Last week I published an interview with feminist icon Marsha Rowe, where she and I talked about the history of feminism, body image and porn. However, during our original conversation, Marsha and I also talked a lot about relationships, specifically about cheating and non-monogamy. I didn’t include that bit of our convo in the original edit, just because the interview was already really long (Marsha, being very wise, just said too much good stuff to fit into one blog post!), but I thought it would be a waste not to share it with you all, so I’ve posted it below. If you’ve ever cheated or been cheated on, or if you’re considering experimenting with an open relationship, I suggest you read on!
Rowe: In a recent blog post of yours, you made a comment that it was alright for someone to cheat in a relationship as long as the person handled it properly. When I read that I thought, “Hang on, if you really cared about someone and they cheated on you, how would you feel?” Yours seemed like quite a detached, male attitude. If relationships are about vulnerability and trying to open up, then I think the idea that it’s fine to cheat is sort of glib, and I don’t like it personally.
Sciortino: I see what you mean. I think what I was trying to say was that, for example, if someone in a relationship went to another country and had sex with a random person in a one-off experience, and he/she didn’t brag about it or discuss it with friends, then that was a condonable act. I don’t know… maybe I’m just being realistic about the fact that whether or not a couple acknowledges that this type of behavior is sometimes “OK,” it generally happens anyway.
Rowe: Well that’s something you deal with if it happens, isn’t it? As far as I know, in every relationship where someone has cheated, the relationship hasn’t lasted. Although it may have been because it was never meant to last.
Sciortino: It’s hard. This is my issue: say you’ve been monogamous with one person for a long time, and after awhile you get the urge to sleep with someone else, but ultimately decide not to because you want to stay committed. In my mind, this is likely to lead to resentment within the relationship, or you becoming unhappy sexually, when maybe a better alternative is to just get the random sex out of your system and move on. But then again, I know cheating can be a slippery slope.
Rowe: I think it depends on what stage the relationship is in. I’m sure early on someone could stray without it causing too much disruption. My case would be for maintaining trust. That if you tell the partner, even beforehand, then you can modify the potential for jealousy. But if this is happening later on, maybe the person cheating is actually frightened of being too intimate or vulnerable within their relationship, and sleeping with somebody else is just a diversion from it all.
Sciortino: That’s true. And there are obviously different levels of cheating as well. Like if I found out my boyfriend had been dating someone else for a year behind your back I’d obviously be like “OK, too much!” But if I found out he’d slept with someone else once or twice, and it wasn’t someone close to us, I could probably get over it. It’s really subjective. And I’m talking as someone who is nowhere near being mentally ready to get married or have kids. I think when you enter marriage, or consider having children with someone, the rules change.
Rowe: Well, life in general is much more fluid now. Half the time people don’t marry, and relationships are a bit more vulnerable to change.
Sciortino: I know a lot of people, myself included, who are now experimenting with open relationships–the idea that you have one main partner with whom you’re emotionally monogamous, but you both have the freedom to sleep with other people occasionally, so long as it’s not gratuitous or disrespectful.
Rowe: Well in the 60s and 70s, because we were against the whole ‘nuclear family under capitalism’ thing, at times we thought it was alright to have multiple relationships or partners, so long as we were open about it. For example, I would be good friends with a woman who was with one of my partners, and vice versa. But in a way, looking back it was quite cold, you know? There wasn’t a lot of care in the matter, and even when there was a lot of love, actually, it wasn’t workable in the long run. As for the idea of sex divorced from feeling, I suppose I did have a few partners where that was the case, but it wasn’t what I wanted in the end. Ultimately I realized that if I was with someone, I didn’t want to be, well… fucking someone else, really.
Sciortino: I go through cycles. There are periods where I really crave and enjoy having detached, “meaningless” sex, and times when I don’t. I know that a lifetime of just anonymous sex would not be fulfilling for me or most people. But I think there’s a time in everyone’s life where free sexual experimentation is fun and probably a good thing, because if you don’t have it when you’re younger then maybe you’ll regret having missed the opportunity later on.
Rowe: That’s true.
Sciortino: What do you think about certain modern pop stars, like Ke$ha and Lady Gaga, who are open and unapologetic about being promiscuous?
Rowe: Well pop stars always behaved this way, except they were mostly men. They didn’t talk about it that much, but it was always assumed. But now women are doing it too and it’s like, ‘So what?!’ Does that make them a role model? Well, I don’t really know what a role model is anymore, but at least they’re being open and honest about it.
Sciortino: I think it’s potentially positive. I don’t think young women should feel like they have to sleep around to be sexually progressive or a feminist, but I think it’s good to have people in the media relaying the message that if you do decide to have multiple partners, it doesn’t mean that you’re a slut or that you’re just trying to please men. It’s never degrading to do what makes you feel good.
Rowe: Yes, yes, yes. I mean, where is the male equivalent for the word ‘slut’? There isn’t one. There is no term for putting a man down because he sleeps around. Slut-shaming is a very old and sexist form of abuse. The ideal of virginity and being chaste is what we were against in the 60s, and it’s why we claimed our sexual freedom.