The people who love only once in their lives are really the shallow people. What they call their loyalty, and their fidelity, I call either the lethargy of custom or their lack of imagination. Faithfulness is to the emotional life what consistency is to the life of the intellect—simply a confession of failure.—Lord Henry Wotton in Oscar Wilde’s The Portrait of Dorian Gray
Reading Dorian Gray in high school, I was charmed by the mischievous iconoclasm of Lord Henry’s subversive aphorisms. They seemed to contain all the secrets of life—even if it required a stretch of imagination to grasp their oxymoronic content: “Punctuality is the thief of time”; “To be popular one must be a mediocrity”; “To cure the soul by means of the senses, and the senses by means of the soul!”
The epigram that superseded all the rest in sheer seductiveness, however, was the mysterious quip, “faithfulness is to the emotional life what consistency is to the life of the intellect—simply a confession of failure.” Failure of what? How could the twin virtues of faithfulness and consistency be regarded not as social norms we should strive to celebrate, but as confessions of failure?
I found myself pondering its enigmatic meaning again recently after reading an April 2019 paper on “queering relationships.” According to the study, “almost all existing research as to the relationships of LGBTQIA+ people is focused on LGB+ people, and in a way that reinforces the normativity of monogamy.” After conducting “interviews and surveys [which] consisted of questions regarding sexual orientation, understanding of non-monogamous relationships, and attitudes/experiences surrounding monogamy and non-monogamy,” the study found “that LGB+ sexuality, rather than non-cis gender identity, was more closely related to participation in non-monogamous or polyamorous relationship dynamics and that LGBTQIA+ people are unlikely to perceive the stigma surrounding polyamory as being the same severity as the stigma surrounding the LGBTQIA+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer/questioning, intersex, asexual, etc.) population.”
In the “Theory” section of the paper, the authors cite work by Susan Song that “argues that, because ‘queerness’ exists in opposition to hetero and cis-normativity, it should inherently come with some challenge to mono-normativity.” Song’s paper on “Polyamory and Queer Anarchism” states that “queer theory allows for a multiplicity of sexual practices that challenge heteronormativity, such as non-monogamy, BDSM relationships, and sex work.”
The April 2019 paper poses the hypothesis “that due to their sexuality and/or gender identity rendering them as ‘other,’ LGBTQIA+ people will be more likely to embrace (or at least accept) non-monogamous relationship dynamics as opposed to people who are both cisgender and heterosexual.” The study “concluded that people who self-identify as LGBTQIA+ are both more knowledgeable about and more likely to participate in non-monogamous and polyamorous relationship dynamics,” which “can partially be attributed to their predisposition to identify with or engage in relationships outside of the socially acceptable norm.”
Meanwhile, I was recently watching several lectures on queer theory which helped me appreciate the central idea of normativity in a critique of society. In this one (at 25:00), for example, Professor Bee Scherer claims that the persecution of homosexuality, or “male intra-gender sexuality,” throughout history “has less to do with what two willing people do with each other when nobody else looks” and “has more to do with the idea of what somebody who [isn’t homosexual] is supposed to perform in terms of gender identity.”
Scherer continues: “somebody who has a penis playing a submissive role, being dominated sexually, is culturally constructed” because “this person, him, [is] disavowing the privilege of masculinity and threatening the privileged masculinity by doing so.” Thus, if you are “lucky enough” to be born as “a real human,” but happen to be a man who likes anal penetration, you are perceived as a threat to anyone who has a penis because you are “disavowing [the] privilege of power” supposedly conferred by masculinity and heteronormativity, implying “the horrible possibility that people who have penises can also be dominated and be the submissive people.”
This view conflicts with my own understanding from gay friends that many gay male “alphas” are “bottoms.” But putting aside the oddly entertaining view that men feel anxiety around men who enjoy anal penetration because they pose an implicit threat to their social position—as opposed to a sense of relief because there is less competition for straight women—queer theory also espouses the belief that conceptual binaries like male/female and heterosexual/homosexual are oppressive because social hierarchies are inherently built into them.
The word “male,” for example, is conventionally associated with societal norms that position men at the center and women at the margins of society. When we use the word “male,” discourse has trained us to think of its “performance” in terms of aggression, dominance, competitiveness and stoicism, as the American Psychological Association declares in its 2019 Guidelines for Psychological Practice With Boys and Men. The centering of discourse about masculinity on these terms results in the “othering” of its opposite—i.e. femininity—and of anyone who exhibits characteristics deemed “feminine” in conventional discourse. If femininity is seen as submissive, while masculinity is seen as dominant and assertive, “effeminate” boys end up being pushed to the “margins” of society, eschewed because they fail to “perform” according to the expectations of “normal” masculine behavior.
Likewise, homosexual inclinations are treated in societal discourse as perverse relative to heteronormative relations: i.e. heterosexuality is regarded as “normal” in relation to “abnormal” homosexuality. In queer theory, heteronormative norms are not inherent features of our gender and sexual orientation. They are socially constructed, reified via discursive practice to reinforce the social relationships of oppression and marginalization. Men and women “perform” masculinity and femininity respectively, in ways that reify an expectation of masculinity as dominant and femininity as submissive. Heterosexual and homosexual men “perform” their sexual orientations in ways that reify heterosexuality as natural and homosexuality as perverse.
