Adultery, prostitution and male sexuality – it’s all down the same turgid rabbit hole I fear.
I realise that I risk being labelled a puritan, a prude, frigid even, but I am starting to realise that there is a world of sexual activities out there that are, to some, totally acceptable whereas to me they are offensive; particularly to women. For me, my husband’s adultery has always had a sleazy, back alley, degrading, b-film aura about it. The surprise is that I had no idea that I would find the act of adultery so disgusting until it was dropped like an eight gallon-bucket full of excrement into my life. All, I can think is that I must have previously bought into the popular myths that portray a certain normality around the act. For example, Douglas LaBier writing in Psychology Today (2010, a year before husband’s adultery) suggests that “cultural attitudes have clearly shifted towards acceptance of affairs. They’re seen as a life-style choice; an option for men and women yearning for excitement or intimacy that’s lacking or has dulled during their marriage.” So we have…”She was standing off by herself during a conference break, leaning against a wall, sipping coffee. As I walked by, our eyes met and I felt a sudden jolt — a rush of energy, real connection. Suddenly we found ourselves talking, feeling like we had known each other for years. The affair just happened.” Or… “It was a marriage stabilizer…safe and discreet, a perfect solution for me.”
What does LaBier think that we learn from these ‘affairs’ (such a lovely romantic concept don’t you think)? Well, he thinks that some affairs are psychologically healthy. An affair can help leverage us out of a destructive or deadened relationship that’s beyond the point of renewal. An affair can help renew our relationship with our existing partner. An affair can spur us to confront what we really want from our existing partner and motivate us to try creating it. For LaBier, there’s always a reason for beginning an affair, and it relates to some issue in the existing relationship. As for the wife and family? Well they’re not exactly ignored but they may well have been by his comment “there are plenty of consequences – for yourself, your children, your existing relationship”. Exactly what these consequences might be are not considered.
There you have it. One of the many non-silenced voices of adultery. I could offer you more of this so called liberal approach that frames adultery as a form of sexual freedom, but I won’t because I don’t buy into this myth anymore. Adultery is a moral wasteland which diminishes everyone it touches. Instead of selfishly looking for ways to have our cake and eat it too, we need to recognise the character of long term relationships and learn how to remain monogamous and realise the long term benefits of doing so. Make a choice to stay or leave the relationship, NOT destroy families and relationships for short term regrettable benefits. Adultery is not a romantic affair it is abuse; a violation of trust and disrespect and contempt for the rights of the spouse. The vocabulary used to talk about adultery needs to change to reflect the nasty truth about the experience for all concerned. And I mean ALL. Once the initial buzz of the new is over the real ugly shape of adultery starts to form and it takes no prisoners.
Adultery stinks. But it’s not the only smell down the rabbit hole. Prostitution also stinks. Also, some aspects of male sexuality are particularly fetid. Maybe female sexuality is going down the same cess pit but at the time of writing, the sleazy world of prostitution functions only in direct response to male demand. I also appreciate that research suggests that adultery is committed by as many women as men so this definitely has a bad smell, but for the sake of this blog and in drawing links between the three aspects in the title I do not intend to approach what I consider to be the differences in sexuality across the genders albeit a worthwhile detour no doubt.
Adultery is a new topic for me and one that I am still coming to terms with both personally and universally. Some of this investigation takes me well out of my comfort zone and just recently I was informed of a book written by a former prostituted woman Rachel Moran ‘Paid For: My journey through prostitution’. This was well outside my comfort zone but I was overwhelmed by the profound, eye-opening narrative presented by Moran of the depressing and desensitising world of prostitution. I found it hugely interesting to read the normally silenced words of a woman attempting to come to terms with her harrowing experiences of being a prostituted woman via the political, economic and cultural understandings that appear to function as normalisers for what is distinctly not normal (well, not normal in my eyes); the purchase of human beings for sex as an acceptable standard of human behaviour. I found myself drawing remarkable parallels with my experience of adultery; “the nature of prostitution flavours the sexual act as far too distasteful and too sleazy and too bound up with degradation to allow any kind of wholesale enjoyment.” I feel like this about the sex that occurred between my husband and Pig Shit. The irregular and furtive sexual trysts all happening against the backdrop of a trusting wife mitigate against a wholesale enjoyment of the type one gets when in a one-on-one intimate relationship. Another similarity I found between Moran’s story of prostitution and my story of adultery are my feelings of being silenced and the current prevailing discourse which seems to favour a dismantling of the foundations of monogamy, arguing for an acceptance of betrayal within marriage as an acceptable standard of human behaviour. But, as prostitution “pollutes human interpersonal relations” so does adultery.
