Our conversation had a male-conspiratorial tone that was faintly ridiculous—we were like the two straight guys in a French farce. I wondered what the tattooed waitress heard—she was probably having more sex than either of us. Studies provided to me by Kinsey researchers suggest that over the last 50 years, sex and marriage have become increasingly, well, decoupled. One factor is that young people are putting off marriage longer and longer, causing women to have 8.2 years of premarital sex on average, 10.7 for men. “The link between sexual activity and marriage is breaking down,” the researchers wrote.
Susan Squire, the author of a forthcoming history of marriage called I Don’t, told me that marriage wasn’t made to handle all the sexual pressure we’re putting on it. For one thing, the average life span is far greater than it was 100 years ago; what is marriage to do with all that time? And in days gone by, marriage was a more formal institution whose purposes were breeding and family. Squire says that cultural standards of morality have changed dramatically. In ancient aristocracies, rich men had courtesans for pleasure and concubines for quick sex. In the Victorian age, prostitution was far more open than it is today. America is a special case. By the early-twentieth century, she says, the combined impact of egalitarian ideals and the movies had burdened American marriage with a new responsibility: providing romantic love forever. Squire says that the first couples therapy began cropping up in the thirties, when people found their marriages weren’t measuring up to cultural expectations.
One man I spoke to said his wife was no longer interested in sex, so he went and had lap dances and maybe a little more. “I can’t change my wife’s point of view.” I asked him if he felt shame. “I do, but a need is a need.”
“Marriage isn’t the problem; it’s the best answer anyone’s come up with,” Squire says. “Men and women are equally oppressed by expectations. Expectations are ridiculously high now. Nobody expected you to find personal fulfillment and happiness in marriage. Marriage can be very satisfying, but it’s not going to be this heady romance for 40 years.” Marriage involves routine, and routine kills passion. “What does Bataille say?” Squire continues. “There is nothing erotic that is not transgressive. Marriage has many benefits and values, but eroticism is not one of them.”
A long and supportive marriage may be more valuable than a sexually faithful one, Squire says. “Why does society consider it more moral for you to break up a marriage, go through a divorce, disrupt your children’s lives maybe forever, just to be able to fuck someone with whom the fucking is going to get just as boring as it was with the first person before long?”
Sitting in Schiller’s, I explained Squire’s history to my friend and suggested that we could change sexual norms to, say, encourage New York waitresses to look on being mistresses as a cool option. “That’s fringe,” my friend said dismissively. Wives weren’t going to allow it, and we men grant them a lot of power; they’re all as dominant as Yoko Ono. “Look, we’re the weaker animal,” he said. “They commandeer the situation.” He and I love our wives and depend on them. In each of our cases, they make our homes, manage our social calendar, bind up our wounds and finish our thoughts, and are stitched into our extended families more intimately than we are. They seem emotionally better equipped than we are. If my marriage broke up, my wife could easily move in with a sister. I’d be as lost as plankton.
Later, I related my friend’s Yoko analogy to my wife. She pointed out that Ono and Lennon had a marriage based on what they both cared most passionately about, art—not money or sex, to judge from the fact that Lennon went off for a year with a mistress and the marriage survived. But how many of us can afford that? Tuten says that even the New York art world is short on mistresses. “Victor Hugo had a mistress even when he was in exile in Jersey. He lived in a house with his family and the mistress lived down the road, and he went to and fro. I don’t know anyone in the art world who has that. I don’t know too many men who have enough money to set up an apartment for a woman.”
Indiana University in Bloomington is known for its forested campus with a creek running through it and its attraction to great scientists, the most famous of whom was an insect man, raised in a repressive Methodist family, who broke away from the study of gall wasps in the forties to photograph human beings having group sex in his attic, thereby rehearsing what he would soon give all Americans permission to do in their own homes.
Today the institute named after him has a more holistic mission than the strict focus on the genital. It’s called the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction and occupies a cavelike set of rooms with only one doorway to get in to it in one of IU’s stately buildings. I sat down in Jennifer Bass’s office and saw a funny magnet on her file case, a photo of highway interchange signs on a downtown cloverleaf: NO SEX FOR A WEEK on one exit, NO SEX FOR A MONTH, FOR A YEAR.