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Banishing the Green-Eyed Monster

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"Is sex outside of marriage a sin? Is it a public matter? Is it forgivable?"

No, of course sex outside marriage is not a public matter, and yes, of course it is forgivable. Only a person infected by the sort of sanctimonious self-righteousness that religion uniquely inspires would apply the meaningless word 'sin' to private sexual behavior.

It is the mark of the religious mind that it cares more about private than public morality. As the bumper sticker slogan put it, "When Clinton lied, nobody died." Officially, Bill Clinton was impeached not for sexual misconduct but for lying about it. But he was entitled to lie about his private life: one could even make a case that he had a positive duty to do so. Tony Blair should have been impeached for lying to the House of Commons about alleged evidence for weapons of mass destruction, because his lies persuaded Members to vote for a war when they otherwise would not. Lying to Congress by saying, "I did not have sex with that woman" should not be an impeachable offense, because where a man puts his penis is none of Congress's damn business. Nor is it any journalist's damn business whether a politician once took drugs at university. Or whether he is gay.

And please don't say the right answer to an impertinent question about your private life is "No comment", because we all know how that would be interpreted. Telling a lie is often the only way to convey an effective "No comment."

A censorious culture in which public figures are forced to answer impertinent questions about their past, or their private affairs, would lead to open season on everybody. Who, if challenged with a point blank question, could honestly deny some secret from the past that they know society would condemn? What is more, the revolting hue and cry that our religiously inspired society habitually raises over private sexual 'morality' serves as a dangerous distraction away from important matters of public morality such as the Blair/Bush lies about Iraq's weapons.

Now, here's a more difficult case. How about public figures lying about their religious affiliations? Shouldn't we refrain from prying into a politician's private religious views, just as we should refrain from prying into their private sexual behavior? Shouldn't public figures be entitled to lie about their religious affiliations (just like the many atheists that the laws of probability tell us must be there in Congress)? Not always. The reason is that religious views, even if they seem private in themselves, can become public in their implications. John F. Kennedy asked voters to believe that he would not take orders from the Vatican when formulating policy, and in his case they probably were right to do so. But George Bush has publicly boasted that God told him to invade Iraq, and his religious faith obviously inspired his irrational stances on stem cell research, the Terri Schiavo case and many others. To push to an extreme, who would deny Congress's right to ask whether a candidate for Secretary of Health is a Christian Scientist or a Jehovah's Witness? Or take a Christian sect that fervently desires the Second Coming of Christ, and believes the key Revelation prophecies cannot be fulfilled without a Middle East Armageddon. Would you wish the nuclear button to be made available to a follower of such a creed?

So much is obvious. However, following an excellent Slate article by Christopher Hitchens, I would go further. Mitt Romney, as a self-confessed Mormon, has stated his beliefs about the Second Coming as follows: "Christ appears in Jerusalem, splits the Mount of Olives and stops that war to kill the Jews. We also believe that over the 1,000 years that follow, the millennium, he will reign from two places: that the law will come from one place, Missouri; the other will be in Jerusalem." The thing about Missouri, you see, is that it is the site (I'm not joking) of the Garden of Eden. Mitt Romney apparently believes that the Book of Mormon is the dictated word of God. The fact that Joseph Smith wrote it in 16th century pseudo-biblical English although he was a 19th century man marks him out — along with much else -- as a charlatan, yet Mitt Romney apparently is gullible enough to be taken in by the scam. After Smith "translated" them, the gold tablets containing God's words conveniently shot off to Heaven before anybody else could examine them. If a man is gullible enough to believe that, would you trust him to negotiate on your country's behalf in the tough chancelleries of the world?

Smith's book instructs Mormons to hold beliefs about human racial origins and about the history of America from 600 BC that are at worst racist and at best frankly bonkers. Are voters entitled to ask Mr Romney questions about his religious beliefs? Surely yes, if they affect his policies, for example over race relations: the Mormon Church banned black people from its equivalent of a priesthood until as late as 1978 (when Mormon Elders conveniently had a "revelation"). But going beyond direct influences on policies, would you wish to be governed by a man who has such a cock-eyed view of reality that he thinks the Garden of Eden was in Missouri, even if he keeps that cock-eyed view private?

