Sometimes I’m mystified at what gets picked up and treated seriously even by bloggers and scholars I respect. Earlier this week, Courtney Martin at Feministing mentioned a post by Virginia Rutter at Girl w/Pen. Virginia Rutter is a smart, serious scholar. But I wasn’t convinced by this post, where she argues that monogamy is on the rise even as couples are talking more about potential affairs:
Are people really having less sex? Well, at the very least, it looks like they are having less sex outside of their committed relationships, according to a new study written up in Scientific American. But it also looks like people may be making up for having less sex outside of committed relationships by talking about it more. And that is good news for sex.
First the news: In each category surveyed—gay, lesbian, straight—people report fewer affairs now than in the 1970s. Everybody has changed in terms of monogamy: gay men do it (where do it means doing non-monogamy) 59% now versus 82% in the 1970s. Nowadays, straight men do it less—14%. Meanwhile, 13% of straight women and 8% of lesbians do it. As we keep seeing again and again in recent surveys on monogamy, women—lesbian and straight—still report fewer affairs than their male counterparts, but they are catching up with the boys, as UW psychologist David Atkins has shown. On the one hand, affairs overall may be on the decline because of STDS and the like; on the other hand, women may be catching up because they have greater autonomy and economic independence.
That is all interesting, but this is also potentially good news for wild, free-for-all sex. The investigators from Alliant International University in San Francisco showed that over the same period people have also increased how much they talk to their partners about the idea of sex outside of their relationship. (What’s happening in those conversations, report these psychologists, is that they are talking about outside liaisons, and deciding against them.)
But the other discovery here is about the talking. Increasingly, this study hints, people are talking about the notion of sex outside their relationship–talking about forbidden, off-the-approved-roster sex with someone who isn’t an official or legal sweetheart–even if in the end they decide against it. Conversations like that—no matter what the outcome—mean that more and more people are acknowledging, countenancing, and admitting that they and their partners are completely capable of having sexual fantasies about someone other than their official one. We all know that being in a committed relationship doesn’t change our brain structure and doesn’t stop a great, diverse sexual imagination about all manner of things, people, and situations. But when people don’t talk about it, they have to tell one another lies, and pretend like their fantasies don’t exist.
So, maybe people are saying no to the reality of sex with their hot new colleague, but if they are saying yes to a conversation about it with their partner, it might mean that those partners will be better at dreaming up their own edgier, more interesting sex. And, by the way, in a world where women have greater sexual freedom to have affairs, they also have greater freedom to acknowledge desire and have conversations about it that can lead to fewer affairs.
This is a utopian vision, isn’t it? People are actually communicating about sex, women’s desires are being legitimized, and everyone is having hotter sex while treating their partners with more integrity?
I don’t want to be a party-pooper. I respect Virginia Rutter immensely. When I teach about sexuality, I rely partly on the work she’s done with Pepper Schwartz. But, nerd that I am, I went to the Scientific American piece – and what I found there looked considerably less utopian.
First, the data compare a survey from 1975 to one conducted in 2000. The latest data in the comparison are thus nearly a decade old. They don’t represent “now.” Sure, there’s always a lag time between research and publication, but this one is a doozy.
What we’re seeing is not a new trend by any means. We’re simply seeing the impact of fear of AIDS. Both Rutter and the Scientific American article note the effect of STIs, but neither discusses the chronology. I’m only guessing, but I’m pretty confident that if comparable data were available from 1990, they’d look a lot like the figures from 2000. The headline in Scientific American, “Monogamy Is All the Rage These Days,” makes it sound like we’re at the bleeding edge of a new trend. That might be true on a geological scale; otherwise, not so much.
But maybe I’m just being a curmudgeonly old historian, insisting we get the chronology right? Maybe the real story is that people are talking about affairs with their partners, yet deciding not to stray? Here’s what Scientific American said on that point:
It’s worth pointing out, however, that [in 2000] 43.7 percent of those gay men said they “discussed sex outside the relationship and decided that under some circumstances it is all right.” Only 5 percent of lesbians and about 3.5 percent of straight couples had a similar agreement. Again, all groups report many fewer of these open relationships than they did in 1975, when about 20 percent of straight couples, 34 percent of lesbians and nearly 68 percent of gay men agreed to forgo monogamy.
And the percentage of couples who are decidedly closed to sex outside the relationship—they discussed extra-partnership sex and decided that “under no circumstances is it alright”—just about doubled in every group (from around 43 percent in 1975 to around 80 percent in 2000) except in gay men, among whom it more than tripled (13 to 44 percent). “It was surprising to us that in all groups, the trend is toward monogamy,” said Gabrielle Gotta, lead author of the study.
Unfortunately, there’s no link to the original study, and perhaps Rutter was privy to more information than Scientific American provides. But assuming this précis is accurate, it doesn’t even hint that Gotta and her colleagues discovered ongoing conversations about desires and fantasies. Instead, they found that people decided that extra-partnership sex was not okay. Ever. That sounds to me much more like a one-time agreement, likely struck early in the relationship. It doesn’t sound like constant negotiation and communication, much less sharing fantasies about hot co-workers.
In fact, though I realize some people get off on swapping fantasies about specific people, I’m not at all convinced that this is a recipe for spicing up sex in most long-term relationships. Fantasies are one thing; fantasies about a specific, flesh-and-blood individual are quite another. Such “extra-partnership” fantasies are liable to evoke jealousy. They can be used manipulatively, to stoke insecurities and keep one’s partner in line. People who are committed to polyamory often still struggle with jealousy. What happens to a couple who are “decidedly closed to sex outside the relationship” when one of them discloses daydreams about an affair? Will this heat up their sex life? Or will it just plant the seeds of suspicion?
So yeah, it would be wonderful if none of us felt jealousy. It would be even better if we could freely communicate our desires and fantasies without fear of being judged or hurting our partners. But that’s not the world we live in – and nothing in the description of this new study suggests we’ve edged much closer to a utopia of freewheeling desires.