By Dalma Heyn
These books are available in paperback, hardcover and e-book versions.
Buy the eBook for $9.99
Sex and Silence
I am writing a story; it is not yet fully developed, but I show you the beginning so you can get the gist of the tale.
When Anne tells her mother she is going to marry Alex, her mother lowers her eyes and takes a long, even, slow breath, like a gospel singer preparing her body for a hymn of joy, and says on the exhale, “Thank God.” The privacy of this response surprises Anne, excludes her even, but she understands her mother’s rapture. She had said the same thing often herself, having openly despaired of finding such a man — easygoing and normal, cheerful mostly, with an offbeat sixties humor but a potential for success that made her think, yes, I can live with this man; yes, he will make a good husband.
Four years later — a year after their son is born — Anne, now thirty-six, goes back to work as a part-time assistant art director at an ad agency. After six months, she hires an au pair to care for her son five days a week so that she can work full time once again. She is tired a lot, but happy.
Her closest colleague, Kurt, is the production manager. He is also the father of a child born on the same day as her son; they compare cuteness and horror stories, and log in, first thing every morning, the number of hours’ sleep they get each night. The one with the highest total buys Friday lunch. For six months straight Anne is Kurt’s guest.
One day they decide that instead of exchanging boring sleep-deprivation tales yet again, instead of forcing salad and San Pellegrino down exhausted throats, they will do what they really need to do: rent a midtown hotel room and take a nap.
The next Friday they do exactly the same thing, only before the nap they have room service and after it they have sex. It feels as natural as ordering lunch. A surprising passion wells up in Anne for this gentle, playful man, feelings of sweetness and ease and contact she had mysteriously forgotten about.
They monitor their relationship carefully, wary that the sexual addition to it compromise their comfort with each other, or their closeness. It does not. On the contrary, they become even more intimate. Their weekly meetings continue for two years. Anne to this day is amazed at her own sexual feelings for Kurt, and at her overall sense of expansion in his presence. She loves this friendship that leaves her feeling so good. She does well in her new job, is still as grateful for her husband — more than ever, actually, since he is proving to be a superb father. She has developed into a contented woman with many surprising sides to her, a woman whose capacity for adventure will be, she hopes, lifelong.
This is not a trick ending, for my story has no ending at all. I do not know whether Anne will tell her husband about her affair — or, if she does, whether he will forgive her — or whether she will end her relationship with Kurt, or stay in both relationships. What I do know is that she will not hurl herself under a train. She will not be hanged, stoned to death, branded or banished, and she will not swallow arsenic. I do not think Alex will throw her out, or that Kurt will ultimately shun her because of the pleasure he once reveled in; or that her neighbors, scandalized, will ignore her. I hope she will not be fired by a company that cannot tolerate commingling among employees. I do not expect an angry jury, indignant over her treachery, to declare her a sociopath or a nymphomaniac or an unfit mother for her capacity to love her husband and simultaneously sleep with another man. I imagine Anne will continue to have a very nice life, enriched immeasurably by her love affair.
It is a new twist on an old theme, this non-ending. The theme of adultery is hard to avoid if you read at all or go to the theater or to movies or listen to music; it fills Western literature from the time of Homer and obsesses us still. Denis de Rougement, author of the ground-breaking work Love in the Western World, observed that “to judge by literature, adultery would seem to be one of the most remarkable of occupations ill both Europe and America.” But when it is the wife’s sexuality that is shared, it usually does her in: Think of Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary, Hester Prynne, Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Their specters hover over every tale of adultery we hear. Their stories, their very names, are synonymous with Sin. With Death. Guilt, isolation. Shame. Show me a married woman who has an affair — a passionate one, not a desultory indulgence that doesn’t particularly engage her — and lives to have any life worth mentioning afterward, and I will show you a tiny oasis in a desert filled with doomed heroines.
Adulterous wives are punished. Adulterous husbands, generally, are not. In our hearts we are not convinced that men who have extramarital sex are doing anything wrong — certainly anything deviant (“You want monogamy, marry a swan,” suggests a father to his daughter when she complains of her husband’s infidelity in Nora Ephron’s 1986 movie, Heartburn). On the contrary, we feel men are acting naturally, normally, in accordance with some romantic tale of courtly ardor in which the overcoming of obstacles in pursuit of a forbidden woman is truly noble. British sociologist Annette Lawson, author of Adultery: An Analysis of Love and Betrayal (1988), says that such men are actually embarking “on a quest for the good.”
