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Jay Michaelson

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It's Not Just Tiger: Monogamous Marriage Is An Anomaly

Posted: 12/09/09 04:27 PM ET

Let the clucking begin. As the tabloids pile on the revelations about our falling star, Tiger Woods, pundits have begun the predictable and proverbial shaking of heads, clucking of tongues, and various forms of bemoaning. Are none of our heroes pure anymore? Or, conversely, is our celebrity culture so ravenous for scandal that there is no privacy left?

Et cetera, et cetera.

But what's the takeaway from all this? We've been through so many celebrity-affair scandals (does anyone remember Eliot Spitzer?) -- haven't we learned anything?

How about this one: that the modern institution of marriage, so ardently fought-over by activists across the country, is a historical anomaly that has never been taken seriously in the past, and is unlikely to work in the future. It's a flawed model, and it's not worth defending - because it never really existed, apart from an ideal.

Truly traditional marriage, after all, is polygamy. This is what the Bible instructs, and it's been the dominant familial arrangement in the Western world for longer than any other form, including nuclear-family monogamy. Kings had their concubines, noblemen had their mistresses and kept women, and the rest of us - well, we had the world's oldest profession. None of these were exactly God's word, but they were understood to be part of life.

Indeed, maybe we forget how widespread prostitution really was for most of our history, and how even today, sex is Internet's #1 business and how an estimated 700,000 American men pay women for sex every year. This is not an innovation of our degraded age. It was understood - in the Bible, in the Talmud, in Protestant Europe, in colonial America - that married men would visit prostitutes. And while this may have been a sin, it was everyone's sin - and not a particularly serious one.

What changed all this was, ironically, feminism. The first feminists weren't bra-burning radicals: they were pious scolds, who in late 19th century America mobilized for purifying American manhood. They cleaned out the brothels and closed the pubs - feminists were the first prohibitionists. What had for hundreds of years been the common practice of men of all social classes became a great vice to be eradicated.

Twentieth century feminism added another layer of condemnation: after all, why should men be allowed to philander while women were expected to remain faithful and stand by their (abusive, cheating) men no matter what? Why are promiscuous men heroes, and promiscuous women sluts? Women aren't slaves, feminism taught us, and men need to respect them as equal partners in marriage. Infidelity had been a religious sin - now it was a secular one as well.

So here we are, 2010 upon us, and still trying to live up to a hopeless monogamous ideal that had never been so strictly upheld before - and is not helping anybody. We all know that half of American marriages end in divorce - can we really say this is better, especially for children, than the former system of discrete cheaters and the rest of us looking the other way? Sure, such a system has its fair share of deceit and hypocrisy. But are we really less hypocritical today, with our tabloid exposes and dishonesty about the nature of (male) sexual desire?

Of course, many men lead wholly faithful lives. But Tiger Woods and other celebrities don't live like you and me. They travel all the time, they carouse, they have groupies and fans constantly wanting a piece of them, and with their millions of dollars, they have all earthly delights at their disposal. None of this is to forgive a cheater - but let's at least remember that the context of his failure is vastly different from the ones most of us inhabit. Cheaters cheat because they can.

What's the alternative?

Well, there's always the Continental European model. In France in particular, monogamous marriage is still the norm, but temporary departures from it are understood to be part of the mature human experience. And they are issues for husband and wife to resolve. In this model, the appropriate response to the Woods revelations should be "Well, so what. But I do feel sorry for his wife."

Of course, there are more radical alternatives as well: polyamory, open marriages, and so on. But these remain, for now, on the American fringe, and carry with them the whiff of indulgence. Interestingly, in the gay community, where such arrangements are statistically more common than in the straight world, there is a debate as to whether same-sex marriage is really so "good for the gays" after all. What's the point, opponents say, of replicating a failed model, and one based on religiously-derived norms about human behavior that we should all have by now outlived?

Ironically, and of course totally unrecognized by defenders of "traditional marriage," it's the gay-marriage crowd that is the staunchest proponent of traditional norms. They're the ones saying that monogamous marriage is so great, let's extend it to everyone. The real opponents of marriage are the folks who question whether it's such a good idea in the first place.

Whatever we think about such normative questions, the facts of the matter are beyond dispute: monogamous marriage as an ideal that's actually meant to be upheld is a very recent, and not very successful, innovation. Personally, I recognize that , as an ideal, it plays an important role in creating stable families, stable communities, and stable societies. I am not forgiving the sin of infidelity. But I do wonder if it's more a peccadillo than some kind of ethical felony.

It's not that we should stop preaching monogamy: the value is still an important ideal. It's that we shouldn't be so surprised when people fall short of it. The people for whom this should matter are the cheater's wife and family. As for the rest of us: we are human, after all. We overeat, we pollute, we cheat on tests and taxes and all kinds of legal regulations. We even drive above the speed limit. None of these things is good, none is praiseworthy. But to err is human, and our marriage rhetoric isn't.

 
 
 

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