The Poison

By now, it is well known that there is a crisis of marriage, in rich nations, no citations necessary (if you haven't heard of it, chances are, you don't read, and you aren't reading this here blog post either). The crisis consists of the fact that "high value men," i.e. desirable men with stable breadwinner salaries, are putting off marriage. Some have theorized that this is due to the dating apps, which create a paralyzing glut of options for just these men. At the same time a feast-or-famine, winner-take-all dynamic, all-too-familiar in an age of advanced technology, leaves the vast majority of men fighting for scraps. Eighty percent of women go after the top 20% of men, while the bottom 80% of men get almost no attention at all. These less desirable men may well be willing to try marriage, but "high value women" are unwilling to settle for these men.

Older generations seems perplexed by this crisis in marriage, and the downstream crisis of collapsing fertility rates and population growth. It seems as if people in rich nations–the United States, countries of Western Europe, Australia, Japan, South Korea, and now even China–are suicidal on a societal level. They are happy to stop marrying, stop reproducing, and die off. The current right wing backlash that sweeps through rich nations has found a culprit for this disease: Feminism. Nobody in power is happy with what we whores (women) have decided to do with our newfound sexual liberation. As a woman raised in a secular "sexually liberated" culture, I have my own theory: Women have evolved massively in a very short period of time, whereas men have not evolved. To me, it's that simple.

Ideology is not about finding reality, or finding real solutions; rather, it is about designating a vulnerable group for blame, derision, cathartic violence, and punishment. There is a case to be made that it is even pointless to argue about ideology. But in case any of the worries and frustrations that people express about the collapse of marriage are actually in good faith, it is worthwhile to think through the actual causes of societal change, and to make plans for the future that are based on reality, and might thus have a snowball's chance in hell, at least, of producing the purported desired outcomes. If we aren't going to blame "feminism" for producing women who are unmarriageably bitchy, then, perhaps we should look at the patriarchy for producing infantile men, who are incapable of getting along with liberated adult partners. Perhaps it is a combination of both.

Men benefit from marriage and fatherhood. Statistically, married men are paid more, fathers paid even more than that. Married men live longer than their unmarried peers (probably because their dutiful wives nag them to see the doctor). Meanwhile, women suffer from marriage and motherhood. They suffer massive losses in pay, which still persistently lags men's pay, no matter what the incels on Reddit will tell you. Mothers and married women report higher levels of depression and dissatisfaction with life, than their unmarried peers. Fatphobia and discrimination against fat people strikes women most viciously, making it a huge risk for women to gain the weight that often comes with incubating babies. Globally speaking, feminism has barely taken off, contrary to popular opinion. Mostly, feminism in rich countries, the only places where it exists, is a thin, thin veneer, propped up by the exploitation of poor women.

The institution of "Monogamy," and its legal expression, marriage, is laced with misogyny. And as with the rest of the patriarchy, in its toxic form, is bad for everyone involved, not just women. Unlike "Patriarchy," though, which has developed a decidedly bad connotation of late, "Monogamy" is not considered a bad thing. In fact, in secular liberal culture, it may be the last bastion of morality. By morality, I mean morality based on principles, aimed at something like "Justice," or "Freedom," rather than aesthetic norms of "Utility" or "Pleasure." Norms are as resilient as wet tissue paper, as the Trump era has taught. Moral principles, on the other hand, are those things that we should hard code into the AI, so that it doesn't go off the rails and kill us.

Please do not misunderstand me. I personally believe that true monogamy is in fact an inherent good. It is good on principle. It is morally good. But like so many holy things, it has been coöpted in service of bad ends. Mostly these bad ends serve to control women, such that they continue to do much of the work of social reproduction, unpaid. But also, these bad ends serve the purpose of neutralizing charity as moral mandate, in all of us. You need only to dip your toe into wedding planning Pinterest to see that we have lost the plot on marriage. Marriage, which of course, is the legal framework of monogamy, has become a spectacle of disjoint vanities. Too many folks are married, nominally, and yet they are not really married. You don't need God if you are God in your own domain, right? I venture so much as to say that we are in a period of marriage apostasy.

