Love, Inc

The intersections of emotion and capitalism.

The Conjugal Bed

Cheating is okay, but not in the conjugal bed!

Despite all the flowery rhetoric about love and romance, marriage is a property arrangement. The truth is: The second we say "I Do" we belong to the other person. Not just our stuff, but our bodies. We are supposed to confine our sexual desires to the conjugal bed. Marriage and monogamy go together like love and marriage.  

Or do they? After all, having sex outside of marriage is so widespread that there are dating sites, such as Ashley Madison, that allow married people to meet one another for discreet affairs. This "cheater dating service" tells us that "life is short, have an affair" and their ads juxtapose images of bored and asexual married couples with hot and steamy scenes of extramarital affairs.

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But even among those who cheat, there are rules. And rule number one is to keep the affair outside the home. According to a recent poll commissioned by the NY Times, 

"more than half of approximately 500 respondents said their marriages would 'definitely not' survive if their partner made love to another person in the marriage bed. By contrast, less than a third of approximately 700 respondents to another question said that their marriages would 'definitely not' survive an affair outside the home."

In other words, cheating is a bearable if less than desirable marital practice, but not when it enters the sacred space of the family home--and especially the marriage bed.  

Why would this be? Besides the obvious issues of betrayal, why would we transfer what used to be ownership of the body to ownership of the body within the home? The answer lies not in "human nature," but rather the nature of property.

In earlier times, it was the woman's body that was property. The sexual practices of men were not regulated until the late 1800s, when anti-prostitution and anti-sodomy laws were put into place in US and elsewhere. In the 20th century, as companionate marriages came into vogue. Women gained more social, political, and economic power and sexual property in marriage became more equal. Men were meant to confine their sexual desires to the conjugal bed almost as much as women were.

But in the 21st century, with marriage increasingly a practice limited to those Americans with property, sexual ownership is less important than the ownership of the "home" and other forms of "property in common." As a recent survey by the Pew Research Center showed,

"A new 'marriage gap' in the United States is increasingly aligned with a growing income gap. Marriage, while declining among all groups, remains the norm for adults with a college education and good income but is now markedly less prevalent among those on the lower rungs of the socio-economic ladder."

So it is that modern American marriage is increasingly about property accumulation. But divorce is always about the loss of property. Therefore, most married people would prefer to avoid it. And yet there is that property, that fetish item if you will, the conjugal bed that remains so burdened with significance that its violation is a sort of sacred evil. Because the conjugal bed represents trust and faith and steadfastness, its violation in the form of cheaing in it is a form of symbolic violence that few marriages can withstand.

And so, as marriage itself changes to be less about sexual property and more about other forms of property, the material basis of it is transformed into bonds that are so deeply emotional, that their violation will result in acting against our material self interests.  

In modern matrimony, the material world gets married to emotion and emotion to the material world. And even adultery comes with rules and regulations which must be followed if we are to live happily ever after.

Laurie Essig, Ph.D., is a professor of sociology and women and gender studies at Middlebury College.

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