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Hauerwas on the Politics of Sex

December 17th, 2016 | 3 min read

By Jake Meador

Hauerwas from “Sex in Public” (in which he gives the theological ethics version of Berry’s “Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community”):

Open marriages must necessarily avoid being controlled by presupposed roles denoted by the terms “husband” and “wife. “ What we do and do not do as husbands and wives should be determined by what we feel as individual human beings, not by some predetermined set of restrictive codes (p. 148). Thus, in an “open marriage, each gives the other the opportunity, the freedom, to pursue those pleasures he or she wishes to, and the time they do spend together is fruitfully and happily spent in catching up on one another’s individual activities” (p. 188). Crucial to such a marriage is trust, as only trust provides the possibility for a marriage to be a “dynamic, growing relationship” (224). But it must be an “open trust, “ in contrast to those forms of trust built on dependability and assured predictability. To have open trust “means believing in your mate’s ability and willingness to cherish and respect your honesty and your open communications. Trust is the feeling that no matter what you do or say you are not going to be criticized” (231). “Trust then is to freedom, the freedom to assume responsibility for your own self first and then to share that human self in love with your partner in a marriage that places no restrictions upon growth, or limits on fulfillment” (235).

This seems an attractive ideal. After all, who could be against trust? And who would deny the importance of each partner continuing to develop his or her own person in and outside marriage? For it is surely true that the strength of any marriage is partly judged by the ability of each partner to [p.180] rejoice in the friendships of the other. Indeed, such friendships can be seen as necessary for the enrichment of any marriage.

Yet, ironically, the O’Neills’ account of “open marriage” requires a transformation of the self that makes intimate relationships impossible in or outside of marriage. Many conservative critics of proposals like “open marriage” tend to overlook this element, because all their attention is directed to the sexual implication – namely, that premarital and extramarital sex is not condemned. But that element has long been written into the very structure and nature of romanticism. What the “conservative” must recognize is that prior to the issue of whether premarital or extramarital sexual intercourse is wrong is the question of character: What kind of people do you want to encourage? Hidden in the question of “What ought we to do?” is always the prior question “What ought we to be?” The most disturbing thing about such proposals as the O’Neills’ is the kind of persons they wish us to be. On analysis, the person capable of open marriage turns out to be the self-interested individualpresupposed and encouraged by our liberal political structure and our capitalist consumer economy.

Perhaps this is best illustrated by calling attention to the O’Neills’ discussion of adultery. Of course, the O’Neills see no reason why adultery should be excluded from open marriage. After all, most people “now recognize sex for what it is: a natural function that should be enjoyed for its own earthy self without hypocrisy” (247). Indeed, extramarital sexual experiences “when they are in the context of a meaningful relationship may be “rewarding and beneficial to an open marriage” (254). But the O’Neills do provide a word of caution; they suggest that to have a extramarital affair without first “developing yourself to the point where you are ready, and your mate is ready, for such a step could be detrimental to the possibility of developing a true open marriage” (254).

I have thought a lot about this very interesting suggestion – namely, that we develop ourselves to be ready to engage in an extramarital affair. What could that possibly mean? Would it mean that we each date and then come  home and compare notes on our experience to see how it makes the other feel? And what would be the object of such a project? Surely it is nothing less than for us to learn to devalue sexual expression between ourselves in order to justify it with other people.

But even more interesting, such training would also require that we learn to control, if not destroy entirely, that primitive emotion called jealousy. Thus, as I suggested, involved in proposals such as the O’Neills’, are extremely profound assumptions about what kind of persons we ought to be. And the O’Neills are quite explicit about this, as they argue that jealousy is but a learned response determined by cultural attitudes dependent on our [p. 181] assumptions about sexually exclusive monogamy. But such possession of another only breeds deep-rooted dependencies, infantile and childish emotions, and insecurities. The more insecure you are, the more you will be jealous. Jealousy, says Abraham Maslow, “practically always breeds further rejection and deeper insecurity.” And jealousy, like a destructive cancer, breeds more jealousy. It is never, then, a function of love, but of our insecurities and dependencies. It is the fear of a loss of love and it destroys that very love. It is detrimental to and a denial of a loved one’s personal identity. Jealousy is a serious impediment, then, to the development of security and identity, and our closed marriage concepts of possession are directly at a fault. (237)

Alas, if only Othello could have had the opportunity to have read Open Marriage, the whole messy play could have been avoided.

Jake Meador

Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).