By now we all sense that there are insidious and corrosive values at the core of modern secular life. As Ezra Klein once said, there will be some future time, in which we will come to see our values as profoundly sick. Case in point is the fretting over AI. Rather than tremble over the prospect of losing our jobs, we should be thrilled that a machine might be do the grunt work for us; thereby liberating us to spend our precious finite time on more worthwhile pursuits, like reading great works, or loving our family and friends. Being a deep thinker with strong intimate friendships should be more praiseworthy than doing something that a machine could do better, even if it pays spectacularly well. We should not be afraid of AI. Nor should we be so hell bent on monogamy as an asset.

We are so sure that humans will never conjure the solidarity needed to demand shared prosperity in AI riches, because we have lost all faith in change and in Being in general (which may turn out to be the only thing that we humans can do better than the machines). As Žižek famously said, we can sooner imagine the destruction of the entire planet than an end to capitalism as we know it. Insofar as patriarchy is the means of social reproduction of the status quo, which allows those in power to remain in power, patriarchy, and its surrogate, monogamy, operate to keep us in bondage. In practice, we do not dare believe that we can live anything other than transactional and accidental lives. If there is a version of the status quo worth saving, surely it is one in which we have the courage to laugh at the notion that machines could ever triumph, or that love can ever be made into a contract.

Marriage is transactional, even while it transcends transactional logic altogether. Marriage is pure only if you deny the transactional aspects of it. But of course, only some of us have the leeway to sell anything other the purity narrative. Male infidelity manages to be charming and funny, and the dutiful wife forgives her husband the occasional moment of weakness. Meanwhile there is something pathetic about both the cuckolded man, and his whore of a cheating wife. Men are free to feel enlivened by their internal struggle with lust. Lustful women are relegated to the ranks of the dirty and gluttonous. Most women go so far as to dissociate from their own sexual desire, in order to embody a bearable version of themselves. Like a bride starving herself into a smaller wedding gown (think of the pictures!), the dutiful wife denies unholy appetites in order not to stain the white.

Each of us is a story we tell ourselves, and we need to remain viable protagonists of our own story, in order to survive psychologically. In an a-religious world, in which concern for the poor, for example, is a matter of taste, a vacuum of possibility obtains. Career first, beauty second, and charity last. In the absence of any real spiritual tests, succeeding in monogamy becomes the only test of goodness that normal people encounter in life. If monogamy is the only spiritual trial that modern secular life requires of us, succeeding in monogamy is existential. It makes or breaks your spiritual worth. Your partner's errant appetites thus become an existential threat to who you are, your very ability to be worth anything at all. Clearly this is not a healthy state of affairs. And yet, the solution that gets bandied about is always "marriage counseling." As if somehow hyper-focusing on this last thread of connection to shared reality is going to produce better results.

The loss of the commons is a tragedy for all of us, and the final refuge that we have is a sort of personal truce between alienated subjects, an agreement to prop up each other's vanity. There is no room in a market-based framework of objective reality (rather than an onto-theological framework) for spiritual concepts. Spiritual concepts, of course, cannot be dispensed with, because science is downstream of religion, or at very least, downstream of philosophy, if you prefer the secular name for religion. The eternal soul, or the eternal union of such souls, or the unconditional love of an eternal soul... in scientistic or market language, these concepts are a form of psychosis. In market language, which creeps in to fill the moral void, they are simply foolish sources of friction, which impede productivity. But some limping rotting half-dead and mad hope for spirituality, however malformed and perverted, soldiers on, as it must.

While science is in paradoxical conflict with religion, at the same time, science is not even possible without religion. Scientific explanations are insufficient to explain the basic components of scienticity. In other words, secular language begs the question, I think, and owes much more to religion than it is willing to admit. In fact, I would say that "Scienticity" is a decent Latin-based translation of the word "Philosophy," which obviously has Greek etymology (of course, the aesthetic aspect of the pursuit is lacking a bit in the Latin etymology).

