In the current cultural moment, marriage is painted as a state completely without pleasure. Permanent domesticity is thought to be so stultifying that to endure it married people must resort to lying, cheating, drugs, and/or secrets. There’s Gone Girl, the best-selling thriller by Gillian Flynn that features a marriage between a liar and a psychopath. There’s Where We Belong, by Emily Giffin, about a young, hot-shot professional female who can’t find satisfaction in her personal life because she’s living a lie. There is, of course, Fifty Shades of Grey, the wild popularity of which is ostensibly as result of the light-bondage fantasies of millions of overstressed married women.
“We may then be especially drawn to this particular romanticized, erotically charged, semipornographic idea of female submission at a moment in history when male dominance is shakier than it has ever been,” wrote Katie Roiphe in Newsweek.
Another entry in the genre is Motherland, by Amy Sohn. It just came out and I haven’t finished it yet, and in any case I’d decline to opine about it because Sohn is a neighbor. But in interviews she talks about marriage this way: “What happens when you’ve bought into an entire set of bourgeois values and you don’t have any inner satisfaction? What happens when you wake up and feel your spouse is a stranger? What happens when you cheat?”
Maybe this heightened sense of marital duplicity is lost on me because lying isn’t my thing, though I can see in principle how holding on to a secret or two lends a frisson to the relentlessly quotidian element of domestic life. Female sex addicts, as I learned reporting a piece for Women’s Health magazine, often say they get off on the lying more than they do the sex — they find for themselves ever more dangerous assignations, which force them into more sneaking around, at weirder and weirder hours, until they have to buy special secret cell phones, which they hide around the house the way alcoholics hide bottles. I just can’t see how, practically, you pull that off: How do you get anything done when you have two separate realities to keep straight on top of all the other jobs (big and little) that life requires? But logistics aside, there’s something wiggy in our collective pleasure meter when we are drawn to books that like to paint married women as plotters, yet cluck-cluck and fall back on old judgments when any real woman (see: 22-year-old Kristen Stewart) goes off course. (Any woman out there who hasn’t wanted to sleep with a teacher, a camp counselor, or a boss, please raise your hand.)
You never know what’s happening in anyone’s marriage, but from what I can tell, my friends are drawn to much more innocent (and lamer) transgressions. A friend and I recently marveled, for example, over the cuteness of the “Call Me Maybe” parody, featuring Selena Gomez, Ashley Tisdale, and Justin Bieber larking about, dancing in hoodies, funny hats, and fake moustaches. (How many of the 9 million YouTube viewers are married women, I wonder?) My friend and I watched it together. And then we watched it again. The next day, we e-mailed each other remiscences of our appreciation. Our enthusiasm in this case wasn’t secret and it held for us only the merest whiff of sexual titillation of the G-rated variety. What Bieber & Co. gave us was an alternate route through the hyperbolic requirements of pain and pleasure that contemporary visions of marriage demand. The video’s effects were nostalgic. Plain vanilla. It gave us — momentarily — a reconnection with a 13-year-old self that can’t possibly imagine all the responsibilities and complications of adulthood.
Only a tad more dangerous (but definitely more sexually overt) was the slideshow of Olympic swimmer Nathan Adrian that some of my friends were sharing recently on Facebook. It might as well have been gay porn: The moms loved it. (“I appreciate this important information,” wrote one.) This was, undoubtedly, an extracurricular pleasure. But we enjoyed it on our own time, between deadlines and exchanging kids’ shoes at Zappos, and we did so openly. Any further transgression hardly seems worth the trouble.