Returning to the original topic of sex outside marriage, I want to raise another question that interests me. Why are we so obsessed with monogamous fidelity in the first place? Agony Aunt columns ring with the cries of those who have detected -- or fear -- that their man/woman (who may or may not be married to them) is "cheating on them". "Cheating" really is the word that occurs most readily to these people. The underlying presumption -- that a human being has some kind of property rights over another human being's body -- is unspoken because it is assumed to be obvious. But with what justification?

In one of the most disgusting stories to hit the British newspapers last year, the wife of a well-known television personality, Chris Tarrant, hired a private detective to spy on him. The detective reported evidence of adultery and Tarrant's wife divorced him, in unusually vicious style. But what shocked me was the way public opinion sided with Tarrant's horrible wife. Far from despising, as I do, anybody who would stoop so low as to hire a detective for such a purpose, large numbers of people, including even Mr. Tarrant himself, seemed to think she was fully justified. Far from concluding, as I would, that he was well rid of her, he was covered with contrition and his unfortunate mistress was ejected, covered with odium. The explanation of all these anomalous behavior patterns is the ingrained assumption of the deep rightness and appropriateness of sexual jealousy. It is manifest all the way from Othello to the French "crime passionnel" law, down to the "love rat" language of tabloid newspapers.

From a Darwinian perspective, sexual jealousy is easily understood. Natural selection of our wild ancestors plausibly favored males who guarded their mates for fear of squandering economic resources on other men's children. On the female side, it is harder to make a Darwinian case for the sort of vindictive jealousy displayed by Mrs. Tarrant. No doubt hindsight could do it, but I want to make a different point. Sexual jealousy may in some Darwinian sense accord with nature, but "Nature, Mr. Allnutt, is what we are put in this world to rise above." Just as we rise above nature when we spend time writing a book or a symphony rather than devoting our time to sowing our selfish genes and fighting our rivals, so mightn't we rise above nature when tempted by the vice of sexual jealousy?

I, for one, feel drawn to the idea that there is something noble and virtuous in rising above nature in this way. I admit that I have, at times in my life, been jealous, but it is one of the things I now regret. Assuming that such practical matters as sexually transmitted diseases and the paternity of children can be sorted out (and nowadays DNA testing will clinch that for you if you are sufficiently suspicious, which I am not), what, actually, is wrong with loving more than one person? Why should you deny your loved one the pleasure of sexual encounters with others, if he or she is that way inclined? The British writer Julie Burchill is not somebody I usually quote (imagine a sort of intelligent Ann Coulter speaking with a British accent in a voice like Minnie Mouse) but I was struck by one of her remarks. I can't find the exact quote, but it was to the effect that, however much you love your mate (of either sex in the case of the bisexual Burchill) sex with a stranger is almost always more exciting, purely because it is a stranger. An exaggeration, no doubt, but the same grain of truth lurks in Woody Allen's "Sex without love is an empty experience, but as empty experiences go it's one of the best."

Even sticking to the higher plane of love, is it so very obvious that you can't love more than one person? We seem to manage it with parental love (parents are reproached if they don't at least pretend to love all their children equally), love of books, of food, of wine (love of Chateau Margaux does not preclude love of a fine Hock, and we don't feel unfaithful to the red when we dally with the white), love of composers, poets, holiday beaches, friends . . . why is erotic love the one exception that everybody instantly acknowledges without even thinking about it? Why can a woman not love two men at the same time, in their different ways? And why should the two — or their wives -- begrudge her this? If we are being Darwinian, it might be easier to make the case the other way, for a man sincerely and deeply loving more than one woman. But I don't want to pursue the details here.

I'm not denying the power of sexual jealousy. It is ubiquitous if not universal. I'm just wondering aloud why we all accept it so readily, without even thinking about it. And why don't we all admire — as I increasingly do -- those rare free spirits confident enough to rise above jealousy, stop fretting about who is "cheating on" whom, and tell the green-eyed monster to go jump in the lake?



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