When modern secular language struggles with its own religious origins, therapy terms take over, and that applies to marriage conversations as much as anything else. I am not anti-therapy, but everything in relation to therapy is overly pathologized (Lisa Damour has published research on this, and it is not just my own demented pet theory). In the mainstream, "anxiety" is talked about as something that must be "treated" (with the explicit or implicit goal that it be eliminated). In my mind, the solution to a failing marriage is not to hyper-focus on the marriage in a medical setting. In fact, this seems almost doomed to fail. The solution is to lean into a union of eternal souls, which is precisely what secular language can never do. The solution is to find a way to reconnect with the ground of your own being. Through meditation, through psychedelics, through service, through charity. Surely there are methods of reviving oneself other than seeking God on ZocDoc.

"Find Jesus," is not really a joke in my mind. Nor does it need to be so strictly literal, or denominational. We are, after all, talking about realms that transcend the literal, and in many ways, are defined in simultaneous opposition to the literal. Unfortunately, belief in the "eternal soul," and by extension, belief in "unconditional love," can only be conceptualized in a secular framework as a type of mental illness. I can see the doctor's notes now: "Patient believes that he will never die. Patient believes that he exists in a place with no space or time. Patient believes that an all powerful being can hear his thoughts and feel his feelings. Patient believes he loves the eternal wellspring of divinity in another person."

A true marriage is about leaning into the confusion and danger of the paradox of being. It's about acknowledging the vastly incompatible symbolic planes, of which you are con-fused. I think it was Žižek who said that a friend is a person in whom you mutually recognize the abyss. You see the nothingness inside of them, and you do not feel the need to look away. You recognize the ever present threat of meaninglessness. You realize that it's possible we are fallen from no height whatsoever, and that each of us is nothing but a permanent filthy disgrace. You realize that the permanent possibility of disgrace is a precondition of salvation.

In other words, spirituality is a paradox. Being "spiritual" means recognizing the permanent volatility of spirituality itself. In a paradox, the thing is simultaneously absolutely necessary, and absolutely impossible. That is what makes it a paradox. This, to me, is what is so slippery and exhilarating about being an eternal soul. It never gets old, and yet it's the oldest thing in the world. You're simultaneously as clean as a newborn baby and the most depraved soul on earth. In the realm of science, human agency, often called free will, remains both utterly impossible, and the horizon of temporality itself, and thus the horizon of possibility itself.

In misogynistic applications of spirituality, which show up in monogamy policing, men are allowed to inhabit both sides of the paradox, while women are trapped in the "absolutely necessary" camp. To their credit, most women buck up, and fall in line, like the good warriors that they are. They starve, they soften their tone, they perform victim-hood with grace and dignity. They put on a really good show of having good, acceptable appetites; so good, in fact, that they wind up fooling themselves. Women become divorced from their own sexuality, and either revered as ethereal, but secretly deemed frigid, or they are reviled as whores, but secretly desired.

If marriage is to be anything other than a mutual celebration of vanity, it must be because it's a spiritual union. And if it's going to be understood as a spiritual union, it can only be thus understood as a union of eternal souls. And if your secular framework at very least excludes (if not mocks) the existence of souls...then maybe you see where I am going with this? Most people are not committed to any kind of spiritual hygiene. They are fine with believing a bunch of contradictory and poorly thought out stuff. But while they view religious people as dupes, they still cling ferociously to the sanctity of monogamy.

Kierkegaard famously wrote that anxiety just is what it feels like to be a being endowed by its creator with free agency. (Given the metaphysics of modernity, I agree with Kierkegaard). Any kind of marital conflict is pathologized the same way anxiety is pathologized. The digital Colosseum of social media is littered with jeers of, "Get evidence! Get a lawyer! Get a divorce!" The entertainment value of infidelity and cheating make it an irresistible spectator sport for bored spectators. It seems that internet commentators want nothing more than for your union to fail, so you can fall into the same soulless pit where they rot.

Love takes an object, grammatically and therefore logically. The object of love must be the eternal, or love collapses into triviality. Whether "the eternal" is a nothingness, or God, depending upon your lexicon, matters little. Using the right words will not save you. The crucial thing to recognize is that the paradox of the one and the many shows up in love, just as it does in questions of reality, mind/body, ethics, and aesthetics. Love takes the eternal as its object, or if you prefer, the nothingness from whence you yourself spring eternal. And clearly this wellspring does not necessarily belong to any particular person, even as love remains hopelessly particular. How can God love all his children when we are all accorded such varying gifts, when some of us seem entirely disinherited?

