What is fidelity, anyway?
Must we accept that sexual fidelity is the epitome of morality?
Posted August 31, 2010
What is fidelity? What is monogamy? Helen Fisher makes the point in several of her books, that we commonly misuse the term "monogamy" to mean a marriage to one person that involves a commitment of sexual fidelity to that person. But, Fisher argues, monogamy truly only describes the state of marriage to one person, and the commitment of sexual fidelity is not a necessary component.
Fidelity describes being truthful and loyal. Those "hi-fi" sets that Playboy Magazine taught us all about back in the ‘70's (I read the articles - didn't you?) were called high-fidelity because of the degree of accuracy in the recordings reproduction of the original sound or musical performance.
We say that someone has committed infidelity, when they have sex outside an agreement of sexual exclusivity. In other words, they are being untruthful to their word, to their original commitment.
In America, we take sexual infidelity extremely seriously. People who experience or discover sexual infidelity by their spouses describe an agonizing experience, of grief, loss and a frightening existential experience. I've heard people describe that discovering their partner had violated the couples' sexual boundaries led to the betrayed spouse feeling that "the entire world was now unstable." If this bedrock expectation could be violated, then perhaps everything else they believe to be true and predictable in the world, could also be false, and unstable.
Attitudes towards infidelity vary dramatically between different cultures. Even aside from cultures that are very accepting of sexuality, such as Polynesian cultures, even other Western cultures have views of infidelity that vary from American views. While France actually has less, not more, infidelity than America, they have different views of it, and snicker at American turmoil and angst over the drama of infidelity. "They don't think extramarital sex points to larger moral failings..." (Pamela Druckerman, Lust in Translation, p126).
Why has our society decided that sexual behaviors are the most morally important behaviors? An easy argument is that it derives from our "Puritan" heritage, though I think this is a very simplistic argument, that ignores the influence of many other cultures in our society. But, regardless of cause, it is clear that we have made this decision, holding sexual behaviors as higher on the ladder of morality, than even murder. In the movie Unfaithful, one of the things I found most disturbing and frightening (Spoiler Warning) was that the wife accepts her husband's murder of her lover, and ostensibly spends the rest of her life sleeping next to a killer. His slaying of another man was trumped by her sexual infidelity, and that man's sexual violation of their marriage. That was creepy to me, in the extreme.