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Talking about sex on Twitter and why it's bad for you

So here we are in 2015 and progressives still haven't figured out sexual relations. Monogamous, bounded, closed? Or polyamorous and open? Or points in between (since this of all things shouldn't be reduced to a binary)? Spoiler: I think whatever works is good. But…even with that general understanding, questions arise.

How did this come up? Why, it was my last hurrah on Twitter. A very bright PhD candidate who has made herself an expert on decolonization, and with whom I have had friendly dealings for some time, was Tweeting about things she didn't like in dudebros. ("Dudebros" is shorthand for unreconstructed young sexist males. I can't recall if she actually used the term or not.) "Mansplaining" was there, of course. Also "cheating."

That last brought me up short. I asked her what she meant. Yup, the traditional term for a monogamous partner stepping out. So I allowed as how I thought this was a little old-fashioned, but OK, then.

And, as so often happens in that wretched medium, dung pellets immediately hit the mini-fans. I was instantly blocked. Then the pile-on began. Screamers rushed in, some thinking I was talking about the student's own partnership (God forbid). I discovered that I am judgemental, faux-superior, patronizing and smug, something I really should have been told a long time ago. No wonder I don't have any friends.

For once I lost my presence of mind, and responded badly. And I'm sorry I did. I have enormous respect for this student. She can tell you every micro-nuance of how colonization works, whether of land or of the mind. To use the lingo, I thought Twitter was a safe space to discuss the social mores that she had indirectly brought up.

Nuh-uh. That's not how taboos work. They're discursive black holes.

So here's what I meant to say, and the floor is open for comment.

When it comes to human relations, I don't privilege one kind of consensual arrangement over another. I will, however, admit to some strong prejudices when it comes to the language used to talk about them. For example, the word "relationship," hard as it is to avoid, gets my back up. I find it cold, impersonal, alienating and reifying. I received a card once that sums up my feelings on this score: a woman is addressing a man, saying: "That sounds great, but would it be good for the relationship?" At the next fold we see a monster in the living room, chained to a stake.

Precisely. My soul-mate and I preferred the word "partnership." It seemed to be more person-focussed and egalitarian, at least to us.

And another word that makes me react is "cheating."

Make no mistake: I think that lying to one's partner(s) is fundamentally wrong and destructive. Transparency and honesty are essential in a lasting partnership, however that partnership is constructed. These are essential elements of trust. It's the privileging of sex in the hierarchy of no-noes that has me scratching my head a bit.

Here’s the standard definition of "cheat": "act dishonestly or unfairly in order to gain an advantage." Of course, we all know the more colloquial meaning, which—to be blunt—sounds way over the top when juxtaposed with the dictionary one. The last place I would look for 1950s vocabulary like that is within progressive ranks. We're supposed to be cultural critics, for crying out loud, reflecting on everything in society that's taken for granted. The question of "gender" is under examination 24/7, and people consciously confront various oppressive assumptions and behaviours that had remained unquestioned until recently. Ditto, "race."

And yet…here be tygers.

I haven't, I admit, heard the word "unfaithful" come up so far, but it must be lurking there somewhere. The two words, if not synonymous, obviously overlap. Both imply that a grave injury is being inflicted on someone simply by performing a sexual act outside the confines of the partnership. Both suggest, then, that the very basis of fidelity to another is sexual restraint.

I know that in some partnerships there is agreement on precisely that restraint. And I don't judge this in the slightest way, because people are complex and form a variety of arrangements for mutual comfort, and that's the way it should be. But I can't begin to understand the frequent enormity of the reaction to breaking that agreement, other than to the objectionable sneaking around and lying that can go with it—also very conventional and 1950s, by the way.

Contrast and compare. What if a spouse drains the other spouse's bank account to spend on booze? Pawns his valuables? Assaults her? Lies about him to his boss? Disrespects her in public? Emotionally abuses her? We find suitably disapproving terms for all of these oppressive behaviours. But somehow, "unfaithfulness" and "cheating" aren't among them. Isn’t that…a little odd?

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