When I was ass deep in sex(y) work, I heard a common story: “I’m married,” they said. “I love my wife more than anything, but we don’t really have sex anymore.” One guy (married), dipped his toe in after he found out he had terminal cancer. Another was a caretaker for his wife who had too many medical problems to have sex. Yet another simply had married a woman who’d lost her sex drive. Occasionally it would be someone who simply wanted a little bit of novelty.
This was complicated. I don’t like being the “other woman”; I like clear, open communication and consent with all parties involved. In my personal life I absolutely do not fuck with anyone monogamous, ever. But my business was being sexy; if they didn’t watch me, there were a hundred other girls happy to take their money instead. I’m here for a transaction; your personal life is not my business. Still though, I felt a little weird.
I also felt sad. These men would often tell me how much they loved their wives (or girlfriends). “I would never leave her,” I heard. “She’s a strong, incredible woman”. I never once heard anyone talking shit; every single person who mentioned a romantic partner talked about them lovingly. Often they were conflicted; they knew what they were doing would hurt their partner if they found out. But they had needs – they felt emasculated and lonely in their relationships.
“I do this because it’s compartmentalized,” they would tell me. “I’m not pursuing a girl at my work or neighborhood or anything – the transactions here are a safe boundary so this doesn’t affect my home life at all.”
It started to feel weird that they had to keep me such a secret. I felt bad for them that they were trapped in a culture that shamed extra-relationship sexuality so much. Why should it be so wrong that they seek to fill their needs of physical intimacy?
Of course, doing this “correctly” would mean to talk to their partners, explain their needs, and see me with full consent of all parties involved. I often suggested this – why don’t you talk to your wife? But the answers were all the same. “She’d leave me if I suggested it” or “She’d absolutely say no” or “I already tried and she freaked out.”
Sometimes I’d ask if they considered leaving her to find a more open relationship. “I can’t,” they’d say. “I’m 65 and we have a house and grandkids. I can’t destroy my whole life just because of this.”
I’m not saying violating an agreement with your partner is a good thing – there are many difficult situations where the best solution is not a good solution. I am saying that there are a lot of people – probably mostly men – for whom violating the agreement with their partner is the best option available to them, even taking into account their love for their family, because the other choice is unbearable.
They didn’t know it would be unbearable; our culture gave them no warning. The monogamy contract – even for people who consider themselves monogamous – is so basic, default, and universal that people sign the marriage certificate with the same naivite as eighteen year olds sign themselves into mass amounts of college debt.
And like college debt, it’s seen as the “thing to do” – the necessary step in order to perform the correct dance in life. “No one will hire you if you don’t go to college” is akin to “No one will build a life with you if you don’t agree to monogamy”. People don’t question it. Everyone’s doing it.
But unlike the student loan crisis, the epidemic of intimacy-starvation is suffered silently. We don’t care about it, because it affects primarily men and we care less about men’s emotional wellbeing. We violently shame those who are caught trying to fill their needs – we mock them, divorce them, take their kids away.
Of course not all cheating is like this; many genuinely do not care for their partners, don’t even try communicating their needs, and view themselves entitled to lots of sexual novelty without regard for the feelings of those around them. This is definitely something they have a lot of freedom to avoid, and I agree shaming these habits will probably end up helping everyone involved.
But lots of cheating is done with intense guilt and reluctance – and almost all of it is done at least somewhere on the spectrum between “sociopath” and “kind lonely old man”. It’s gotten to the point that usually when I hear a tale of cheating – particularly in longer-term relationships – my sympathies go equally to both the cheater and the cheatee. They were both caught in an unsustainable arrangement, fed the powerful old story that sexual intimacy is equal to love and commitment, and then blamed themselves (typically the cheater) when this story fails to be realistic or sustainable.
Sex work of all forms – camming, stripping, escorting, etc. – seems to be a good solution as a way for men in intimacy-starved relationships to get their needs met in a tightly compartmentalized way that won’t threaten the rest of their lives.
And this also means people don’t need to do full-blown polyamory, where their partners fully date other people. I’m not necessarily advocating for that – only to release our death grip on the monogamous system that’s so strict it ends up hurting people. Let’s loosen it a little bit, and realize that very often, extra-marital intimacy can do far more good than it can harm.
It’s insane that we got to the point where our culture is both so sexually open and where the only two socially-approved options are either “explode your entire life” or “never experience sexual intimacy with someone again”.