When I saw that sex columnist Dan Savage is going to be one of keynote speakers at an upcoming conference on sexual diversity, it reminded me that I have been wanting to write about Mark Oppenheimer’s summer New York Times magazine cover story in which Savage was prominently featured. His argument? Infidelity can save your marriage.
Monogamy works for many couples, Savage acknowledges, but not for everyone.
“I acknowledge the advantages of monogamy,” Savage told me, “when it comes to sexual safety, infections, emotional safety, paternity assurances. But people in monogamous relationships have to be willing to meet me a quarter of the way and acknowledge the drawbacks of monogamy around boredom, despair, lack of variety, sexual death and being taken for granted.”
Savage grew up Catholic and is known not only for his syndicated column, Savage Love, but for It Gets Better, an influential collection of videos featuring gay adults who offer reassuring messages to gay teens.
Savage’s concern and enthusiasm for stable families is commendable, but his view that monogamy will make lifelong marriage impossible for a good many couples is troubling, to say the least.
“[L]overs,” he says, must be “good, giving and game (put another way, skilled, generous and up for anything. And if they cannot fulfill all of each other’s desires, then it may be advisable to decide to go outside the bounds of marriage if that is what it takes to make the marriage work.”
Savage seems easy to dismiss, except he’s not. Many who commented on the NYT article congratulated him for speaking the truth about lifeless monogamous marriages and harmless affairs. New studies suggest 28% of men and 15% of women have affairs, and that number doesn’t include virtual or emotional infidelity.
It is important for Catholics to articulate just why we disagree with Savage, that is, why adultery is not good for your marriage. It’s because we think sex is a practice that aims at total self-giving, a ritual remembering of lifelong vows, an act of mutual vulnerability and radical intimacy. We uphold fidelity because it is the virtue that allows for two people to enter into this emotionally risky act time and time again, affirming their love for each other in spite of imperfection, growing stronger together instead of leaving when things get boring or difficult.
We might agree with Savage that lovers ought to “good, giving, and game,” but only if game means up for the challenge of making sex and marriage work. That, as Richard Gaillardetz puts it, is the daring promise we make when we get married. We should embrace it instead of excusing ourselves from its essential demands.