This piece was originally published on the Blowfish Blog. It’s Part 3 of a three-part series; here are Part 1 and Part 2. Again, the bits about comments and conversations are primarily in reference to comments and conversations made on the Blowfish Blog when the series was originally published.
I swear to Loki — this is the last round of this for a while. Next week, a nice review of a new book on sex and science. I promise. But this is too compelling a topic, and too interesting a conversation, for me to drop at this point.
I’m talking, of course, about cheating. Specifically, cheating in a sexless relationship.
And today, I want to connect it to how high a priority we place on sex.
Because I think that’s something that’s been missing from this conversation.
When I wrote my first piece on this topic, I put the question in terms of a social contract. I argued that yes, cheating is a violation of the unspoken (and in some cases, spoken) terms of a relationship agreement. But I also argued that unilaterally and permanently depriving your partner of sex is also a violation of those terms. And I argued that, when one person violates their half of an agreement, the other person is no longer obligated to keep theirs.
Now, a lawyer friend of mine, Jon Berger, has clarified a point of law that’s very much relevant to this question. (Don’t worry — I’ll get out of all this contract stuff soon, and back into the stuff about sex.) He pointed out that in contract law, there’s a difference between a simple breach of contract and a “material breach” — and only when a breach becomes material are you no longer required to keep your end of the bargain.
And I think this whole “material breach” thing is crucial to what I want to get at today.
Because, in my opinion, the unilateral, non-negotiable, permanent cutting off of sex in a monogamous relationship is a material breach.
One that’s every bit as serious, every bit as significant, every bit as harmful, as cheating in a monogamous relationship.
And I think this is a concept that many anti-cheating advocates are not seeing. (Or maybe they’re just not agreeing with it. I’m not sure.)
Jon is right, of course. It’s not like any violation of any relationship agreement gives you license to cheat. If your partner promises to take the garbage out on Friday nights, and one week they forget, that doesn’t give you license to run off to the nearest singles bar. Forgetting the trash one week is not a material breach, and cheating wouldn’t be a proportionate response. (Or, for that matter, a relevant one.)
But to unilaterally cut off sex in a monogamous relationship, without any willingness for negotiation or even discussion, and with every intention of it being a permanent arrangement? To unilaterally force your partner into a situation where their only options are cheating — which is admittedly not that honorable; breakup or divorce — which many people in many situations would also consider dishonorable; or lifelong celibacy — which many, many people, myself included, would consider intolerable?
You’re damn right I think that’s a material breach.
And while I don’t think I’d personally choose to cheat in that situation, I can easily see how a good person might decide that cheating was both a proportionate response and a relevant one.
Now, some argue that cheating is always indefensibly wrong because it’s non- consensual: one partner is non-consensually forcing the other into a type of relationship that they didn’t agree to and don’t want. And this is an interesting point, with some validity to it. (FYI, there are other anti-cheating points being made in this debate that also have validity: I just don’t have space to address them all.)
But my counter-point is this: It is equally non-consensual for one partner to unilaterally decide that the relationship will now, and forevermore, be sexless. It is equally non-consensual for one person to try to force another into a life of lifelong, permanent celibacy.
And in my opinion, it is an equally serious moral violation, with equal potential for harm.
I’m not sure why I’m being so tenacious about this. (Apart from the fact that I’m a tenacious person, and am like a dog with a bone when I get hold of an idea.) I have a sex life that I’m happy with, and I’m not monogamous. So for me personally, this is all something of a moot point.
But I’m always troubled when I think people are trivializing sex, and sexual desire, and the high priority that some of us place on it.
And that’s some of what I’m seeing in these debates.
I’m not saying that all anti-cheating advocates are trivializing sex. But I am saying that, in the debates about cheating in sexless relationships, I’m seeing what I consider to be a disproportionate emphasis on the cheating… and a similarly disproportionate lack of attention to the sexlessness, and the harm that it can do, and the difficult moral bind that it puts people in.
Adult life is full of complicated ethical situations, with no one clear morally excellent choice. Adult life is full of situations in which we have to prioritize some of our values over others. As both Seth and Ola pointed out in the comments to last week’s column, one of the central questions in this debate is whether honesty in relationships is the highest priority, outweighing all other values and ethical considerations. And even if you personally think it is, I think you have to accept that this is not the only morally defensible position. I don’t think it’s reasonable or fair to expect people to sacrifice sex for the rest of their lives just so they can live up to your personal ethical priorities rather than their own.
Look. I’m not saying cheating is a morally excellent choice. I’m saying that it’s sometimes a complicated choice. I’m saying that good people sometimes make this choice for reasons that are valid. I’m saying that good people could reasonably see it, not as a great choice, but as the best bad choice that’s available to them, the choice that they think is the least likely to cause harm in a complicated and difficult situation. And I’m saying that, even if it’s not the choice that you or I would make, we have to not just reflexively and unthinkingly treat everyone who does make it as if they were wicked, selfish, unethical people by definition.
And I’m saying this:
I think that, if sex-positive people are going to take cheating seriously as an ethical violation, we need to take the unilateral and permanent turning off of sex in a relationship every bit as seriously. We need to acknowledge the complicated and difficult moral bind that the latter choice puts people into. And if we’re going to treat the latter choice with compassion and empathy and understanding for extenuating circumstances, it’s unfair to treat the former with stringent and unrelenting condemnation.
This is the final post in this series. I’ve been asking people to hold off on commenting until the series is complete; I now rescind that request. Comment away.