I’ve been in Italy for the past ten days or so, on an end of summer break. Which, you know, it was great and I had all the food and all the art related visits to galleries and the Venice Art Biennial and walking through Milano (did I ever mention how awful I feel every time I visit Milano which I used to do regularly for work related reasons? It’s the only city I’ve ever been where I feel truly inadequate no matter what I am wearing or how well put together I am; the degree of style and beauty in regular people is pretty much unseen, at least for me, anywhere else in the world). But I digress because my summer break was not the subject of this post, although I did spend quite some time thinking about the topic during my vacation because it was inspired by Roman empire ruins and, of all people, Silvio Berlusconi.
Now, I speak Italian, which means that I get to talk to folks while I am out and about. And Berlusconi gets mentioned regularly. A lot. Sometimes in a snarky tone, making fun of his politics. Sometimes very negatively but also, to my surprise, he often gets mentioned in a positive light by quite some people. I would dare say that he might not be loved by the majority, at least not now that his mandate is eroded, but there is still a sizable number of people who seem to like him and who, I’d venture, would vote for him again. In spite of all the scandals and in spite of his sexual misconduct, which is extensively documented.
It was precisely his sexual misconduct what got me thinking about the subject of this post. Because it was misconduct (probably still is, I doubt a guy like him would suddenly stop acting out just because he is under more scrutiny than usual; if anything, his behavior seems driven by a sense of impunity, entitlement and unchecked power more so than by what italians, bound to their profoundly Catholic heritage, like to call “carnal desires”). Berlusconi, in many people’s minds, embodies the attributes of the Latin patriarch, the man who has unrestricted access, to put it bluntly, to pussy. Also, the man who acts as if he is not bound to common notions of fidelity, faithfulness or monogamy. A guy who built his image as a relentless womanizer that runs a country under dubious rules, with a public perception of rampant corruption and alliances with characters that have currently fallen from grace.
And, since we are on the subject of monogamy and fidelity, I need to point to the obvious American counterpart: Bill Clinton. For much, much less, Clinton was roasted by the public. International media portrayed the Clinton scandal with a very heavy investment in his lack of fidelity towards his wife. In many people’s minds, this absence of marital fidelity seemed to symbolize his lack of allegiance to his country. And I suspect that was because, unlike Berlusconi, Clinton’s marriage was very much in the public eye.
But why do we care so much about fidelity? Why are we so heavily invested in it? Ours, other people’s, our partner’s, friends, family members? Why is fidelity never contested as the de facto relationship standard? And notice I didn’t say monogamy, but fidelity. Because even open partnerships, polyamory and almost all alternative modes of relationships are still heavily reliant on the idea of fidelity, to the point of usually being referred to as “ethical relationships” and consequently setting moral rules which need to be followed. Why is it that we hardly ever question this notion, who benefits from it and where it comes from? Why is it that the mere thought of being cheated on can trigger anxiety and self doubt? Why do we even call it “cheating” and in spite of all the strides we have made towards equality, so much of our Western ideas of interpersonal relationship are based on a Roman, and patriarchal to boot, concept of allegiance?
Because yes, fidelity was a cornerstone of Roman Law and women could be legally killed if they were found to be adulterous. Fidelity and fealty were also fundamental during feudal times, when people had to swear loyalty to their king or lord. Fidelity is also an uncontested mandate in all Abrahamic religions. And in spite of this glaring patriarchal root, fidelity and the idea that we owe all of ourselves to another person remains unchallenged. That if we were to deviate from monogamy, this alternative way of relating, be it polyamory, open relationships or any variants, should be done following the dictates of fidelity and involve full disclosure and permission from a third party (one’s partner). And I do not think I need to delve into who, traditionally, always had to have permission to do anything in a relationship.
Fidelity, it seems, is above criticism.
Needless to say, I understand the need to establish paternity and inheritance rights and how much these are bound by fidelity but still, we have questioned almost every aspect of the foundations of traditional family ties, but we seem to take the idea of fidelity for granted. We shun “cheaters”, tabloid media empires are run on gossip and speculation about celebrities’ fidelity (or better said, lack thereof). Even people like Mo’Nique, who dared suggest she didn’t mind if her husband slept with other people was aggressively criticized, not necessarily for having an open marriage but because she seemed to attach no importance to her husband’s faithfulness. If you are a woman who was cheated on, you are supposed to hurt, you are expected to grieve, even strangers will pity you, you will be automatically placed in the position of a victim and don’t you dare suggest that you do not care because then there will be insinuations that something might be very wrong with you. Men, of course, generally get more leeway when revelations of their escapades hit the news, but still, they never navigate extra marital affairs totally unscathed.
Special contempt and vile are reserved for “The Other Woman”, though (and very, very rarely, for “The Other Man”). In most people’s minds, the mistress is deserving of nothing but contempt. Slut shaming abounds because she has dared betray an institution she had no investment in. Women should always be the guardians of other people’s marriage, whether they believe in marriage themselves or not. Media will portray these women as nothing but harlots who somewhat bear the burden of other people’s vows. The mistress is always played as the ultimate, immoral threat against women in monogamous relationships.
In view of the double standards that apply for cis, hetero men and women who are found to be cheaters, I have to wonder, can cheating, for a woman, ever be an act of liberating, or dare I say it, empowering rebellion? Could it be the last frontier of pushing against rules that we have inherited from the patriarchal foundations of our Western societies? Could cheating ever be an act of resistance against the possession of women’s bodies and minds? Is fidelity the last remaining and long lasting tool of heteronormative hegemony? Is the uncontested notion of fidelity the ultimate form of sexual control? As it is bound to happen, I do not have answers to these (and many more) questions. However, being the rebel with so many causes that I am, I do believe that no social construct is above criticism or at least profound examination and fidelity should be no exception, especially considering how much it is toted as the only acceptable way of relating to one another.