But an adulterous woman, confined to a romantic tale in which the only quest for the good is the quest for a husband, cannot he tolerated. The tendency of jealous husbands to kill their wives — along with their children and their wives’ lovers — fill the pages of literature just as it fills pages of newspapers. Murder may be a dramatic breach of the marriage vows, but not so unthinkable that even the merest suspicion of extramarital sex can’t instantaneously provoke and even justify it. Shakespeare becomes obsessed with adultery’s monstrous hold on the imagination of even moments-ago trusting husbands, and the resulting devastation such husbands then bring upon even the purest of wives — all in the name of love.
The idea that adulterous women are tainted — an aberration, unnatural, not even human (“O thou thing!” cries Leontes to the innocent Hermione in The Winter’s Tale) — permeates our consciousness so completely that it is hard to find even an unmarried woman having an affair in literature who is not destroyed for her sexuality. Guinevere, Carmen, Mimi, Violetta, Hermione each of these radiant heroines was killed, banished, or isolated — or she committed suicide.
Sometimes they were punished indirectly: Jane Eyre gets her Rochester, but he is blinded; Sue Bridehead’s guilt (in Jude the Obscure) leads to her madness; Maggie Tulliver renounces Stephen in The Mill on the Floss before even sleeping with him, then — perhaps just for thinking about it — drowns in the arms of her brother. An affair may no longer cost today’s female characters their lives (as far as I can tell, Mary McCarthy’s Charmed Lives was the last tale of adultery in which a woman committed suicide) but it still can cost them their marriages, their stature in the community, and, too often, custody of their children or the finances to support them. Only a handful of novels fail to end with an adulterous heroine’s being either annihilated or ravaged by a passionate affair.
The punishment goes on, in literature as in life. The heroine of novelist Jane Smiley’s Ordinary Love (1989), Rachel Kinsella, admits her affair with her neighbor, and her husband responds first by slapping her to the floor and threatening to kill her if she does not move out of their house by the next morning, then by knocking her down again, and finally by kidnapping their five children and moving to England without leaving so much as a forwarding address. When her lover finds that she has confessed their affair, he refuses to see or speak to her ever again. In a stunning illustration of the correlation between sex and silence, both husband and lover annul Rachel, cancel her, reduce her to a nonentity. Both abandon her totally — her husband, for having extramarital sex; her lover, for speaking about it.
In all cultures that disapprove of infidelity, women are disapproved of more vehemently; among those that punish, women are punished more harshly. Anthropologist Suzanne Frayser of the University of Denver, author of Varieties of Sexual Experience (1985), studied sexuality in sixty-two cultures, past and present, and found that in none of them do men experience the double standard: Of those that permitted adultery, in other words, not one allowed it for women and not for men. In 26 percent of fifty-eight societies, the husband is allowed to have extramarital sex but not the wife. And of forty-eight societies for which she had data, twenty-six — more than half — gave the husband the option to kill his unfaithful wife. Intrigued by the fact that in these societies illicit sex — mainly extramarital sex — ranked only third in importance as grounds for divorce among men, Frayser says, “I realized that in many cases infidelity doesn’t get to the point of litigation because the wife has been killed.”
Some societies simply define adultery differently for each gender. In Jewish law, still on the books but varying from culture to culture, a married woman is guilty of adultery if she has sexual intercourse with any male other than her husband; a married man is guilty of adultery only if he has intercourse with another man’s wife. Since the law allows polygamy for men (but not for women), it was reasoned that his affair with an unmarried woman might lead to his marrying her. It is neither the “extramarital” nor the “sex” of which the adulterous man is guilty, for it is neither his marriage nor his wife’s honor he has legally violated. He has committed a property crime against another man.
Depending on the culture, an adulterous woman may be branded or speared in the leg or given over to any other men in the community who want to have sex with her. In the Senoufu and Bambara tribes of West Africa, such a woman is simply killed outright. Under Muslim law, too, a man may freely murder his wife if she is discovered having extramarital sex. In Modern Saudi Arabia she could be stoned to death. In parts of Mexico she might have had her nose and ears cut off — before being stoned to death.
The story that links female sexuality with punishment is so inflexible that it grips women’s fate whether they are inside or outside the sanctified structure of marriage. Anna, the heroine of Sue Miller’s The Good Mother, is not granted her sexuality after her divorce, although her former husband is ensconced in a new marriage — because she has a child. Even the court-ordered psychologist’s report, judging Anna to be a good mother because she has a good relationship with her daughter, is not sufficient to override the stigma of her sexuality and weigh the court in her favor. A sexual woman, in other words, taints her child and does not deserve to keep her. A sexual woman is not a good mother.
Copyright © 2005 – 2011 Dalma Heyn