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Let faithful wives Say what they like, I don't sleep with my husband Even when I do.
This may sound like the diary musing of a sassy modern-day New Yorker who dabbles in poetry to compensate for a prosthetic marriage. But it is, in fact, a verse from the Gathasaptasati, an anthology of Prakrit poetry which dates back to the second century, some might say even earlier. Clearly, marriage, sex, and the 'it's complicated' tag have been bedfellows from time immemorial. Whether it's ancient Prakrit poetry or a modern-day relationship blog, the idea of the 'other' woman/man and the illicit lover have been consistent and ongoing themes. As poet and writer Eunice De Souza puts it, with her characteristic insouciance: "I think marriage is overrated. It's hard for two people to feel interested in each other for a lifetime though I know a number of people who have succeeded in just that impossible business. Personally, I would find it a strain. Among other things, the thought of cooking all those endless meals is a nightmare. " De Souza, who has recently edited These My Words: The Penguin Book of Indian Poetry, quotes a poem called Husbands by the Marathi writer Shobha Bhagwat. This woman has a job so her husband is unhappy This one sits at home so her husband is upset This one is very thin so her husband is angry This one is very plump so her husband snaps at her. . .
Sexual fidelity is hardly even the point, then, when spouses routinely inflict casual cruelty on each other. Yet every hyper-public case of infidelity - Bill Clinton, Tiger Woods or most recently the CIA's David Petraeus (incidentally, all located in an increasingly neo-con US) - is greeted with endless post-mortems of why people cheat and whether monogamy is dead. Soon after the Clinton affair, American psychologist Christopher Ryan, in a book co-written with his wife, suggested that the idea that monogamy comes naturally to men and women needs to be re-evaluated. Should it even be something we require of our spouses, they asked in their book Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality.
If monogamy within marriage was always such an impossible ideal, then why such an outcry now? What has led to this issue becoming such a point of debate instead of it being a routine part of the marriage experience - much like children, sickness and death.
The big difference today is that a subject both intimately personal and complex seems to have nudged its way into a public domain filled with hyperbole, over-analysis and idiotic attempts at pulling out solutions from a hat. What should remain between two - or three - people who are being affected, has become the moral battleground for public outcry much like medieval floggings.
The personal space seems to have become a mode for public entertainment. Suddenly, Petraeus's pillow talk is viewed as a threat to national security as if everyone were watching an epic spy thriller.
As the Oxford historian Faramerz Dabhoiwala, author of the highly acclaimed recent book The Origins of Sex says, "This case (Petraeus) is not about the end of monogamy, but about our inability to agree on the boundaries between the private and the public. That is a modern problem. For most of western history, sex outside marriage was a public crime. It's only since the first sexual revolution, in the 18th century, that sexual freedom and privacy have become central to western culture. The politicians of the 18th century were the first to argue seriously that their adulteries were nobody else's business. As the 4th Earl of Sandwich declared, 'People should forgive my weaknesses, when they do not interfere with my conduct as a public man'. "
The 18th century also saw the birth of the modern mass media, with their endless interest in people's personal lives. Ever since, we've been living with the consequences of that tension, and arguing about the limits of sexual privacy: the Petraeus affair is only the latest example.
A person who confesses to having had a long-term affair, as well as longstanding love for his spouse, says on condition of anonymity, "Marriage has always existed on a sliding scale that ranges across a spectrum of scenarios. It's the way human beings work. The more you look at the history of sex and marriage there's always been a variety of these relationships. "
Curiously, in India, where marriage is viewed as a sacred pact with life, attitudes are more open. Varkha Chulani, a clinical psychologist and counsellor, says, "From a professional point of view, monogamy isn't dead, it was never alive. It's a mindset that has been forced on us. We're morally conditioned to believe that we are monogamous by nature. Today, the world revolves around instant gratification, so attitudes have also accordingly changed. " The Mumbai-based Chulani says fidelity isn't a virtue anymore. "There's a new value system in place. It's called use and throw. Couples rationalise their indiscretions by saying that they did what they did because they were dissatisfied. "
It still hasn't taken away the hurt though. Chulani adds, "We're not programmed to be disloyal or to cheat. It still hurts. In fact, couples are less tolerant and less patient than our parents' generation was. "
Theatre personality Lillete Dubey says that a change in the attitude towards sex as well as the growing emancipation of women has led to this re-examination of marriage and the expectation of exclusivity that comes with it. Says Dubey, "I have always believed that human beings are not meant to be monogamous. Society has imposed it on us. Of course, we could teach ourselves to be monogamous. " But we don't have to, she points out. "If sex is perceived differently - it's not a sin anymore - then infidelity, which is a byproduct, will also be seen in a different light. So what would earlier be grounds for divorce is today no big deal. " The blind and moralistic focus on monogamy in marriage often distracts from the many other factors that continue to disrupt and dent the seven vows.
-With inputs from Ruhi Batra
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