In short, heterosexual men reinforce the norms of heterosexuality and masculinity by talking and acting in ways that center the “performances” of inter-sex fornication and aggressive, dominant demeanors. These performances necessarily marginalize or otherwise “other” performances outside the center, in effect further centering the norms by forcing the marginalized to “perform” in ways that do not lead to further ostracization from the center. Thus, gays stay in the closet, women assume the bottom position in missionary sex, and so on. Presumably, this is why, as Song writes, “Queer theory also critiques homonormativity, in which non-heterosexual relationships are expected to resemble heteronormative ones, for instance in being gender-normative, monogamous, and rooted in possession of a partner.”
So why should non-monogamous relationships be restricted to LGBT people? Why should a stigma on “cheating” remain in the heteronormative community? Does not queer theory have something to offer non-LGBT people? The goal of queer theory is to disrupt social expectations in ways that liberate the oppressed, which, as Professor Bee Scherer explains in her lecture, includes ostensibly privileged people in the center. As Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay explain in their new book Cynical Theories:
Queer Theory presumes that oppression follows from categorization, which arises every time language constructs a sense of what is “normal” by producing and maintaining rigid categories of sex (male and female), gender (masculine and feminine), and sexuality (straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual, and so on) and “scripting” people into them. These seemingly straightforward concepts are seen as oppressive, if not violent, and so the main objective of queer Theory is to examine, question, and subvert them, in order to break them down.
“Queer,” according to Pluckrose and Lindsay, “refers to anything that falls outside binaries (such as male/female, masculine/feminine, and heterosexual/homosexual) and to a way of challenging the links between sex, gender, and sexuality.” For example, queer theory “questions expectations that women will be feminine and sexually attracted to men, and it also disputes that one must fall into a category of male or female, masculine or feminine, or any particular sexuality, or that any of these categories should be considered stable.” In this way, they continue, “queer Theory is a political project, and its aim is to disrupt any expectations that people should fit into a binary position with regard to sex or gender, and to undermine any assumptions that sex or gender are related to or dictate sexuality. Instead, they should defy simple categorization.”
The core project of queer theory, then, is “to challenge what is called normativity—that some things are more common or regular to the human condition, thus more normative from a social (thus moral) perspective, than others.” Normativity must be challenged “to unite the minority groups who fall outside of normative categories under a single banner: ‘queer.’” The goal is “to liberate people from the expectations that norms carry” by rejecting “the belief that to categorize gender and sexuality (or anything else) is to legitimize one discourse—the normative one—as knowledge and use it to constrain individuals.” To expect from someone a set of behaviors, attitudes, connotations and other “performances” in social interactions based on their gender or sexual orientation is to oppress and marginalize anyone who does not assimilate to “normal” modes of behavior.
All of which brings me back to Lord Henry’s quip that faithfulness is a confession of failure. Did he mean that faithfulness is a confession of failure to break free of expectations that romantic relations remain monogamous? Is not a key expectation we have about romantic attachment that partners are faithful to one another (unless, of course, the partners agree to an open relationship)? Why do we have this expectation? Is there solid ethical grounding for this, or is it simply a “normed” expectation constructed from what people view as ethical in romantic relationships?
One principle seemingly at stake is honesty. People commit to one another in a relationship presumably in the interests of consistency, reliability, intimacy and compatibility. If one partner “cheats,” he or she violates the honesty and integrity of the relationship. But what if faithfulness is instead a failure to liberate oneself from the oppressive norm of fidelity in romantic relationships? It seems safe to presume that anyone in a relationship has at some time allowed his or her imagination to stray. If so, does not that imagination indicate a latent potential—nay, hunger—for infidelity, which we suppress in deference to societal expectations constructed on a hierarchical opposition between fidelity (good) and infidelity (bad)?
In short, is fidelity an oppressive social construct in need of queering?
A few years ago, I wrote an article after it was discovered that NBA player D’Angelo Russell had secretly recorded a video in which teammate Nick Young admitted to cheating on his fiancée. In the article, I write about not always feeling cool with “bro code,” one tenet of which is that you don’t inform on other “bros” when they cheat on their wives and girlfriends. Who knew that “bro code” locks arms with queer theory?
Given the Puritan origins of American society, the legacy of Victorian culture in Britain and conservative norms in other status quo societies, fidelity in relationships is a deeply ingrained expectation—a norm—whose violation is met with scorn, derision and shaming. Queer theory offers a more emancipatory perspective. Cheaters of the world can unite in liberation. Monogamy is a form of oppression that normalizes faithfulness, shaming any desire for an open relationship, empowering monogamists and marginalizing polygamists, which may explain why sex addicts feel compelled to cheat. Cheating reflects only an urge to break with the norms of monogamy into which we have been socialized. Cheating is emancipation, the “queering” of mono-normativity.
In an episode of the classic sitcom Cheers, Sam Malone is chastened during a sex addiction group therapy session because he cannot help reverting to old habits in the course of the session. Why the sense of shame? Why could he not feel free to express his promiscuity out in the open? Of course, we can acknowledge that monogamy often comes with benefits—a reduced risk of contracting STDs, trust, reliability, commitment to shared responsibilities—that might explain why society and people have an interest in the preservation of romantic fidelity as a sacred value. But what if there lurks within all of us an imagination that covets the neighbor’s spouse? Variety is the spice of life.
Fidelity, or mono-normativity, should be queered.