May 21, 2013
Cristina Nehring on the New Erotic Fundamentalism
Posted on Aug 21, 2009
There’s a strange thing happening in America. A new fundamentalism is emerging in our midst. It is an erotic fundamentalism, and its champions, oddly enough, hail from the same ranks as those who yesterday decried the fundamentalism of the Taliban, the practices of Islamic extremists, the backwardness of Eastern burqa champions. The West is best, they told us—and there was some reason to believe them. In the West, you don’t get stoned for adultery, they said. You don’t segregate the sexes. You don’t hide women just so men will not be tempted. You don’t practice preventive mutilation to avoid erotic error.
This now seems forgotten. The United States is in the throes of a pious convulsion at odds with its image of itself. As Americans, our image of ourselves is that of a people of unprecedented liberty from taboo, of endless erotic opportunity, of a sexual freedom so wide it is lamented as loudly as it is lauded.
But a new—or is it an old?—reality intrudes. From the pages of Time magazine to the New York Examiner, on the blogosphere and on airwaves, pundits are telling us that men and women really shouldn’t speak to each other. “Most people underestimate the danger of close friendships with members of the opposite sex … , ” warns self-proclaimed “Infidelity Examiner” Ruth Houston: “Emotional affairs often start quite innocently, with regular e-mails, text messages, phone calls, or face-to-face conversations between two opposite sex friends. The frequency and intensity of their communication with each other gradually increases as time goes on. Their friendship deepens and strong emotional bonds are formed. … ” One would think this could be a good thing in our atomized modern world: communication and bonding. But no: Communication “can progress to emotional infidelity” to one’s partner, “which, in turn, can lead to a physical affair.”
The conclusion? Don’t befriend a member of the opposite sex! “If you or your spouse or significant other have a close friendship with someone of the opposite sex that you think might be bordering on emotional infidelity, get a free copy of the Emotional Infidelity Quiz” so you can yank the cord, before it is too late, on that dangerous identification with the enemy gender.
Lest one imagine that such wisdoms are limited to a fanatical fringe, let us consider the pronouncements in America’s most popular newsweekly, Time, on the recent extramarital love confession of South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford. For essayist Caitlin Flanagan, the governor’s tearful and self-flagellating press conference did not go anywhere near far enough, either in contrition or scope: “Sanford told reporters the affair had begun ‘very innocently’ [nine years ago],” she scoffs, “which reveals that he still hasn’t been honest with himself about the willfulness of his actions. When a married man begins a secret, solicitous correspondence with a beautiful and emotionally needy single woman, he has already begun to cheat on his wife.”
Never mind that Sanford’s Argentine correspondent was not as needy as all that. Still legally married to one man and already courted by a bevy of new ones, Maria Belen Shapur was also the mother of two driving-age sons, a sometime television reporter and apparently well-established. But Sanford sinned because he dared to communicate with a woman who may have gleaned some encouragement from his conversation. He sinned because he conversed with a woman who was pretty. (Had she been ugly would it have been all right?) I don’t know how much we can say about the secrecy—or openness—of this correspondence, which went on very peaceably for almost a decade before moving, around year eight, into romantic territory, but this, too, is a very dicey call to make. What is the meaning of “secret”? Any words not read to the family after dinner or dispatched from a conjugal e-mail account? The questions one could raise are endless—and they are vain.
The fact of the matter is this: Any communication can take on romantic colors. The only way to consistently rule out such romanticization would be to outlaw social contact between persons susceptible—by virtue of their membership in half of the human population—to mutual erotic attraction. This is like saying we should amputate our legs lest ever we sprain an ankle.
To be human is to be tempted in different ways at different times. It is to navigate emotional ambiguities and erotic undercurrents. With any luck at all, it is to experience emotional connections to many different persons over the course of a lifetime. It is to reach out to “emotionally needy” individuals (who among us can claim to have always been emotionally “un-needy”?); to reach out to them whether they are male or female, homely or comely. If we train ourselves otherwise, we will soon find ourselves in a heartless world indeed. We will sacrifice the possibility of humanity for a frigid and isolating guarantee of fidelity.
I cannot help thinking, when I read diatribes like the one in Time, that this is one of those moments when the heterosexual majority can learn a few things from the homosexual minority. Living in the Paris Marais as I have for the past few years, I am regularly privy to the social lives of the gay people in my building. Across the courtyard from me is a pair in their 30s, together now for 15 years, who entertain a revolving—as well as a steady—series of male friends. Every time there’s a new kid on the block who seems a little lost, they extend a welcoming hand—sometimes mutually, but also often separately. Being very different personalities (one works as a university professor, another as an immigration officer; one comes from Algeria, the other from Pennsylvania), they communicate most effectively with very different kinds of people.
Were my neighbors followers of American advice columns, there would almost certainly be terrific jealousy between them. Why are you having dinner alone with that attractive so-and-so, would be the refrain. Why are you e-mailing so vivaciously with your student? Who’s that guy you always visit up north?
Are there sporadic sexual frissons between my neighbors and the occasionally “emotionally needy” men to whom they extend their hospitality and support? No doubt. Would it, for that reason, be better they forbid each other such relations?
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