Is the one who strays the only cheat?
2018 was my year of dubious honor. The New York Times publish my essay, ‘What Sleeping With Married Men Taught Me About Infidelity’ in which I recounted my naked conversations with wedded men during a tumultuous menopause. By the end of the year the essay had gone viral and ranked #58 in Chartbeat’s tally of 60 million published articles worldwide. Clearly cheating, and why we do it, is something both infuriating and riveting.
The din of public outrage on Facebook and Twitter threatened to silence the questions I was raising. Most wanted to bludgeon me for simply being in the, uh, position of asking. I viewed the essay as an attempt to describe the frustration, pain and avoidance of an issue steeped in shame: why doesn’t the person I married want to have sex with me?
Shortly afterwards, our esteemed Erotic Review editor inquired if I’d ever looked into the etymology of the word ‘cheater.’ I hadn’t. So, considering my reputation had been solidly established as an abettor of cheats, I told him I’d do a little research. As I dug into it’s meaning what I then began to wonder was, in the case of infidelity, was only one person a cheater? (Because let me be clear here; the men I engaged with all claimed they were getting no sex at home.)
‘Cheat’ and ‘cheater’ are descended from the French word ‘escheat’ (in Middle English it was ‘chete’) which was the term used to describe an estate that passes to the State in the absence of heirs; literally ‘that which falls to one.’ Apparently, the officers in charge of such unclaimed property acquired a reputation for duplicity and the word became synonymous with unfair confiscation and to ‘deprive unfairly’ (presumably because there were other who laid claim to the estate). By the 16th Century ‘to cheat’ became solidly understood as an act of dishonesty or fraud. ‘Cheat on’ as an expression of sexual infidelity didn’t come into use until the early 20th Century.
I began to consider the concept of ‘unfair deprivation’. What many who wrote to me after the Modern Love piece’s publication said was how much they felt sexually alienated from the person to whom they’d made a pledge of monogamy. Not only do our marriage vows ask us to ‘forsake all others’, most iterations include that we provide ‘comfort’ to each other, in times of sickness and in health. But if one person in a marriage is routinely withholding sex and the other seeks it elsewhere, is only one to blame? Certainly one person is being cheated of a vow of sexual fidelity. But isn’t the other being cheated of sex?
I’m aware that my depiction of a spouse who withholds sex and affection to be just as much a cheat as the one who has sex outside marriage is a cultural minefield. (Indignation appears to apply only to the one fucking; virtue to the one eschewing sex.) It’s hard to claim not wanting sex is a fraudulent act. But consider that ‘to cheat’ is also defined as ‘to elude; deprive of something expected’. Isn’t sex something we expect and hope to enjoy for most of our married lives together? Shouldn’t we hold accountable both people depriving an expectation, whether that be to sex or to monogamy? To deny sex, or to seek it elsewhere, is surely a breakdown of the respect we have for ourselves and our spouses.
In one of the many discussions that emerged in response to the essay, one man suggested that withholding sex from a spouse is tantamount to not paying the mortgage. He reasoned marriage was a contract between two people, much as a house loan is a contract between a person and a bank, and that failure to meet the requirements of that contract should be considered a breach.
Like most people, I was a bit appalled by his comparison. Whose terms are you operating under? What if you refuse to bathe, must I have sex with you? But what he expressed in anger, many before him had conveyed as despair, describing to me the refusal of their spouse to give even the least sexual form of affection, such as a hug. Years had passed for some (men mostly but women as well) since they’d had the pleasure of lying next to the bare skin of their spouse. Sex given reluctantly or begrudgingly was nearly as demoralizing as refusal. Some were told that pornography and masturbation – or better yet, an acquired disinterest in sex – were their only options.
I’m NOT saying you should always want to have sex, and the marital contract is no excuse for coercion. Even I feel much less driven to shag than I used to; shifting hormones, menopause, life stress all affect our desire to have sex with a desirous partner. But I would never ask my horny man to give up on the pleasure of sinking his cock into the warmth of a woman if I no longer wanted to receive him. The greatest pleasures of life should be in loving. Often our own happiness is amplified when we create happiness for the ones we love. It’s scary to consider that including sex outside marriage, but I’m only suggesting it be used as a discussion point on the awkward road to working out a compromise when an asymmetry for sex arises. A sexual chill could simply be a temporary state. I don’t suggest a person demand an affair if your spouse is exhausted by needy children and can’t bear the thought of someone else clinging to her body at the end of the day. Passion can be rekindled when two people are invested in the solution to a problem. (But you gotta be well-rested to do that!)
I’m not a proponent of non-monogamy as a lifestyle. However, I’m a big proponent of pushing against one’s comfort zones when it comes to what a solid bond can tolerate. Many people told me stories of the remarkable transformation their relationships went through when they got brave enough to talk about their fantasies and fears. Deceit and silence cheats us of our own growth opportunity. What addressing a sexless marriage does for the couple depends upon what they’re willing to invest in an outcome they can both feel good about.