Monday, November 2, 2015

Why Is Infidelity All About Sex?

Sacchi Green

“Oh Come All Ye Faithful.”  “Faith of Our Fathers.” “Semper Fidelis.” “Keeping Faith.” “Full Faith and Credit.” The notion of “faith” generally involves commitment to religion, or patriotism, or trustworthiness. But “unfaithful” and “infidelity” always seem to refer to matters of sex, specifically sex outside of an existing marriage. The standard (but not legally required) marriage vows include “forsaking all others” in the list of promises, which is understood to refer to sex, but why do we reserve “infidelity” for sexual transgressions even though failures of the vows to love, comfort, honor, and keep, for better or worse, richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, may be even more harmful to one or another partner?

Just a rhetorical question. Never mind. We all know that anything that can possibly be sex-centered will be sex-centered.

I don’t suppose there’s any way to tell whether the notion of sex-exclusivity began when our pre-human ancestors figured out how babies are made and the males wanted to be sure which kids were their own—all kinds of variations between monogamy and non-monogamy can be observed in other species with whom we share this earth—but until fairly recently women were more restricted than men, and even now some major cultures allow multiple wives or concubines, as long a man can afford them. The wives in such cases are, of course, severely restricted.

Most of us would agree, I think, that extramarital sex with the willing permission of one’s spouse isn’t exactly infidelity. The “willing” part is the catch. Sex is so central to relationships in our culture, so tied into our sense of self-worth, that for a partner to have sex with someone else, to seem to prefer someone else for sex, however briefly, feels like rejection. If it’s not all that brief, a fear of abandonment is likely to enter into it. The emotional pain isn’t about sex itself, but about what it’s come to signify.

Full disclosure—well, more like partial disclosure. Several years ago, when I was well past the age when procreation entered into it, I went a bit wild. I caused someone emotional pain and fear of abandonment, even though there was no actual break. I dabbled in the world of kink, joining a club (more as a voyeur than anything else) where everything was theoretically okay as long as you called it “play.” It seemed to work for some people I knew, but it also, eventually and painfully, tore apart some couples I counted as friends. When no one felt devalued, it worked; when someone did feel threatened or neglected, it didn’t work. Those feelings were what counted, more than whatever sex occurred. I did learn a great deal of value to an erotica writer, but it wasn’t my personal cup of tea, and after a while I moved on, or away, or maybe back, whatever way you look at it.

We’ve been discussing whether readers of erotica should be forewarned when a story involves infidelity. I haven’t made up my mind. In general I’m against warning readers about much of anything, but I do understand that infidelity is a hot button for people who like to immerse themselves in a story’s characters without too much risk of emotional pain. I suppose a writer whose story claims to be “erotic romance” might be wise to warn of infidelity issues, while outright “erotica” shouldn’t require that. On the other hand, for erotica, where themes perceived as transgressive can be a plus, a hint of infidelity might be just the thing to hook a reader.

I’m editing the next volume of Best Lesbian Erotica (now titled Best Lesbian Erotica of the Year for possibly misguided reasons), and I’m expecting some flack about a story I chose that included infidelity. It’s beautifully written, by one of the very best authors in the business, but quite a few readers are going to have a hard time sympathizing with the main character who just wanted to try it once, to see what being with someone else was like. Even if, or maybe especially if, they’ve felt that way themselves. But am I going to warn readers? Hell no. Not unless they read it here, at least. Don't tell anybody, okay?  



  1. Excellent points, Sacchi, and covering some extensions of the concepts I was aiming for. One of the questions I posed was about which kind of sexual infidelity had the most impact for different people, but of course, it's that emotional infidelity you've discussed which is so often the relationship-killer.
    And I think you and I are in close accord about the warnings system. Again, I do see why readers might want it there, especially in Romance genres. But with erotica, for sure, I like it when things are left open (heehee).

  2. So often the sexual is mistaken for the emotional. Or are they one and the same? I don't seem to have much of a jealous streak, so it's hard for me to feel that emotion in any concrete way. We've all seen breakups happen for as little as a wandering eye. Not even acted upon.

  3. Extramarital exploration demands a level of self-confidence and faith in your partner that can be tough to achieve. And it can expose weaknesses we didn't know we had.

    For a couple of years, my husband and I were part of an organization that espoused (oh no, did I really write that?) open marriage. In fact the founders had written a rather famous book on the topic. The group was tremendous fun, mostly because these people were smart, creative and very sexually aware. We participated in some moderately--um--active scenes, things that definitely fuel my imagination now. Nobody felt left out or abandoned (well, of course I don't know that--but neither he nor I did), and the whole experience was positive.

    But then there was the "perfect" couple we found through our personal ad. I was feverishly attracted to both him and her, and I believe that his feelings, at least, were mutual, but the chemistry wasn't there between the female of the couple and my DH. As a result, DH felt insecure and worried, and ultimately we didn't progress to anything beyond a bit of cuddling.

    Hard to get it right!

  4. Several months back a few folks here mentioned being inspired by Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land. I read that not long after it was written, and was impressed, but I remember even then feeling that open sex was all very well, but the older and/or less attractive women (I was still far from being old) would always get the short end of the...well, the stick. Still, the notion of staying exclusively with a partner one didn't find attractive, just because of legal status or long-ago vows, didn't seem like such a good deal, either.

  5. Hi Sacchi!

    The story about infidelity sounds especially interesting because it promises to be the most revealing of the human experience. It was especially interesting, your experience with the club scene and the effect of indulging forbidden desires on real relationships. have you written that story?


  6. Hi Garce! I hesitate to write what are essentially other people's stories that I happen to have witnessed, but I'm tempted sometimes. I suppose at this point some things happened so long ago that no one involved is still reading my work, and of course I'd fictionalize a story to a large extent, but the more i think about it the more I realize that I really don't want to write about infidelity and the pain it can cause. An interesting self-discovery that i'll ponder from tie to time.

  7. I read "Stranger" back when I was in a college...and acting on my wild impulses. I always said that some people are born with few "ya-yas" in their system, and some, like me, were FULL of them. So I was trying to get them all out of my system while I was young, hot, eager, and no one would be hurt by them. I had a lot of forgettable sex, very few hot encounters (I used to say there is no such thing as a frigid woman, only clumsy men), and I learned quickly that if you don't tell a man what you like, he'll come up with his own ideas, and it will be really unsatisfying. Also, many are insulted when you try to tell them, so best just to remind them afterwards that you're a "one-time gal", and they shouldn't ever expect a repeat performance. I wrote that into one of my books, that will be re-released sometime next year.

    Have you heard Elle King's song, "Xs and Os?" That's what my life was like, Men got pissed when I'd dump them after a night or two, for the next cute butt that caught my eye. But because of that, when I finally met my husband, I was so glad I had all of that out of my system. Not only was he hotter than any guy I'd ever met, but we were explosive together. And I've never felt any inclination to find out what other guys are like, since I already know, quite viscerally, they're probably disappointing. And certainly not worth risking what I have.

    That's why I've spent my whole life decrying slut-shaming and other female-centric insulting that implies that it's okay for men to fool around, but not women. Hell, if you don't, you'll always wonder. And if you're married/committed at the time, there's someone else's feelings to take into account. Best to be promiscuous when single, then when you decide what you really want, you'll be able to make that commitment and mean it.


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