At the beginning of her book Moran notes that prostitution is not purely an individual experience, it is a collective and as such she writes from both a personal and a universal perspective. It is the same for adultery; we betrayed spouses share threads of experiences so common that they make up a basic shape of the adultery experience from the perspective of being betrayed. And, as for prostitution, so for adultery, there is no glamour because it bears no resemblance to the truth. As men who use prostitutes superimpose upon prostitution an image of it which to them is satisfactory, agreeable and pleasing, men who cheat on their wives do the very same thing to adultery. Prostitutes themselves often superimpose an image of what they are doing in order to live with themselves. Terms like ‘erotic dancer’, ‘escort’ or ‘call girl’ are used to paint a veneer of respectability over what they do. Reporters are often duped into believing that some women are content and have no sense of stigma with regard to their work as a prostituted woman but Moran suggests that this is purely a defence mechanism. I can see this happening with the other woman in adultery; they choose to see themselves in a positive light and erect a romantic fantasy to scaffold their shaky foundation. ‘Other Woman’, ‘Affair Partner’ painting a different picture to that of ‘slut’, ‘home-wrecker’, ‘whore’.
As prostitution, contrary to any pedalled belief, is not a straightforward consensual choice the effects of the mental and physical turmoil that it engenders have been found to resemble post-traumatic stress disorder. “They don’t knock on the door of your mind, these memories; they let themselves in.” This is so familiar to the experiences of being betrayed. As we have no choice in being a cuckolded spouse but have to face the bitter consequences, so the prostitute has to wrestle with the slippery concept of consent in a powerless situation. Moran entered prostitution at the age of fifteen which is not unusual; many of the prostituted are not adults. Really, what possibility could there be of consenting to a lifestyle that cannot even be comprehended? Reasons for entering prostitution are varied but it is a documented consequence of homelessness. Many women enter high end prostitution out of desperation; those who enter on the streets do so out of destitution. Equally, there is a difference between consent and reluctant submission. “When fear and despair produce acquiescence and acquiescence is taken to mean consent, consent is not a meaningful consent”
These are all factors that are new to my thinking and I have to question why this is the case. Just like I didn’t know about the horrors of adultery I had no idea about the horrors of prostitution. I was probably also guilty of passing unfair judgement on the women who do this work. I also bought into the myths about it being harmless sexual fun. But just like adultery, there is no fun and it isn’t harmless. There is an interplay of depravity that exists between prostitutes and their clients that can be recognised between betraying spouses and the other woman. They both exist at the coalface of human contempt. Moran’s perspective and vocabulary of prostitution offers a fresh lens by which to investigate the pernicious aspects of adultery. Adultery, like prostitution “lives and grows, not just on a cultural or global level from country to country but on a micro level; in each life it touches”. We need to recognise its corruptive and corrosive character as moral codes become eroded. “A consequence of a sense of entitlement – driven all too often by the priapic nature of male sexuality”.
There is nothing classy about the sexual antics of a betraying spouse and their other woman. I have often thought that Pig Shit acted like a prostitute, exchanging sexual services at the convenience of my husband for false tokens of eternal love and affection. Just like the attempt to frame prostitution as sexual self-determination simply doesn’t hold up because the prostituted women’s decisions are not sexual but economic, Pig Shit was not demonstrating sexual-determination in having sex with my husband because her decision was based on the hope of a lasting commitment not her sexual desires. However, the role of the other woman can be seen to resemble that of the prostitute; “the pornified objectified female – the subject of the sexual encounter rather than the equal participant.” It is detrimental to intimacy and actively reduces the worth of women. This is why women who shag married men often feel cheap afterwards, once their ‘lover’ has returned to his wife.
Perhaps it’s linked to the male’s madonna/whore complexes. I begin to wonder if the sexual penchants of married men cause them to not share their desire with their wives. Moran argues that this is one of the cornerstones that support the sex trade – “the male insistence on offloading onto another class of woman perversions they cannot reasonably expect to present to women in their lives. Here, women are very distinctively divided into the respectable and the contemptible, the decent and the disreputable, the revered and the reviled.”
Another interesting parallel to draw is the way in which people depict prostitution as this is reflected in what we read about adulterous affairs. “People who depict prostitution as glamourous usually view it against the backdrop of expensive hotel foyers. But what goes on is the very same thing as when lifting my skirt in a back alley. The nature of prostitution does not change with its surrounds. It does not morph into something else because your arse is rubbing against white linen as opposed to roughened concrete” This is the case for adultery too, no matter how it is depicted, the betrayal of the trusting wife and the trauma being inflicted upon her does not disappear no matter who the other woman and no matter how and where it took place.
Moran suggests that it is not possible for a man to use a prostitute without indulging in violation. The sexual equivalent of picking a flower in bloom and pissing on it. I would say the same about a man committing adultery. It is certainly a violation of the wives trust but it might also be a violation of the other woman too. Prostitution is sexual abuse, paid sexual abuse. Adultery is also abuse. I have blogged about this previously.
Moran advises us that “the indoctrination of prostitution is very strong. It instils a sense of shame and culpability in a woman to the point where she cannot feel free to lay claim to her own feelings”. Sound familiar? We need to recognise the indoctrination of adultery. See it as a struggle against how other people want us to perceive it, a struggle for our human rights. “Where the sexual pleasure it affords men (Moran is talking prostitution – I’m talking adultery) is seen to be more important than the duty to treat women equally in humanity”, we have something going dramatically awry. We have to be confident in our demand to have marital and human rights aligned and we have to see ourselves as women in the wider framework of male sexuality. “Non-prostituted women, many of them, have been schooled to accept prostitution along with pornography as something they dare not oppose as offensive for fear of being labelled a frigid-minded prude.” Remember the response to people who objected to the business of Ashley Madison? A web site specially designed for people who wanted extra marital affairs, (because life is short) populated by men in the main. It makes you wonder about the sexual liberation boasted about in the 1960s. Are women really liberated? Moran holds strong views about this.
