Thursday, December 25, 2008

Love and Property


As some of you might know, I'm currently in an open relationship with my girlfriend, Jill. Originally, this was a pragmatic decision: we knew we were going to be apart for at least a year, and possibly much longer (depending on where she decides to go grad school). But after spending some time thinking about it, I also realized I had some philosophical issues with closed relationships -- namely, they reminded too much of a property claim.

Property, in its simplest form, is that to which you have the right to exclusive use (and can correspondingly exclude others from). In a very real sense, that's precisely what a closed relationship is: a mutual grant of exclusivity, reducing at least one element of another's personhood to the level of property. Ambrose Bierce, witty as always, defined marriage as "the union of a man, a woman, and two slaves, making in all: two." (You can see more arguments along these lines in this excerpt from the book "Open", though I find the author's tone quite off-putting).

Now, part of me finds the above argument at least a bit anachronistic. This is the 21st century -- nobody views women as "property" anymore, right? Well, wrong. A lot of bloggers have taken apart the risible Dennis Prager's sex advice column, in which he advises married women that they should have sex with their husbands even when they don't want to. The most thorough fisking of this monstrosity can be found here, and there have been plenty more around the web.

But the fact is Prager is a prominent author, who regrettably is reasonably influential in some right circles. Consequently, I also think Spencer Ackerman's short post needs to be kept at the fore: It's easy to laugh at Prager -- a twice divorced man -- acting like he understands how to keep a marriage together. But women get abused because men read arguments like Prager's and decide that sex is their birthright. And since Prager insists on defiling my religion by writing from a putatively "Jewish" perspective, I have to add that Jewish women -- particularly from very religious backgrounds -- are particularly vulnerable to this sort of poisonous ideology.

The point being, the property aspect to how we view relationships is nowhere near dead. I'd like to think of it as part of a bygone era, but it isn't. And so it is important to at least challenge social norms which lie, even in part, on a view of another's person which can go so badly, badly wrong.

UPDATE: Well this post was one of my bigger epic fails in awhile. First of all, my girlfriend was -- quite legitimately -- a bit annoyed I posted it. The thought process was something we had briefly kicked around, but was something she wasn't entirely on board with and something I knew she wasn't totally on board with. I can post my own haphazard thoughts as they come, but she has the right to know that every step in our relationship won't be put onto the web in real time (don't worry -- she pre-cleared this update before it went up). So the first and most important apology goes out to Jill.

Meanwhile, the emergent consensus in the comments section is that I'm being a dick. Hard to blame them, given the aforementioned apology #1. Anyway, I think it's pretty clear that this argument has a couple of serious holes in it (as usual, Jill's instincts prove vastly superior to my own). I still don't think it's totally groundless, and in general if I didn't post theories and ideas that were somewhat inchoate, I wouldn't have a blog. More importantly, some other folks touched on something that I think is evidently true -- much of the "problem" here stems less from deep philosophical insights than from the more mundane fact that I'm trying to mediate between being 22 and wanting to experience the big wide world, and possessing the horrible misfortune of having already found a beautiful, intelligent, sexy, witty girlfriend whom I adore and love more than anyone in the universe. I know, woe is me.

Jill and I are looking at at least another half year apart, and perhaps a lot longer. And we're still trying to figure out the best way to make sure we're both happy while maintaining the incredible bond we've developed over the last three years (two as friends, and one as a couple). As I've now demonstrated in rather humiliating fashion, there will be missteps along with the way. But the important thing is I know she loves me, and she knows I love her. And fortunately, that gives me (well, both of us, but I tend to use it more often) a generous cushion as we head out together on our way.


Joe said...

Doesn't have to be a property claim. Just think of it as a contract. Sure, a party can breach, but that can dissolve the entire contractual relationship.

Russell Miller said...

I find the whole thing specious. Are you truly a slave if you give yourself to someone?

It's your choice to do what you want, of course. But... I'm not going to be in an open relationship, I don't want to be in an open relationship, and that's that.

Anonymous said...

Personally, I find the concept of voluntary slavery more appealing, as long as I'm not the slave.

ansel said...

Totally agree with you on this.

Matthew said...

This seems pretty childish to me. I mean, the whole "open relationships are about property" thing. Once you get past the idea that individuals ever make decisions (including those about sexual and romantic life) outside a context of social pushes and pulls, then I don't see how negotiating who one will-and-will-not sleep with or date or whatever "entirely" on one's own, and doing it with consultation/permission from someone that person loves or trust are category differences so much as a differences in position on a decision-making spectrum where one's decision is never fully dominated by another nor fully made freely. What you should recognize is that all human relationships - open or closed - are about affection as well as power, and that the existence of one does not remove the other. I think that applying ethics to relationships means recognizing how they are permeated by power and ensuring that the relationship is not one in which someone is dominated, not trying to escape power as such. As long as partners agree to exclusivity in an uncoerced fashion, I see nothing wrong with it. And even if decisions between partners are never made under conditions of total equality, well you can hardly conclude that this invalidates all consent. Defending that power makes consent impossible would necessitate defending the old "all sex is rape" caricature.

Cathy Young said...

I find Prager's article nauseating, but the idea that sexual exclusivity is "oppressive to women" comes across as a childish, over-the-top exercise in male guilt. What, exactly, is the point in being in a relationship if what you share with each other is not exclusive? It seems to me that the idea that sexual intimacy is a vital part of the couple's love for each other is a vital part of the ideal of companionate love -- which, while not perfectly egalitarian, was an important step up from patriarchal notions. In companionate love, the obligation of fidelity is mutual.

IMO, the notion that physical needs justify sex outside the relationship when the relationship is long-distance is as degrading as the notion that a husband's physical need for sex justifies a wife's reluctant submission.

Praeger's piece is indeed repulsive with its crude stereotyping. However, I don't think the idea that both spouses have some obligation to be sexually available to each other is bad. (Obviously that doesn't mean "available at any time.") Incidentally, I believe that, according to the Talmud, husbands also have an obligation to sexually satisfy their wives.

If someone wants to be in an open relationship, that's their choice. I was in one, years ago, and personally I have no doubt whatsoever that it is not compatible with real committment. Again, if that's what people choose to do, that's up to them, but I do have some issues with people declaring it openly, let alone holding it up as some kind of virtue. I think it can all too easily become an excuse for irresponsibility, selfishness and hedonism.

colagirl said...

I hate to say this, but to me, this sounds an awful lot like a pile of rationalizations the original poster has cooked up in order to enable him to screw around on his girlfriend.

PG said...

Do you also have a problem with contracts that provide a grant of exclusivity to an artist's output (e.g. a publishing contract), or an employee's work product? I think you'll find as you learn more about law that your concept of "property" might be either over-inclusive or not as much a negative as you think.