be a warning to you about ignoring wifely requests.

Phoebe said...

OK, I think you're misinterpreting Savage on some of this. Understandable, because some of it's self-contradictory. But going by what he says most often, his ideal trajectory for men and women alike is to play the field when young, then settle down monogamously not before, say, 30, and then, down the line, rather than deciding one's tired of one's spouse (who's perhaps stopped putting out) after 15 years of marriage and with a 10-year-old kid, one should open up the marriage, rather than leave and have your kids need to shuffle between two houses and lose their college money. Thus far, this is basically asking people to behave as UMC-sorts already do, and is sensible advice, if a bit ignorant when it comes to female fertility (first even considering settling down at 30 might well mean finding that special someone at 45 if at all). When this is/was how Savage explains/ed things, I was maybe 85% on board.

Normally, Savage doesn't advise being upfront about wanting non-monogamy early on, because the above scenario is about only realizing this is what you want years into a marriage, likely because your spouse can't or won't have sex - not circus-sex, just sex-sex - with you for some unresolvable reason.

That's how it is normally. What I think happened is, he read some evo-psych tome, and has recently gotten it into his head that monogamy is beyond what most of humanity, esp. male humanity, is capable of. So he'll do things like tell serial cheaters that they're really just inherently non-monogamous - as though the inability to be loyal to a partner means someone would be capable of a negotiated "circus" arrangement. He recently told some man who'd only ever been attracted to his current girlfriend (as in, since meeting years ago as kids, the full extent of his real- and fantasy-life, as in, since he was first old enough to have a fantasy life) not that this fixation is utterly creepy and potentially disastrous should they break up, which is what he should have told her, but that he needs to have threesomes. Savage has become so hung-up on non-monogamy that even a question coming from someone who is arguably too monogamous ends up ending, predictably, with a suggestion to swing far in the other direction. It's unclear when, in all of this, at 30 or at any other age, the "primary partner" could be found, and could be gotten to know monogamously for any considerable length of time.

lance said...

So what's going to happen in five years, if gay marriages don't last and aren't monogamous? I mentioned the idea to my relatives and they laughed at the idea of gay male monogamous marriage. Right on schedule, NYT magazine publishes the Savage article. If Savage's goal is to weaken monogamy, he's not doing the cause of gay marriage any favors. The right has chosen to stick with the definitional argument (which has failed) instead of arguing from consequences, but if people like Savage are going to attack monogamy, they might want to rethink that. And how about the comic possibilities of two males raising kids? Gay marriage might turn into a punch line in a few years if the great experiment doesn't turn out as expected. Dougie Howser holding a wedding on Broadway probably isn't going to help the cause either.