“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?