The institution of private property takes the natural world, which none of us created nor can we really lay claim to it, and balkanizes it, through violence. And while you may like and benefit from this institution, just like I do, it remains a farce nonetheless. It can only be good for your soul to recognize the incidental and sordid nature of the thing, so as hopefully to avoid confusing the activity of being with the activity of having. You are not what you own. Repeat: You are not what you own. Similarly, you can coerce a sense of self-worth out of your spouse by threatening them with litigation, but respect coerced is respect dissolved. Love is like a child's bubble, floating in the breeze. Beautiful, but fragile. As soon as you try to grab it, it vanishes.

Monogamy policing starts young for little girls. The Disney fairy tales marketed overwhelmingly to them are one-dimensional stories of marriage. Is there even a single Disney story involving a morally complex, or interesting, romantic union? One in which characters, god forbid, have chemistry with other people, or just aren't sure whether they can be perfect at monogamy? In the Little Mermaid, it's Ursula, the morbidly obese and sexually obscene sea witch who is Triton's ex-wife. In Tangled, Rapunzel's vain mother is the filthy lusty whore who steals the magic flower from the righteously monogamous king and queen. Frozen at least manages to expose Anna's obsession with monogamy as idiotic, before committing to it.

The Antidote

Only recently has serious discussion of polyamory begun to enter mainstream conversation, largely thanks to legendary sex and relationship advice columnist Dan Savage. Dan coined the term "monogamish" to describe imperfect yet striving monogamy, which has become part of the lexicon for younger generations of Americans. However much I trust and celebrate the youth, I fear that without philosophical reflection, they will fall into the same blunt categories that we olds fall into. After all, the saint/whore dichotomy is as old as marriage itself.

I have spent a statistically unusual amount of time immersed in "Queer" culture, for a straight, white, upper middle class woman. As a result, I have gained valuable insight into the crucibles of the default culture, one of these being the idol of "Monogamy" as we know it. I went to Bryn Mawr College, and for several years, I lived in Philadelphia in an apartment with four lesbians and a trans man (he identified as a lesbian at that time). For several years, most of the time I was the only straight person in the room, (though my roommates referred to me as, “A gay man stuck in a woman’s body,” because of how flamboyant I am).

Queer culture is not a theoretical diversity metric to me, it’s not pronouns in an HR-generated email signature, it’s a way of life that I have actually lived. Though my time of deep immersion into Queer culture was many years ago, to this day, I continue to value Queer ideas with my whole heart. Queer culture is not monolithic. No culture is monolithic. But it is different from the dominant culture, which is undeniable. Even though it was painful to hear lesbians mock the raw deal that so many straight women sign up for in typical marriage, it was illuminating.

In a January 7th, New York Times podcast, Ezra Klein interviewed Dan Savage on the topic of polyamory. Listening to this podcast, I realize that Dan isn't just a funny writer of a charming column. He is a philosopher and a genius:

Savage cites a study out of the Netherlands, as it is the place that has had (gay) marriage equality for the longest: “Interestingly, they found, despite people’s assumptions, that gay male couples are the least likely to divorce; straight couples were more likely, lesbian couples most likely. Lesbian couples and straight couples most likely to be monogamous; gay couples least likely to be monogamous. Correlation ain’t causation, but it would seem that gay male couples are doing something right by defusing the bomb that explodes so many straight and lesbian relationships,” Dan says to Ezra.

It's unsurprising that lesbians are the most likely to hang each other for cheating, as the effects of being raised under misogyny are raised to the second power in a woman-woman union. It's woman squared! Those lacking in power do not cease to desire self-determination for being denied it, and will extort it where they can. This is the same reason the hormonal ranks of Redditors, who are overwhelmingly young, white, middle-class, and male, love to wallow in dark fantasies of being cheated on and forced to raise a child whose DNA is not their own. Misogyny is not as simple as bad-for-women and good-for-men. It's a fetid stew for all of us.

