Comes Naturally #60 (June 27, 1997):
Maintaining the Myths of Monogamy, Military and Otherwise

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Spectator Magazine - June 27, 1997
(c) David Steinberg

Maintaining the Myths of Monogamy, Military and Otherwise

Military Monogamy on the Line

It is, you might say, the classic case of an irresistible force meeting an immovable object: The basic urge to be sexual with someone other than your spouse -- adultery, to use the Biblical term, or extra-marital sex, speaking therapoclinically -- meets the intractable attitudes, the Judeo-Christian harrumph, and The Way It Spozed To Be legalistic pretensions of the U.S. military establishment.

It is also the classic case of how ridiculous things can get when the guys who hold the power and set the rules find it necessary first to deny the basic nature of sexual attraction and desire, and then to enforce a variety of ill-conceived, misdirected, and generally unrealistic sexual constraints in the name of some antisexual notion of what constitutes moral and proper behavior.

Step right up, folks, for the latest chance to see the great American huff-and-puff, omigosh-how-horrible, tee-hee-but-really-you-mustn't prejudice against sex make a convoluted mess out of something that ought to be, and otherwise certainly could be, dealt with in a straightforward, sensible, understanding, human, friendly and compassionate way.

Yes, I know, I'm being foolish to expect anything to be otherwise. Be realistic and reasonable about something having to do with sex, in the military no less? Not very likely. Sexual sanity and military intelligence are two of the most fundamental oxymorons going, so military sexual smarts are oxyoxy -- definitely out of the question.

The unsurprising but horrible truth is that there are a whole gaggle of mythologies about sexual desire that the boys with the brass buttons and all the pretty ribbons are going to consider more important than anything as ephemeral as acknowledging the sexual realities of the closing years of the Millennium. And so we have all been treated and doomed to watch an ongoing spectacle of baroque rhetorical contortions that would be hysterically funny if it weren't for the fact that millions of people are being made miserable as a result.

Monogamy Myth One

Myth One is that the natural order of the human sexual impulse is to be monogamous. According to this quaint but classically powerful notion, the human animal is basically programmed to invest its primordial sexual desire in one mate-for-life so completely that attraction for all other objects of desire and sexual experiences beyond what is available at home evaporates or shrivels to such minor proportion as to become functionally insignificant.

According to Myth One, if in the course of your increasingly lengthy lifespan you feel significant sexual desire for someone other than your mate -- significant enough that you really want to act on it -- you are being somehow unnatural, which is to say that there is something morally, ethically, or psychologically wrong with you. And just by the way, according to Myth One, there's probably also something fundamentally wrong with your mate, and something wrong with the sexual state of affairs (excuse the pun) between you and your mate. Otherwise, why would the urge even come up? So maybe it's you, maybe it's him or her, maybe it's something about the way you have sex together. The point is that the existence of any desire to experience sexual connection outside the primary partnership means that something, somewhere, is wrong.

Myth One has been around for a long, long time in this perverted and pervertizing little culture we call our own, but the truth is that Myth One is having a really hard time these days. Too many people having too many affairs in real life, in the movies, on television, in novels. Myth One, to use a sporting metaphor, is looking a little like a prize fighter in the fourteenth round of a bout that the referee just won't be kind enough to call so everyone can stop watching the poor bastard get knocked around the ring. Or, to stay on the sports page, like a pitcher who's obviously tired and needs some help from the bullpen.

Myth One may still be alive in the carefully manicured, germ-free subcultural bubble chamber of the Reborn Right, but out in what we could arrogantly call the real world, Myth One is pretty much dead and gone. Not unlike the God of Their Fathers, which may be another story, but probably is not. Does anyone who hasn't been religiously altered still believe that an individual's sexual desire just naturally begins and ends, for the full range of that person's life, with his or her mate -- no matter how deep the love, how definitive the commitment, how satisfying and imaginative the sex? I don't think so. Thanks for the centuries of yeoman effort, but we're getting hammered here, so it's time to turn the game over to a reliever. Go take yourself a good shower.

Monogamy Myth Two

Enter Myth Two, a left-hander this time, hoping to confound all those left-handed hitters in the lineup. Young and fresh, even if -- I guess we've got to admit -- it's something of a retreat from the broadest influence of Myth One.

Myth Two acknowledges that the natural order of things may not be monogamous, but insists that monogamy can nevertheless be socially imposed on the population at large as the Right and Proper way to be. Even though our basic sexual desires are not totally monogamous, according to Myth Two we will all (or almost all) agree to put the nonmonogamous aspects of our sexual desire into permanent cryosuspension -- to keep our sexual behavior monogamous -- in the name of general peace and quiet, domestic tranquillity, verifiable paternity, the undistractedly efficient conduct of both family and corporate business, the maintenance of some sort of overarching social order, complete with a reproducible 3% annual increase in the gross national product, low inflation, and declining unemployment.

According to Myth Two, people may experience sexual attraction to an occasional forbidden object of desire outside of primary partnerhood, but they will agree -- for all the benefits listed above plus the seductive bonus of not incurring the disapproval of friends, neighbors, parents, children, ministers, and talk-show audiences -- not to act on those attractions, and they will honor that fundamental enjoinment not to enjoy, year after year after year, because they will feel so darned good about themselves when they do that the sex they are renouncing will lose its appeal.

Myth Two says that although monogamy may not be hard-wired into the organism, it can be soft-wired into the social contract. Myth Two says that even though monogamy may not be primal, it is nevertheless still normal in the most generic sense of that term: the norm, the way most people behave, and consequently the standard against which we all agree to measure, define, and evaluate ourselves.

