Melissa Matthes on marriage, fidelity, and desire

A few weeks ago the New York Times Magazine published a piece by Mark Oppenheimer about marriage and fidelity. Oppenheimer explored the argument of sex columnist Dan Savage that the real purpose of marriage should be stability rather than fidelity, fidelity being an unnaturally difficult and libido-killing virtue with no necessary connection to making, and keeping, a family. Thwarting one's own sexual impulses in the name of some fruitless ideal is, Savage argues, a recipe for unhappiness. In a post over at Verdicts, Melissa Matthes questions Savage's assumption that our sexual desires are either more authentic or more important than virtues such as fidelity that require some kind of self-restraint. She argues that our sexual desires are at least as much like consumer desires as they are like other physical appetites. They are in some way natural, but they are also social. They shape us, but they too are shaped by the world in which they develop. Whatever their power, their authority is no greater or more obvious -- and no less open to criticism and discipline -- than our desires for other things:

Desire is not made in isolation. And we know (at least since Augustine) that humans need a community of virtue in order to desire rightly. Yet, Savage makes it seem as if any sexual desire one has (unless it involves feces, children, pets, incest and the dead) is legitimate. And, while I appreciate these caveats, they are insufficient. Not because I think we should be policing sexual desire in some draconian, puritan way, but because it is still worthwhile for each of us to explore in more detail how desires are cultivated, why we want what we want, and, perhaps, what is the difference between real and artificial wants. Or perhaps more accurately, it is still worthwhile to consider which wants, desires, urges are themselves symptomatic of other more foundational desires -- perhaps for power, intimacy, or recognition. Again, its unclear why sexual desire is privileged.[...]So, why is monogamy saddled with the drawbacks of boredom, despair, lack of variety, sexual death and being taken for granted? Why is the repetitiveness of monogamy not a source of solace, expertise, stability, and recognition? And who or what is to account for the one experience rather than the other? Yes, being married to the same person for a decade has elements of boredom, as does being a professor for a decade, or playing tennis regularly. But with that boredom comes expertise -- Im a better professor and tennis player after a decade of practice. Why doesnt monogamy work the same way? In fact, many times it actually does. But the national sexual rhetoric -- tied closely, I think, to consumer desire -- imagines that new and improved is actually one word, rather than a phrase making an argument.

Read the whole post here.

Matthew Boudway is senior editor of Commonweal.

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