American Polyintimacy in the 90s and the Internet

by Green Onions


Few marriages are perfect. Long-wed couples who have frequent regular sensuous sex, or who have a warm, loving relationship should consider themselves relatively fortunate. If your marriage has both, you are one of a what may be a very small fraction of the public that has achieved this level of satisfaction. (Perhaps this is why H.L. Menken declared that "Marriage is an institution, and God knows I don't want to spend the rest of my life in an institution.")

Is this lack of satisfaction with marriage explainable by the metaphor that "men are from Mars and women are from Venus"? Or is it due to the fact that we are deluged with images of virtually unachievable beauty, normally those available only to the youngest adults, particularly in the case of females? Perhaps it is the familiarity, the day-in/day-out regularity of a marriage in conjunction with the pressures of child rearing and growing uncertainties in the workplace which wears down either the sensual passion and/or the emotional warmth of love. Alternatively, it may be that humans--like other primates--are simply not `naturally' monogamous. (Some defend the latter contention by pointing to the plethora of legal and social restrictions that seem necessary to enforce marital fidelity.)

Whatever the explanation a large proportion of married people of both genders grow to desire the affection and consortion of outsiders of the opposite gender after a certain number of years of marriage. Often this is a consequence of the fact that all their needs are not met by their relationship with their spouse. And there are a substantial number of individuals who might not be satisfied in any monogamous arrangement. Whether it is nature or necessity that engenders this desire for extramarital contact, few would deny its prevalence.

American middle class mores erect a series of significant barriers against _all_ forms of intimacy between a married person and any other adult human of the opposite gender who is not the spouse. You can see evidence of this in work sites, at private dinners and parties, or in public places such as bars, social clubs, sporting events, musical performances, etc. Adult men and women who are unrelated and not married to one another tend not to form close associations and are rarely permitted to do so, since they are allowed neither the required physical privacy nor the temporal exposure.

Fear and embarrassment constitute yet another series of hurdles. It takes a great deal of _chutzpah_ to initiate a discussion about intimate topics with a person of the opposite gender and in many instances the request will not be construed as a sincere invitation for candid dialogue. Where conversation about such matters do occur between two individuals, normally both are of the same gender.

One remarkable feature of the internet is that people of many different points of view, as well as diverse ethnic, cultural, and national identities may communicate within the same forums. Typically such differing communities are separated from one another in `physical' society by a series of divisions such as geography, social class, etc. However the tendency of (e.g.) young adults and senior citizens to gather in different social environments is arguably a choice that members of both groups make freely. I doubt that same degree of volition applies to the separation between the sexes.

The internet allows people to swim against the overweening tide of socially enforced gender segregation because it has a high degree of privacy compared to physical interaction. Your electronic mail (email) is your own; your spouse, your friends, and your neighbors cannot read it or even `look out their windows' to assess how much you are getting, from whom or how often you receive it. Typically only one person in a marriage will be internet-savvy, but if both are, there will be frequently be a tacit understanding that sharing email is not conducive to the maintenance of third parties' privacy.

Of course there is always the possibility that some `hacker' will break into your internet provider's system. If so, your private communications and those of thousands (if not millions) of other patrons of the provider will be available to the hacker. However it is most unlikely that you will be singled out if the hacker has no special motivation for selecting you. The same analysis applies to the fact that a few renegade system administrators may access users' email in violation of state and federal privacy statutes.

So in practice the internet is the only medium in American society that allows men and women who are married (but not to one another) to converse about whatever matters to them. That doesn't mean that they will discuss sex and relationships exclusively. However these issues are not _automatically excluded_ from the list of conversation topics merely because some uninvited eavesdropper may be lending an unwanted ear or because one or both parties are reluctant to bring up such subjects in a face-to-face dialogue.

Finally most email addresses do not reveal or allow others to discover the true identity of the person who holds the `handle.' While many firms and educational institutions still adhere to the practice of embedding or abbreviating a user's name within the identifier, most middle class people in America can afford to patronize a private ISP (internet service provider) which allows users to identify themselves in any manner in which they choose.

Hence email permits you to communicate in a fashion which not only shields your privacy from the idle or malicious curiosity of third parties, it also allows you to converse with another person in an effectively anonymous fashion.

Next: Getting Information and Initiating Interaction

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