Although statistics about the prevalence of infidelity vary wildly (between 25% and 60% over the duration of a marriage), everybody seems to agree that it is on the increase on Western societies. Is this necessarily a bad thing? Or is it just one more symptom of the disintegration of the monogamous norm? Judging from what I read, it seems that many polyamorous people, while critiquing sexual exclusivity, are quite judgmental when it comes to cheating. In agreement with people of a more puritanical persuasion, they tend to view infidelity as the betrayal of a sacred oath. According to them, if a person is sexually unsatisfied in her or his current relationship, there are only three morally acceptable options: 1) continue to live sexually deprived, 2) negotiate an open relationship, 3) leave the relationship. The 4th option, of course, is cheating. I believe that sometimes it is ethically justified for the following reasons…
I believe that the basic issue underlying the ethics of sex is personal autonomy. It means that my body (and my mind) is mine and I should be able to use it as I see fit, as long as it doesn’t impinge in the personal autonomy of somebody else. This has two implications, one negative and one positive. The negative implication is that nobody should use my body (or my mind) against my desires, which makes rape, sexual abuse, psychological abuse and other forms of non-consensual sex, immoral. The positive implication is that I have a right to my own sexual satisfaction (again, as long as it doesn’t violate the personal autonomy of somebody else). This implies that sexual repression also violates personal autonomy and should be considered a form of abuse. Therefore, cheating is not a violation of consent because it does not violate the partner’s personal autonomy. What it does violate is a personal contract in which two people have agreed to mutual sexual exclusivity. However, breaking an agreement is a much less serious offense than violating personal autonomy (as in rape and sexual abuse). It is important to note that the sexual exclusivity agreement does involve relinquishing a large segment of personal autonomy: before I was able to have sex with whoever wanted to have sex with me, now I’m restricted to just one person. Because of that, any form of coercion in establishing this agreement should be considered quite seriously.
We cannot forget that we live in a society that strongly enforces monogamy. In fact, there many places in the world today where non-monogamy is punished with death. Even the more enlighten Western societies exert considerable pressure in favor of monogamy, using different forms of legal, economic, cultural and social sanctions. Very often these are unfairly directed more toward women than toward men.
Because of that, we cannot consider the agreement of sexual exclusivity involved in marriage as one freely made, but one made under the pressure of a coercive environment. In practice, this means that we are given the option between a monogamous relationship or no relationship at all. Almost nobody is given the option between an open relationship or a sexually exclusive one: it is monogamy by default. Let’s remember that an agreement made under duress is not morally binding.
Let’s now consider the three options (other than cheating) offered to a person who is sexually dissatisfied in a relationship. The first one is to just put up with the sexual deprivation. In the old, sexually-repressive culture, this went unquestioned. Sex was considered something superfluous, unnecessary for the happiness of a decent person (especially if it was a woman). The new sex-positive culture has changed that perspective, posing that it is unacceptable for a person to live sexually deprived. This not only applies to having sex in general, but also to enjoy alternative sexualities like BDSM. If I’m kinky and my partner is not, I’m entitled to do something about it. So this is no longer an acceptable option for a lot of people.
The second option is to negotiate an open relationship. This is considerably difficult, often impossible. Let’s not forget that open and polyamorous relationships are vanishingly few. Realistically, proposing an open agreement to a partner entrenched in the monogamous mentality is not only futile, it is foolish. The only thing that it would accomplish is to make us instant suspects of cheating, or wanting to cheat.
The third option is breaking the relationship. I am quite surprise at the alacrity with which so many people propose this option… like breaking-up was easy and entailed no suffering at all! Quite the opposite, most of the time it is the least desirable option, often an impossible one. This is because we live in a society that wraps a lot of power in the institution of marriage, in the form of economic power (share savings, mortgage, etc.) and restrictions of individual freedom (the house where I live, the job that I have, childcare, etc.). Then, breaking-up is not a simple matter of stopping a sexual and emotional relationship, but something that throws our life in a complete turmoil, most likely ending up by lowering significantly our standard of living. Divorce is easy when you are rich, ruinous when you are poor. And then there are the children, who probably wouldn’t suffer much if a parent occasionally cheats, but would be devastated by a divorce.
In conclusion, cheating is not a black-and-white issue, but one of great complexity. If one thing is clear, is that we would all gain a lot by de-dramatizing it. Contrary to what we read in novels and see on television, it’s not worth killing anybody over it. Is not even worth leaving our loved one over it. Sex is just sex, let’s not blow it out of proportion by attaching all sorts of mystical meanings to it. Yes, in some cases cheating is a dastardly thing to do, involving breaking of trust, dishonesty and betrayal. But in other cases it is just the least bad of a set of bad options. Like the case of the woman who has become economically dependent of her husband by leaving her career to have children, and now finds that he no longer wants to have sex with her.
From the point of view of a non-monogamous, sex-positive culture, we should be able to appreciate the element of rebellion against the established order that is implicit in cheating. Yes, the person being cheated suffers, but the monogamous norm is partly to blame for that suffering. It is that culture that has convinced him that being cheated is, oh, such an awful thing to go through! And let’s not forget that that cultural norm of sexual exclusivity creates an unbalance of power, empowering the sexually repressive member of a couple to the disadvantage of the one that yearns for sexual freedom. Ideally, we should all be able to be polyamorous if we wanted, but in reality the ability to do that is reserved to a precious few. We should not be judgmental of people who have to resort to other, more unpalatable options.