Dan Savage emphasizes the robust verbal communication style in gay male culture, vs. the default: “A man and a woman consent to sex and go to bed for the first time — that’s usually when the conversation about sex stops, because what’s going to happen is a default setting and is assumed… When two men go to bed together for the first time, they consent to sex, it is the beginning of a conversation, because there is no default setting. What’s going to happen? Who’s going to do what to whom? … Gay people don’t have that conversation because we’re more highly evolved. We don’t have that conversation because we’re better. We have that conversation because we must.”

Dan concludes, about monogamy culture: “I’ve talked to so many people who have no respect for their partner’s privacy, as if their privacy is a violation of the idea of the couple… their partner having privacy. And this road so many people are on, these expectations so many people have about what it is to be a part of a couple, are cancers that grow on their relationships until they kill them.

In other words, Dan points out that the common expectations inherent in much of monogamy culture contain the very seeds of its own destruction. So many people think they own their spouse’s inner life, when this blasphemes everything that love should be about. Inversely, and perhaps ironically, the norms of radical honesty and respect for spousal privacy, which constitute gay and polyamorous culture, are necessary for monogamy to flourish.

The Savage interview led me to think deeply about polyamory for the first time. I should note that I am not now and never have been polyamorous, and in all likelihood, I never will be, out of respect for my partner. That doesn’t mean I can’t talk about it. That doesn’t mean I can’t borrow norms from gay culture, which I feel are superior to monogamous norms. Radical honesty, frequent communication, and respect for your partner’s privacy, are universally laudable norms, in my view. Hoarding your spouse under threat of contract litigation is not a marriage: It’s a service contract.

I do think that a lot of people view their spouse as a sort of employee. And the marriage contract they signed as a certificate of ownership over their partner's thoughts and fantasies. To me, becoming inflamed that your partner desires others morally repulsive, but truly it is the norm. Because Dan is a man, he is much more willing to subject his concept of monogamy to the "absolutely impossible" side of the paradox. I want to have some sympathy for women who cling to monogamy as their only foothold in mattering, though. It's easy for me to sympathize with the views of a gay man, I think, because I am privileged in my life and in my marriage.

Belief in the eternal soul of man, or in the unconditional love of God, and free will, really, these are all fundamentally religious concepts. Marriage or monogamy is, paradoxically, transactional AND it is not transactional. That is the fundamental problem, and philosophically, it is not resolvable. Dan makes the brilliant point that monogamists overwhelmingly fall on the side of "transactional" when vilifying sex workers, without admitting the ways that their own relationships clearly are transactional, even if they are not reducible to transactions.

Personally, I am done with narcissistic fantasies in general. I am done with Boomers complaining about wage inflation and staffing issues while the world burns and my anemic retirement accounts shrink. I am tired of the holier-than-thou bs from every married person who has not technically cheated, but for sure has flirted and fantasized, and forgives himself this secret crime while condemning all others. Your partner's inner life is not a stage in which you are the hero of the play, performing to the endless standing ovation of an adoring audience.

My message to men, specifically, is this: As your wife hits her forties and finally sheds the scar tissue of a million tiny cuts, a million little stabs telling her she's dirty and selfish for having sexual desire, she is gonna come into her own."Whaddaya mean," you stammer, "Britney Spears was gyrating naked back in 2001. Women's sexuality isn't discouraged." To which I say, of course their ability to arouse your desire, and titillate you as your dedicated "slave" is not discouraged. But where did Britney sing of her own joy, or any joy at all? "Work, Bitch" isn't exactly a joyful message. "I'm a slave for you," is not an emancipatory message.

Let me be crystal clear: Your wife is just as sexual as you are. The depraved thoughts and images that flash before your mind right before you nut, which you congratulate yourself for, probably pale in comparison to those things which your wife is capable of. I consider most heterosexual women to be beautiful wild creatures married to spouses with all the depth and stupefaction capabilities of your average carnival barker. You will barely be able to keep up but that's ok. When you let the animal out cages, it's dangerous. But if you can find it in your heart to actually love your partner as an equal, instead of as a service provider, you might just be able to enter the nirvana phase of your marriage.

TL/DR: If you put your wife in a box, you can own and control her. Probably she has even willingly crammed herself into the box for you. But then all you own is a prison of her beliefs. I would rather risk my own vulnerability, and gain a real marriage, than obsess over monogamy, and have a sham marriage. I would rather be a disgrace than a paper cutout.