Cheating is a Bad Gamble

Just how much of a prude am I? I am more conservative than Dan Savage, which is saying more than you think. People think Savage is this wild sex radical, but he really isn’t, and he is getting more conservative as he ages.

Nonetheless, Savage is known for his tolerance for cheating on one’s spouse, under circumstances. I was listening to Episode 456, where Savage defended infidelity multiple times. In his opening rant, he chastised us all for absolving some Democratic politician for hiring a party boy who ratted him out while we condemned the members of Ashley Madison who had their private details leaked. He pretends that our reactions to these two circumstances are inconsistent, but they really aren’t: we hate cheaters, but we hate sex workers more, and the fact that the sex worker ratted out his Democratic politician john incenses us more than the fact that this Democratic politician may or may not have been cheating on his wife. (But of course I must not conclude this, because it is entirely plausible that his wife knew and approved. Right. If this had been a Republican politician Savage’s argument would have been different, but we all knew that.)

That isn’t the point, though. The point is that Savage makes a forceful argument in favour of cheating — or as he phrases it, “Doing what you need to do to keep yourself sane”. He says that you should consider this under the following circumstances:

  • Your partner is “finished with sex”
  • You are not in a position to divorce: because of kids, because you are dependent on your partner, or vice versa
  • Your partner refuses to open up the relationship

He says that in an ideal world we would all communicate, but this is not always possible. Thus people should sometimes cheat.

It is a forceful screed, but it’s mostly wrong. The problem with cheating is not the sex, but the loss of trust. “Cheating”, “infidelity” and other words we use to describe extramarital sex reflect that loss of trust.

Maybe getting sex outside of marriage meets your needs and keeps you sane — for a while. But what happens when your partner finds out? In almost every case you are now worse off than you were before:

  • You are now facing grounds for divorce
  • Our sex-negative culture will frown upon you for seeking sex outside of your primary relationship and you will be punished accordingly in divorce court
  • Your partner will not trust you and neither will your close friends

Basically, Dan is saying that cheating is the least worst option if you NEVER get caught. Good luck with that. Most of us practice terrible opsec, and Savage does not offer advice on how to cheat more effectively.

The other way you could avoid being worse off is if you hold the power differential in the marriage: namely, if your spouse is dependent on you and not the other way around. Then maybe your spouse will stay married to you after discovering your philandering, if said spouse does not divorce you and get you served a hefty alimony. If you do manage to wield your power differential to stay married to a dependent spouse then I feel you are abusing your power, which is also despicable.

In other words, cheating seems like a terrible plan in almost every situation. What then should people trapped in sexless marriages do?

  • They can accept the lack of sex as the price of admission for staying married to this person. This is a bad outcome, but some people prefer being married to getting laid.
  • They can prepare for divorce beforehand. Dan Savage says there are some people who cannot feasibly divorce, but if they cheat then they are facing divorce anyways, so I think a bunch of these people can and should make plans to leave, even if they do not execute those plans.
  • They can make it clear to their partners that even if those partners are done with sex, they are not. But they have to be willing to follow up on this threat, which could mean divorce (but hopefully means other things like conversations, counselling, or opening up marriages first).

But of course people do not want to do any of these things. They want to stay married to their partners and get sex on the side without confrontation or hurting anybody’s feelings. So they take Dan Savage’s advice and cheat, and then a bunch of them get found out. In the best case the partner changes his or her mind and accepts the unilateral opening of their relationship. Otherwise there are a lot of hurt feelings, a breakdown of trust, and a much worse situation overall.

Personally I feel that this policy of “monogamy by default” is stupid and needs to stop. If people want to be monogamous then fine; I try not to judge other people’s kinks. But this arrangement should be negotiated like any other perverted sex practice. Having said that, we live in a world (increasingly even for the gays!) where “monogamy by default” is presumed when people are in serious relationships. When that presumption is broken, people get hurt.

That is the other aspect of Savage’s argument that he downplays. It is one thing to say that a partner who denies you sex and prohibits you from getting it from other people is being unreasonable; it is another to acknowledge that even unreasonable people can be traumatized when their partner breaks trust to get that sex.

I think I understand why Savage gives the advice he does. People stuck in sexless marriages feel desperate and stuck. They get little sympathy from others for wanting sex. Savage is offering them an answer so they will feel less trapped. His hope is that people who are trapped but can get their needs met will feel less trapped and enjoy more functional marriages. But I think his advice is wrong. Too many cheaters get found out. Then their marriages get worse.

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