Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Words have meanings

About a month ago, the New York Times did an article on sex columnist Dan Savage's views on sexual exclusivity. It's a really long article, so to summarize:

Dan Savage believes that things like honesty, trust, and stability are more important in a relationship than monogamy. He claims that as a society we have become so obsessed with the idea of sexual exclusivity that we have lost sight of the reality of our sexual desires. He says that romantic partners need to be completely honest with each other about what they need and want from the relationship. Following from this, he says that monogamy works well for some people, but that if you want to be everything for your partner sexually, then you need to be willing to be everything. If you feel that you cannot reasonably meet all your partner's desires, he suggests that you consider some form of non-monogamy, in order to preserve the health of the primary relationship. However, I wouldn't call him pro-polyamory, as he seriously doubts that long-term multiple partner relationships can work.

While I disagree with his stance on polyamory, I find I agree with his overall point. Healthy relationships require partners to communicate honestly about what they need and want (and everything else as well). In our society it seems that the primary determining factor of the success of a relationship is sexual exclusivity. That seems rather ridiculous to me. So, it's refreshing to see someone focusing on what it actually takes to have healthy relationships.

And now the bad....

While I thought that on the whole the article was rather positive, I take serious issue with the use of the term “infidelity.” (In)fidelity comes from the Latin word “fides,” meaning trust. Thus, infidelity is characterized by a breach of trust. If all parties involved fully consent to non-monogamy, then there is no breach of trust, and by definition, no infidelity. By equating sexual exclusivity with fidelity, one implies that people who are not monogamous are not trustworthy.

This is a big problem. Words have meanings. But more than that, words have implications. While infidelity (in a relationship context) means not being sexually exclusive, it carries a lot of baggage beyond that meaning. There are many characteristics associated with sexual infidelity that are not explicitly in the definition. Untrustworthiness, immaturity, addiction to sex, lack of commitment, perversion, etc. By equating all forms of non-monogamy with infidelity, one implies that non-monogamous people have these characteristics.

Words have incredible power to shape reality. If all forms of non-monogamy are labeled as infidelity, all that baggage gets dumped on non-monogamous people. And that baggage affects how the rest of society sees these people. For example, if you meet an young woman who says she's a cheerleader, you will likely make some assumptions about her based on the characteristics associated with that label (vanity, lack of intelligence, etc.). She may be a genius, but you will likely judge her based on that stereotype.

Such judgement can become very harmful. If a person believes the stereotypes associated with infidelity, and infidelity is equated with all non-monogamy, then they may likely come to a conclusion such as that non-monogamous people are unfit to be parents. Would you want CPS coming to take your children away because of an assumption about your character based on the label others use for your relationship?

This is why the meanings of words are important. Calling all non-monogamy infidelity is not only intellectually dishonest, it can be harmful to healthy, loving families.


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