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Outside The Box

BY Blanche McCrary Boyd
Sexual Republican
BY Jennifer Belle
Sleeping Arrangements
BY Jaishri Abichandani
Subversive Desire
BY bell hooks

 

subversivedesire
BY bell hooks

>>adultery was an accepted everyday kinda thing in the southern Christian culture I grew up in. Common for a man to have a mistress for a lifetime and a wife. Common for there to be an outside woman and outside children. Common for a man to lie about both, with grace and ease. To lie even if the inside children brought the look-alike outsiders home and stood them in front of the father and boldly and innocently wanted to know "Is he my brother?" "Is she my sister?" How common it was for men to not answer, to tell children as my father told us, "Ask your mother." Before we knew better, before our innocence had been utterly and irrevocably shattered, before we knew the pain it caused, the ready remembrance of past hurt, we would ask our mother.

This betrayal by men of their marriages was common and accepted behavior only as long as they pretended and lied; the disgrace would have been telling the truth, pridefully flaunting indiscretion. That would not have been accepted. No matter how many lovers were shot and killed. No matter how many homes and hearts were broken, lies, secrets, and silences were the only accepted norm. At that time, the fifties and early sixties, it was assumed married men were the ones who stepped out. It was a rare married woman who cheated. And an even rarer wife who cheated and got away with it, who escaped punishment. A cheating woman risked murder at the hands of her man. And the other woman risked being killed by an angry wife.

Even as children, we heard the stories of women taking the guns they carried in cloth pocketbooks next to small Bibles, lipsticks, and embroidered handkerchiefs

Even as children, we heard the stories of women taking the guns they carried in cloth pocketbooks next to small Bibles, lipsticks, and embroidered handkerchiefs, pressing them against the heart of the other woman, letting her know it was time to send him on home. In my childhood I had seen one of those guns pressed against someone's heart. It had broken mine. This was not a love story.

Long before my teens I understood intimately that the pain of adultery was not simply the hurt of someone you loved sleeping with someone else. Clearly adultery was a transgression that did not destroy, since the couples stayed together. But the betrayal involved in adultery shattered trust, broke the heart into bits and pieces, in ways that could never be put together again. In my teens I could not understand why monogamy was the idealized norm, when everybody knew it was not the reality. But I also saw the pain that lies had caused. I determined that in my grown-up life there would be no lies, secrets, or silences. I became a devout advocate of "free love." Leaving the South knowing the difference between wounds you could recover from and those that marked and scarred you for life, I felt prepared for a new life of radical openness.

In my first year of college, feminism offered a way out of the patriarchal binds that denied female sexual agency. Adding the possibility of pleasure and danger to sexual liberation, particularly sophisticated birth control and legalized abortion, made it possible for females to be as sexually free as men. Unlike in the past, heterosexual females could now cheat without fear of unwanted pregnancies if they wanted to. But we were a generation of free women and men who had no desire to cheat. We wanted everything honest, out in the open, aboveboard. We fancied ourselves mature enough to cope with the notion that our partner was making love to someone else. We were convinced we had transcended the limits of conventional sexual mores; the word "adultery," which had once evoked fear and dread, had no place in our vocabulary or our lives.

The choice to be honest with one's partner about the longing to be sexual with someone else and the efforts to satisfy that longing made the very concept of adultery seem old-fashioned, obsolete.

The manual of our sexual healing was a book titled Open Marriage. It provided positive reasons for nonmonogamy, emphasizing the importance of honesty and judicious sharing of information. It gave us all, straight or gay, permission to negotiate terms in our committed relationships, to decide whether to be monogamous or not. The choice to be honest with one's partner about the longing to be sexual with someone else and the efforts to satisfy that longing made the very concept of adultery seem old-fashioned, obsolete.

Marriages and longtime commitments seemed to stand a greater chance of surviving a partner's stepping out, because the fundamental trust in the bond had not been betrayed. When I left my nonmonogamous relationship after more than 15 years, I was in my mid-thirties and no longer as enthusiastic about open marriage. It had worked for us, but it had taken masses of energy and time to balance conflicting emotional loyalties and multiple passions. Still, single for the first time since I was 19, I was astounded by the number of married men who approached me who had no desire to be fully honest with me or their wives. Then there were the married men whose wives had agreed that it was fine to have flings, as long as the wives didn't know about it. As in the world of my childhood, I encountered more and more women and men who believed adultery was fine as long as it was covered up by lies, secrets, and silences.

When I became the "other woman," my refusal to lie caused problems. I was shocked and surprised when telling the truth to a wife or partner was simply met with disbelief and the insistence that I was making up stories. In several cases, when confronted by wives/partners, the men remained silent or lied. To them the cost of telling the truth was too great. Having known both what it is like to be engaged in open relationships and what it is like to be in a passionate affair shrouded in secrets and lies, I would take the responsibility and hard work that honesty and truth-telling require any day. Ultimately, it is the only responsible and sane path. The other way is reckless, dangerous, and life threatening. While couples often find their way back to peace and happiness after adulterous secrets have been exposed, trust betrayed is rarely regained; and when regained, assumes a less secure form than trust rooted in unshaken loyalty.

Magazine articles and popular self-help
books didn't actually look down on adultery; in fact, they boldly shared with readers the information that adultery could be good for a relationship

In the early eighties, when legal marriage began once again to be the norm, the idea of adultery made a comeback. Suddenly open relationships were regarded as leftover utopian fantasies, too much mess and not a lot of fun. Magazine articles and popular self-help books didn't actually look down on adultery; in fact, they boldly shared with readers the information that adultery could be good for a relationship, that the secretive partner could see his or her desire to cheat as a wake-up call, an alarm that there were problems that needed attending. Adultery could help a wayward secretive partner realize that he or she really wanted to "love the one they're with."

Upfront honesty did not get positive play in this atmosphere. Telling after the fact, or better yet, not telling at all, was deemed the better action to take. As a recent magazine article put it: "Honesty between the sexes is overrated, rarely useful, and often anticlimactic."

Adultery is needed and accepted because today's couples, young and old alike, are cynical about love and more convinced than ever that relationships are primarily about passion and power. As a culture we no longer believe in the power of love. Recently I finished writing a meditation on love; conversations and interviews on the subject unleashed a cynicism so intense it became painfully obvious that many couples would rather start off believing vows will be broken and bonds easily severed than ground their partnerships in openness, honesty, and trust. If love is only a pretense and a game, then adultery merely becomes one of the power plays. If trust is never truly present, then it can never be betrayed. If hearts are never surrendered, then they can never really break. Adultery becomes commonplace, safe, and ultimately a boring confirmation of the cynical belief that we will all be let down, abandoned, betrayed. Given such a stance, to courageously choose love places the heart at risk; it is far more seductive and subversive than cheating could ever be.

bell hooks's most recent book is "Remembered Rapture: The Writer at Work" (Henry Holt).