Unfortunately for those who place the importance of maintaining myths ahead of the importance of paying attention to mucky reality, Myth Two is looking just about as bloodied and tired these days as Myth One. Definitely not someone you want to dress up in a fancy tuxedo and take out for a fashionable night on the town. Studies say that 70% of men and 50% of women who have been in primary relationships long enough to have temptation roll up its sleeves have, in deed as well as in fantasy, strayed from the old bright-and-shiny, straight-and-narrow, monogamous road -- have actually indulged in some nasty old extra-marital, adulterous, sexual adventure at least once along the way. Not only do most people break out of the monogamy corral, but they most often do so in a secretive, guilt-ridden, trust- and relationship-destroying way because, thanks to Myth Two's undethroned status, the people who statistically are the norm believe themselves to be exceptions to the norm, and flawed exceptions at that. (A recent study found that most people who have been sexual outside their marriages still believe that extra-marital sex is "always wrong.")

Even though people still pay a good deal of homage to Myth Two, it's only a matter of time before the fact that that emperor has no clothes dribbles into the collective sexual awareness. Most people already know that life-long monogamy as a social form is just for show, so when someone goes shocked and horrified when they learn that Joe Blow or Mary Blown is having an affair, it's harder and harder for that kind of upset to carry much weight. Except, of course, in certain arenas where vestiges from the past continue to be taken as if seriously -- like when candidates are running for public office, or in that vast paleontological anachronism known as the Armed Forces of the United States of America.

Monogamy Myth Three

Myth Three -- the last-ditch retreat bunker of the Defenders of the Monogamous Faith (DMF) -- raises one last hope for those who would save Civilization As We Have Always Known It from the ravages of the heathen non-monogamous hordes. Myth Three says, somewhat breathlessly, that even though monogamy is, ok, neither natural nor socially enforceable, the people who choose, for whatever reason, to actually adhere to the monogamous code are somehow better human beings than the people who do not -- words like "faithful" come to mind -- and are therefore entitled to various social benefits and privileges. According to Myth Three, the monogamous faithful are better wives and husbands, better parents, better sons and daughters, better friends and neighbors, better teachers and ministers, better stock clerks and auto mechanics, better marketing directors and executive vice presidents, better mayors and senators, better presidents and prime ministers, and certainly better pilots of B- 52's and Chairpersons of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Thus Air Force Chief of Staff Ronald Fogelman can testify before Congress with a straight face that Lt. Kelly Flinn could not be trusted to fly a bomber carrying nuclear weapons because she was of inferior moral caliber compared to her fellow Air Force pilots. But it's a sign of how weak Myth Three is that Fogelman had to reach beyond the nonmonogamy issue to assail Flinn's character. All breakers of the monogamy rule are not threatened with prosecution under the Military Code of Justice and run out of the armed services, so how do we explain the spotlight on The Woman Who Runs with B-52's? Flinn's larger-thanaverage moral flaw was that not only had she fucked a married man, but she also then lied to investigators when they asked her about the matter. Not only that, but she disobeyed a direct order to end the relationship. The question of why Flinn was ordered to break off her relationship while good old boys in similar relationships were left alone was, of course, left hanging in the air.

No. Everyone knows that Kelly Flinn was forced out of the Air Force (and would have been prosecuted but for the effective intervention of NOW and other women's groups) for being a woman who broke the monogamy taboo. And now, in some perverted gesture of equal injustice for all, Air Force General Joseph Ralston is not going to become Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff because once upon a time he too broke the monogamy taboo -- even though he was separated from his wife at the time.

Piling irony on irony, because Kelly Flinn was drummed out of the Air Force for her monogamy-infringing behavior, and because Joseph Ralston had to be held accountable to the same flawed standard, we now get to watch Defense Secretary William Cohen rail against what he calls a "frenzy" about sexual misconduct and take his own ax directly to Myth Three itself. There is nothing wrong with having an "adulterous affair," says Cohen, upset to have lost the man most qualified to head the Joint Chiefs, unless the relationship disrupts military order and discipline or brings discredit to the armed forces. As another Defense Department spokesperson put it, sometimes extra-marital sex is "perfectly human and understandable, and not particularly troubling." Even in the military.

Of course saving the scrotum of the big brass while flushing the little guys and gals down the toilet for equivalent behavior is abominable, and condoning sexual behavior for men while that same behavior is deemed offensive in women is so retrograde sexist as to make you want to spit. But even while all this is going on, it is still truly satisfying to see Myth Three take a few good shots to the head, and from the pinnacle of the military pyramid no less. Cohen has even appointed the Pentagon's chief legal advisor, Judith Miller, to head a panel to "review the adequacy and clarity of existing guidelines on the offense of adultery" in military law."

The task of the Miller panel, on paper at least, will be to come up with guidelines that can be universally and equitably enforced throughout the military, guidelines defining the difference between proper and improper military sexual behavior.

What are they going to say about monogamy? If they say that extramarital sex means you're out of the military, they're going to have to subject a whole lot of married soldiers -- most in fact -- to the specter of dishonorable discharge. 85% of the military is male, and some 70% of them are going to fuck some non-wife sooner or later. Add to that 50% of the military personnel who are female. So all together some 70% of married military personnel would be engaging in behavior unbecoming to the exalted uniform.

Of course most of them are not going to tell their spouses what they're doing, let alone their commanding officers, so it comes down, once again, to substituting one hypocritical system of sanctified sexual behavior for another -- don't ask/don't tell applied to extra-marital sex as well as to same-gender sex. Call it the American way, or the military way. The main casualty, once again, is the simple ability to be honest with ourselves and with the people around us about who we are and what we do when it comes to sex.

War, as they say, is hell.

[This column was originally published in Spectator Magazine (see If you would like to receive Comes Naturally columns, and other writing by David Steinberg, regularly via email, send your name and email address to David at Columns are sent as blind carbon copies, meaning that no one will have access to your name or email address.]

David Steinberg
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