This is a first of sorts for me. After years of amateur research into Classical Africa to enlighten fellow Trinidadians about the richness of their culture, this is the very first time I’m actually writing on a site based in Africa itself (and hopefully I do not make it the last time, I tend to have that effect). I learned of this website after a debate initiated by a two-part essay I wrote on another website entitled “The Myth of Monogamous Morality.” I read some of the articles here and came across one entitled “Why People Cheat” and I thought I’d offer my views on this very sensitive topic and hopefully link it to another article I read named “The Other Woman.” I liked how the first article featured the views of other people apart from the writer and attempted to go beyond the usual judgemental, religiously-influenced views I normally encounter.
There were, however, some key points that in my opinion were either insufficiently explored or missing altogether in both of them. Like many discussions I have come across and even books written by psychologists and anthropologists, there seems to be an assumption that does not need to be examined that the monogamous model is the moral benchmark for any discussion exploring extramarital/third party sexual interaction (as you will see I try to refrain from using the word “cheat” or as we say in Trinidad, “horning”). That sexual arrangement has been posited as the only moral model for so long, particularly in societies influenced by patriarchal Western Christian values, that many of us give it not even a second thought that that may also hold clues to understanding the problem. This is because even before the existence of Christianity, that was becoming the approved social model among a certain religious group that would later influence Christian thinking. Wherever men and women co-exist there are always matricentric ideas – generally communalistic, open and fluid and patricentric ideas – generally authoritarian, individualistic, possessive and competitive. These ideas informed patterns of behaviour and values though they are by no means restricted to any one gender or sex. But, as I discovered in my research, and I stand to be corrected, there was always a delicate balance between the two principles that were usually irrevocably slanted towards the patriarchal principle in response to some cataclysmic occurrence or series of events such as war, famine and ecological conditions – sometimes all of the above.
How did we even arrive at viewing sex and relationships using monogamy – and closed, exclusive monogamy to be precise – as the moral benchmark? Research has shown that human beings are by no means naturally monogamous, increasingly evidence is showing and confirming that the ideas we have about romance and exclusive emotional attachments are myths, yet that monogamous pairing seems to be an article of faith. A few things should be noted about the monogamous model; in fact they may very well be THE points of departure before one embarks on any discussion on sex and what is morally acceptable. In the Americas our moral ideas prohibiting third-party sexual interaction – along with premarital sex – stems from two main streams that were very strong in the patriarchal mindset of ancient Eurasia and Arabia and had nothing to do with any god. One is that it presented a serious threat to male claims to property rights in ancient cultures where the concept of fatherhood was being developed and linked with paternal inheritance. The other and probably the oldest stream was a belief very strong in many patriarchal cultures that sex was something extremely dangerous, corrupting and was a power held by women. Therefore, it had to be contained along with the women who possessed that “contaminating” power. The chief means by which this was accomplished was by creating and imposing notions of guilt and sin; women were particularly targeted and made to feel ashamed for their bodies, particularly their genitals, and their very sexual selves. In fact, I remember as a child growing up in the 70s and 80s my mother and other women referring to their genitals and breasts as their “shame.”
The interesting thing is that at first monogamy was not the approved social/sexual model; this nonsensical idea that open relationships, swinging, polyamory, friend-with-benefits/sexual friendships, etc, is eroding the “traditional marriage” assumes that monogamy WAS traditional. Most of these other arrangements were “traditional” and existed for thousands of years prior to the imposition of monogamy. In patriarchy, there was a shift towards singular authoritarian models in all aspects of life and men were considered the aggressor in all aspects of life – keep in mind we are looking at the period following the end of the last Ice Age and in the Eurasian region roving, hunter-gatherer, militaristic lifestyle was how a clan functioned in order to survive. And so the more open, fluid arrangements that existed among matricentric cultures were contracted and applied only to men. Sexual fidelity was absolute for women but only relative for men and that thinking carried on through to the rise of the Greek, Roman and Islamic civilisations. It was Christian thinkers who carried it through to the level it is at now in the West and in countries that were colonised by the West, and to a different extent, Islam. Theologians like Tertullian and especially Augustine (who was quite a player in his younger days) advanced ideas that ALL sex was sinful because any interaction with women brought men into intimate contact with a being who was inherently sinful because of her very nature. However, since children were needed, the best way to restrict the “sin” was to confine it to one man with one woman (another expectation was that by encouraging marriage, thus going back on an earlier disapproval of marriage altogether, and by rigidly encouraging monogamy, it would KILL sexual desire, eliminate sex and thus bring about the return of the Christian saviour who had not come in the time frame they had originally anticipated). Part of the influencing ideas came from Greece as well as Levite Judaism; Augustine drew from these sources and developed the doctrine that informs the way we approach sexual relations with each other….to this day.
Ms Darkoa further said in one of the replies in the Comments section that often in spite of the love and attention a woman or man may be given they may still “cheat” and that “cheating is a sign that there is something fundamentally flawed within the relationship.” Now it’s not that Ms Darkoa was wrong in this assertion – there are very few absolutes or either/or perspectives in these topics – the facts show that many an affair started because one person felt neglected or for whatever reason was not happy in the relationship as they once felt. But again, here one sees an assumption posited by patricentrically-influenced ideas and theories that have profound influence in our respective societies. Namely, the notion that only one person (the proverbial “The One” or “Soulmate” as s/he is referred to in the West) can necessarily fulfil all one’s security, emotional, intellectual, sexual and spiritual needs. Thus, if either party becomes emotionally/intimately involved with a third party, then there is necessarily something wrong within the relationship. My research, conversations and even personal experiences have indicated that the main problem lies not so much in the relationship or the person (dey too damn sinful, dey weak, dey is cowards, no discipline!!) but, again, in the closed monogamous model itself and that fallacious belief that one can only be emotionally attached to or hold feelings of love for one partner and one partner alone.
In 1982 Dr Lynn Atwater published a book entitled “The Extramarital Connection” in which she interviewed hundreds of women who had had extramarital relationships. She informs us that many of those she interviewed did not have unhappy marriages or relationships or did not fall out of love with their spouses. A similar study showed the same thing among a high percentage of husbands and boyfriends. Among the common reasons given was that the third element possessed qualities or interests their spouses/SO did not have. If we use Angel’s response in The Other Woman, we see exactly what scholars like Atwater have been saying for years. I myself know of a woman who is married and had a relatively brief relationship with an old schoolmate. She did love her husband, still does, but many of the activities and pursuits that are closest to her he has no interests in while Kerry, her other friend, did. In Kerry she found someone who shared her passions and provided an emotional support that her husband did not and she loved both of them (whether or not the love was “equal” is frankly irrelevant). Needless to say she felt very guilty for a long time and she kept her relationship with Kerry a secret from her husband until they eventually parted.
My point is that I am not arguing for any home-wrecking, certainly not for the dismantling of monogamy – as if such a thing was even possible – in favour of polygamy which in many cases is no less patriarchal, or anything else. What I am saying is that we need to expand and redefine the rules we follow regarding sexual interaction given that the dynamics of travel, work and communication has moved way beyond what was the reality 2, 3, 4000 years ago. Atwater said “We have inherited a repressive set of legal, moral and religious codes that we still use to guide our attitudes, yet these codes were never designed to meet the problems of modern intimacy that confront us today.” I argue that they are not appropriate now, they were not appropriate then, and must now be expanded to create environments where informed, consenting adults can interact with each other intimately – however they choose to define it – without having to hide from their principal partners and especially without having to do so under clouds of guilt and sin because of what some people think the Almighty ordered written in some book.