Saturday 1 October 2016

Who decided being faithful is a good thing?

Published 29/08/2012 | 06:00

Library Image. Thinkstock Images
Library Image. Thinkstock Images

In an extract from her new book, controversial sociologist Catherine Hakim says it's time to redraw marital rules -- with a radical rethink on fidelity

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Alongside the internet dating revolution, these "playfairs" are evidence of a potentially dramatic shift in marriage.

As dating websites open up a global shop window of sexual possibilities, as life expectancy continues to rise and we become increasingly sexually aware, how can we still take the crushing old rules of fidelity, that turn marriage into a prison, for granted? Why should we not be able to recapture the heady thrills of youth, while protecting a secure home life?

The time has come, alongside the technology, to redraw the rules of marriage for the 21st Century. Just as the Pill opened up premarital sex in the 1960s, the internet is opening up a whole new culture of affairs among married people.

Sex has become a major leisure activity of our time, accessible to everyone, married or not, rich and poor. It's time to start honing our seduction skills and join the playground.

Yet it is the most puritanical nations, including Britain and America, that have traditionally resisted the notion of adultery most rigorously. Here, couples endure the challenges of child care, work pressures, mid-life crisis and dwindling marital sex against a backdrop of repressive Anglo-Saxon hang-ups about infidelity, seen always in pejorative terms such as "cheating".

And they do so at a cost. Statistics confirm that British and American divorce rates are among the highest in the world.

Around half of American first marriages end in divorce, closely followed by one-third of British first marriages, floundering under unrealistic pressures, often celibate marital beds and over-reactions to infidelities.

I have always been baffled by the sour and rigid English view of affairs. Marital love and passion only rarely provide an equally rich source of the exalted feelings, transports of delight and misery associated with love and romance.

Affairs are about excitement, being alive, seduction, flirtation, love, affection, sexual bliss, lust, caution, eroticism, fantasy, danger, adventure, exploration and the determined refusal to grow old gracefully.

There is also evidence that the more permissive the attitudes of a country, the longer marriages last. In France an affair is dubbed an 'aventure', free of insinuations of betrayal. It is estimated that one-quarter of men and women are enjoying casual flings and affairs at any one time. Indeed, the conventionality of affairs is displayed in the concept of 'le cinq à sept', the magical space between 5pm and 7pm when men see their mistresses.

In Japan, a tradition of geishas has evolved into a modern society where sex is seen as a pleasure to be enjoyed. Japanese pornography is consumed openly, by women as well as men, on the metro and in other public places. Sex is everywhere and it is also clearly separated from marriage.

Meanwhile, Nordic countries are already way ahead of the game. Couples openly discuss "parallel relationships" within marriage.

These range from affairs between work colleagues lasting years to holiday flings lasting a few days. Almost half of Finnish men and almost one-third of Finnish women have had at least one serious parallel relationship.

Yet marriage is a protected and respected institution in these countries, where families can function and flourish without compromise.

So why have we resisted for so long and are we finally ready for this new 21st-Century approach to marriage? Inevitably there is the morality question.

Even as religion has lost its influence, we have remained coy about openly embracing sex for pleasure, stubbornly conflating sexuality with procreation.

There is also the army of therapists and counsellors who continue to pedal their own secret agenda of enforced exclusive monogamy.

Meanwhile, feminists have already missed the chance to find a new kind of modern sexual morality appropriate to the 21st Century. In practice, Anglo-Saxon feminism never liberated itself from the morality that downplays or rejects all forms of pleasure as sinful.

But sex is no more a moral issue than eating a good meal. The fact that we eat most meals at home with spouses and partners does not preclude eating out in restaurants to sample different cuisines and ambiences, with friends or colleagues.

Anyone rejecting a fresh approach to marriage and adultery, with a new set of rules to go with it, fails to recognise the benefits of a revitalised sex life outside the home.

Already two American economists, David Blanchflower and Andrew Oswald, have attempted to measure happiness through sexual fulfilment in monetary terms. They estimated that increasing the frequency of sexual intercourse from once a month to at least once a week was equivalent to €40,000 a year in happiness.

They also estimated that a lasting marriage provided the equivalent of €81,000 a year. If you add the two together -- an affair providing lots of sex and an enduring marriage -- that's a recipe for a lot of happiness.

It is also a handsome sum when you consider how much longer people are living. In pre-industrial Britain and Ireland, marriages only lasted about 20 years, due to early death.

Today, marriages can last 40 to 60 years. It is no coincidence that the peak ages for affairs in Britain and the United State is 45 for a woman and 55 for a man.

Of course, it would be misleading to suggest that married dating does not have a certain morality of its own. Just as there are rules for dating non-married people, a new set of rules is necessary to navigate the way through the secretive world of married dating on the internet.

The first rule is "never in your own back yard", where you are most exposed to discovery. This is one of the successes of the websites: they allow everyone to reach well beyond their own social circle. Both parties can quickly establish that they want the same thing and that they are equally committed to secrecy and discretion.

It is also a world away from the deeply unfair old-style "asymmetric" affairs, in which hapless wives would be left at home while their husbands wooed younger, poorer women disparagingly referred to as a "bit on the side".

If anything, married women are at an astonishing advantage in this 21st-Century world of modern adultery, not least because of the disparity in sexual desire in modern marriages.

Recent sex surveys all prove that the received wisdom about men wanting more sex than their wives is not an unfair stereotype but a fact. The gap in sexual desire between men and women is observed in every country and culture where such surveys have been carried out.

This puts women, entering the online "meet-market" of married dating sites, in a dramatically stronger position. While dating websites for singles are dominated by women looking for "the one", those for married people are dominated by men looking for a sexual adventure.

The ratio is around one woman to every 13 men, giving the women the power to dictate terms, from dates at the most expensive restaurants and luxury gifts to financial rewards.

Take the case of Peter, a rich 62-year-old judge who lives in a beautiful historical country house with his lively wife. He regularly travelled into central London for work.

He also stayed in the same hotel. After several years of this routine he began to welcome the idea of a sexy girlfriend to entertain him during his weekday stays. He signed on to a dating website.

When he met his first date, Maya -- beautiful and in her thirties -- he could not believe his luck. They had a flirty lunch, sitting in the sunshine.

At the end, they discussed meeting again. Maya suggested a monthly fee for unlimited time with him at his convenience. Peter laughed, assuming she was joking.

But as he worked his way through a similar series of first dates, that were also not followed up, he realised that Maya was right: a crucial rule in this modern world of adultery is that the women are able to call the shots, especially when the men are past their prime.

Crucially the globalisation of sexual cultures facilitated by the internet, where it is said sex in one shape or another constitutes half the traffic, has helped to bring far more adventurous practices into closer view. As a result, we can no longer assume that our own perspective is the only one going, and that it is inevitable and "natural".

On the contrary, the emphasis on sex as a leisure activity in consumer society allows people in celibate marriages to see their situation as something that can, and should, be remedied, instead of something to put up with.

The New Rules: Internet Dating, Playfairs and Erotic Power by Catherine Hakim (Gibson Square Books)

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Irish Independent

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