“Some non-prostituted women routinely force themselves into a state of shut down in order to accommodate men’s sexual demands. Some women will go to very great lengths in order to facilitate superfluous desires which are presented as critical sexual requirements. Many women who do these things do them not in an effort to please themselves, but in an effort to be pleasing and they are strongly encouraged by a mind-set outside of themselves which imposes a straightforward choice between being sexually liberated and puritanical. There is no middle ground, apparently; and there is no acknowledgement of the true essence of sexual liberation which does not in any sense accord with having your sexual behaviours dictated to you.”
It makes me think about all the wives who play the ‘pick-me’ game with husbands threatening to leave for the other woman. Believing, foolishly, that if they consent to all his sexual desires he will stay. Like the other woman troll who informed me that if I’d been the whore my husband wanted he wouldn’t have strayed – my view is, if that’s what it takes, let the other woman have him!
How many times are we told that adultery is as old as the hills? Well the same is said of prostitution. It is often referred to as the ‘oldest profession’ “as though, like a wise and aged individual legitimacy were conferred on it by its years”. If something is deemed respectable it will be acceptable. Just as prostitution is not respectable (who wants a brothel in their neighbourhood, women touting for business on the streets, their daughters or mothers selling their bodies, fathers and sons buying bodies for selfish sexual enjoyment) neither is adultery (who wants to be betrayed, have a father unfaithful to their mother, a daughter betrayed by her husband, a son cheating on his wife) and we should reject attempts to make it otherwise.
What about the defenders of adultery? The defenders of prostitution are the sex industry and they normalise the buying and selling of humans by dressing it up in a neoliberal discourse that invokes the same concepts as those suggested by the adultery defenders; choice, agency and empowerment. As defenders argue for the rights of prostitutes to use their bodies as they choose they overlook the fact that it is others who use the bodies of prostituted women as they so choose. As defenders argue for the rights of bored spouses to engage in extramarital sex they overlook the fact that the rights of the spouse at home are being violated. The only ones with any real choice in these contexts are the men who buy the sex and the husbands who commit adultery. Just as we never get to hear about the hatred, contempt and cruelty that prostituted women experience on a regular basis, so we never really get to hear about the contempt and cruelty of the betraying husband towards his wife or the pain and trauma of adultery that is experienced by the betrayed spouse.
And what about us as women? How do we react when we hear about stories like Rachel’s or we have a married man come on to us and flatter us? Well, let Rachel answer from the prostitution perspective. “If a woman tolerates this treatment of her fellow women, if she accepts it under the banner of ‘liberalism’ or anything else, then she must also accept that she herself is only removed from prostitution by lack of the circumstances necessary to place her there.” From an adultery perspective, if a woman tolerates being the third party in a marriage then she must accept that she may find herself in a marriage with her husband being unfaithful should the circumstances transpire. Equally, married men using prostitutes can’t be overlooked. As Moran now notes “Every time I engaged in prostitution with a committed man I colluded in hurting some woman who had done nothing to deserve it.” It’s a shame that more other women can’t see what they’re doing in the same light.
A tragic indication of the strength of the dominant discourse around prostitution occurred in August 2015. The well-respected human rights organization Amnesty International, voted to support the decriminalization of all parties involved in sex transactions. Moran argues that supporting decriminalisation supports prostitution itself. Prostitution not supressed will expand, if legalised it will explode. “What is happening in countries that legalise prostitution is a shift away from the expectancy of decency towards the acceptance of turpitude.” Are we happy with the sort of world this creates – one we want to live in?” There is another way. Sweden was the first country to prohibit the purchase of sexual services in 1999. A 2010 inquiry showed “that the criminalisation of the purchase of sexual services has helped to combat prostitution and human trafficking for sexual purposes”. Other countries have followed.
If combatting prostitution has such trouble where do we start with adultery? This is not a matter of virtue; it’s a matter of freedom. The freedom to choose wisely and to understand the consequences that our actions may have on other people. As David Foster Wallace suggested in his commencement speech to Kenyon College in 2005 “The kind of freedom, most precious, and not much talked about involves attention, awareness and discipline and being able to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways everyday”. Marriage and long term relationships need to foster a compassion for the other NOT passion for the other woman!
Perhaps I’m getting old. Perhaps the future will contain more prostitution, more pornography, more adultery and I’m just plain old fashioned. But if this happens we’re losing something aren’t we? As Rachel Moran poignantly states “We, men and women, have lost each other in all this. Is it not pitifully obvious that we have lost each other?”
Image credit: Red Night Light” by Pixomar freedigitalphotos.net