Thursday, February 21, 2008

Double Standards in the Sexual Revolution - In More Ways Than One

I was reading the Opinion page in the Sydney Morning Herald when I came across this article by Andrew Cameron, the Chairman of the Social Issues Executive for the Sydney Diocese. In short, it is a response to Paul Sheehan's article about middle-aged women who have been unfaithful to their husbands. The article was particularly well written, and I found the following comment to be quite insightful:

But sexual politics can blind us to the obvious. Put his rhetoric of liberation on hold and consider: what would we have thought if the cardigan-wearing cynic, and the fat slob with the remote, were women? What if men were urged not to pretend they are "middle-aged", and to go forth and renew their sensuality with nubile young things?

We reject this argument for men. Why accept it for women? It is patronising to uncritically approve for women what we despise in men.

I would suggest that Cameron is right when he infers that society still looks down on men who have left their wives to have an affair with a younger woman. It would be strange then that the type of behaviour that is condemned in men is somehow celebrated in women. That said, I wonder if that is the primary response to such a phenomena? I'd suggest that the primary line of demarcation between middle-aged men and middle-aged women in this respect is that while the societal perception is that is unsurprising for a man to have an affair with a younger woman, it is almost unthinkable that a middle-aged woman would leave her husband for her young Latin lover Juan or Pablo. It is almost as though there is this perception that beyond 30, woman no longer have sexual needs of their own.

While reading the article I could help but realise that this is not a new phenomenon - indeed the diagnosis of the problem is not at all recent either. One of the major storylines of "Anna Karenina" involves a woman who leaves an unsatisfying marriage with an undesirable and emotionally distant husband for a passionate affair with a younger man. This affair is in no way romanticised, with Tolstoy's protagonist causing great suffering for herself, her lover, her estranged husband and her son among others. Indeed, this is also a theme that Cameron picks up upon:

Yet again we fail to notice the influence, power and impact of a woman's actions on the people around her. The unilateral abandonment of a failed husband detonates an emotional shrapnel-bomb in his life, whether or not he "deserved" it. Sheehan pays no attention to the significance of the women in the lives of these men, pathetic though each man has become.

Yet Tolstoy's analysis is deliberately ambiguous. Was Anna solely to blame for the destruction she caused in her own life and those around her, or should her husband also take some of the responsibility for what happened. And regardless of the question of blame, could Anna's husband have prevented this hellish descent by responding more fully to the sexual and emotional needs of Anna? Fortunately, Cameron picks up on this theme and comments:

It would be foolhardy to deny there are blokes who don't seem to have a clue, and who haven't begun to learn the basics of taking their wife seriously, and making real changes. If anything, Christianity relelentlessly goes after their kind of selfishness and "hardness of heart".

Their wives would probably have preferred long-term loyalty, "cherishing" and honour over the too-cute praise of infidelity, which will only ever be a fall-back position of extreme sadness and desperation. Are there really so many happy divorcees in this world?

Perhaps this newly emerging paradigm of middle-aged woman in search of their toy-boys is not so much something to celebrate, so much as a sobering wake up call to a society that has long downplayed both the sexual and emotional needs of woman. I'd agree with Cameron that marriage need not be an intrinsically anti-female construct, but that in ways our understanding of marriage by religious and non-religious alike has been warped into something that does not truly do justice to the institution of marriage. In some ways we are perhaps still beholden to the Victorian understanding of marriage which seems to be little more than a contractual exchange in which the man gets his "pretty little thing" in return for providing the woman economic security. Clearly, not only are these days past us, but this conception of marriage seems to a detour from the originally intended purpose of such a relationship. It would seem then that the institution of marriage needs to be redeemed and restored so that it adequately addresses the needs and desires of women more fully rather than simply being cast on the scrapheap as an antiquated religious notion.

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