I was visiting Malaysia around the time when the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal was in the news. I remember a colleague declaring with total confidence, “The day Clinton steps down as President, Hillary will walk out on him.”
Well, now we do know. Hillary did not abandon her husband. By all indications, the Clintons remain a close knit and happy family. With hindsight, there is little doubt that Hillary’s reaction to her husband’s ‘indiscretion’ was mature and wise. Some may argue that my friend went wrong in his prediction only because this was not a typical reaction by a wife towards her husband’s sexual diversion.
Why does extramarital (or premarital) sex often lead to jealousy and unpleasant reprisals?
From a male point of view, there is the risk that he may get conned into contributing to the care of some other male’s offspring. As for the female, the risk is that the male may abandon her for another female – and thus escape his contribution to rearing the offspring.
Related reading: The bait
The above factors explain why sexual jealousy evolved as a basic instinct among many animals in nature, particularly among species where the male contributes significantly to childcare. Males evolved sexual possessiveness, while females evolved to instinctively prefer mates who are judged to be sexually ‘faithful’ (and willing to contribute to childcare).
In case of human beings, this is the genesis of patriarchy, and the general contempt towards women who are perceived to be sexually promiscuous. Women evolved to instinctively withhold sexual contacts, except when there is a perceived commitment to lifelong support.
The point is that sexual jealousy is essentially an animal instinct. It is true that there are some animals – like the happy bonobo – that are naturally promiscuous. But it cannot be doubted that our own instinctive attitude on this had its beginnings while we were still animals. Our sexual taboos are not in any way uniquely human!
Related reading: What to do when you fall for a married man
No longer animals
With this knowledge, we can better nuance our own attitude towards changing sexual values. Unlike animals, human beings have acquired the know-how to delink sex from pregnancy.
That is to say, we now know how to make love without making babies – except when this is intended. This mitigates the main rationale for sexual jealousy – both for the man and the woman.
Of course, there will remain the underlying expectation that those who occasionally indulge in extramarital sex do so with discretion and responsibility. This is not too unrealistic an expectation, considering that most such affairs are not intended to produce babies or scandals, anyway. Women will certainly expect that their husbands do not divert resources away from family care. Both these are reasonable expectations.
Related reading: I love my husband, but sometimes I love the other man a tad more
How about the moral angle?
Beyond expectations as above, can there be any moral objection to extramarital sex? If matrimony is not purely for sex, then why sustain this objection to sex outside of marriage? Why should extramarital sex necessarily be seen as a threat to a committed relationship within marriage? Especially as marriages are based on bonding and mutual affinity, both of which can go beyond sex.
Without the social taboo against extramarital relations, many otherwise good marriages may not have broken down. Is it justified for one party in a marriage to threaten the home and nursery of the young, just because the other party was found to have had pre- or extramarital sex? I would think that this by itself is rather weak grounds to wreck a marriage.
We would do well to reconsider our animal instinct for sexual jealousy. Human beings, who know better, ought to rise above such petty instincts. We can, with advantage, afford to be more tolerant and indulgent in our attitudes towards our partners who are otherwise caring and considerate towards the family…
Is there danger ahead?
Will the institution of marriage weaken as a result of these (perhaps unavoidable) changes in sexual taboos?
I don’t think we need to either glorify or denigrate the institution of ‘committed’ relationship (a.k.a. marriage) between a man and a woman. So long as individuals are free to choose the type of relationships that they need to get into (or not get into), all is well. Some of us can choose to marry, and others to remain single. There ought to be no social pressure on individuals, either way…