Why I’m skeptical about “negotiated infidelity”

Transcript after the jump.

Folks just can’t get enough of Holly Hill. The Australian mistress turned-author’s new book Sugarbabe is a great big public service announcement for what she calls “negotiated infidelity,” where partners develop rules in the context of a marriage to have affairs with other people. While this sounds good in theory, the costs of possible STIs may outweigh the benefits. Further, all this talk about negotiating infidelity may be obscuring one possible reason some marriages may be sexless.

While I included one portion of Hill’s debate with Frankel, Hill made a comment later in the debate about STDs that needs to be addressed.  Hill’s take: “If you take control of the reins, you aren’t going to have STDs, because you’re in control of the situation and you’re making sure that they use protection.” Newsflash: Herpes and HPV are two STIs that women can get from skin to skin contact. And, men still do not have a widely available test available for HPV. This means that husbands could unknowingly transmit an infection that causes cancer to their wife after an affair. The risk for STDs becomes an even greater issue when married couples don’t re-institute condoms into their sexual affairs after they take on other partners. So, STDs is an issue that couples still have to watch out for.

Additionally, in the midst of the negotiated infidelity debate, I hear another issue that I think deserves attention: sexless marriages. While women are often talked about as crossing their legs as a form of denying men sex, consider another reading from an article I penned about female sexual pleasure.

According to an article in the June 2008 Obstetrics and Gynecology Clinics Journal, only 30 percent of women “almost always” or “always” achieve orgasm during sexual activity. Compare that to the 75 percent of men who “always” or “almost always” do.

This reveals that there may be something really problematic about the way Sugarbabe is even talking about the role of sex in relationships. Sex in marriage is not simply a vehicle to keep men from cheating. It’s an activity that involves mutual participation where women bring their own sexual subjectivity to the table. In the case of sexless marriage, maybe negotiated infidelity isn’t the solution at all to getting more sex. Maybe engaging a woman in more pleasurable sex might lead her to participate on a more frequent basis. In the end, I am more inclined to agree with Sarah Symonds, “If you are negotiating with somebody you probably are in the wrong relationship. Anything that needs that much negotiation probably isn’t right and you should get out of it.”

Transcript here:

ALI WENTWORTH, GUEST HOST: Now if you’ve ever been in a relationship you’ll want to stay right here because we are talking about monogamy. It’s been a hot topic on CNN.com all day.

Should couples have open relationships and disclose affairs? Could letting your man sleep with another woman actually help your relationship?

Well, that’s what we’re going to ask our guests tonight. Bethenny Frankel is here. She’s a star of Bravo’s “Bethenny Getting Married.” She tied the knot in March.



WENTWORTH: Holly Hill is the author of “Sugarbabe.” She says women should negotiate infidelity with their husbands. And Sarah Symonds is an author and infidelity analyst.

Hello, women, and welcome to a hot topic. Infidelity. I want to — I want to first ask, have any of you been cheated on?

FRANKEL: Yes. I was cheated on. His — he had a girlfriend while he was — well, he was actually sleeping with her. I was his girlfriend. And she called me in the middle of the night at about 2:00 in the morning and said, can I speak to Michael?

I guess he’s going to be listening. Hi, Michael.

Hi, can I speak to Michael, and I said, who is this? And she said, I’m his girlfriend. And we hung up the phone and I waited two hours and I star 69’d her so I can call her back and get all the details.

WENTWORTH: And she gave you all the details?

FRANKEL: And she gave me the details. You need the details.

WENTWORTH: Well, you always need the details.

Now, Holly — Holly Hill author of “Sugarbabe,” you actually think that’s OK. You think that if you negotiate fidelity with your spouse or lover that actually makes for a long and successful relationship. Am I right?

HOLLY HILL, SAYS WOMEN SHOULD LET MEN CHEAT: Yes. Absolutely. And those details that we talk about, if you’re meeting the women that your partner is being with, you’re not building her up to be some kind of supermodel in your head.

And we always want to know the details. And the best way to get the details is ask her out for coffee and be adult about what is a very educated and natural thing to be doing.

FRANKEL: See, I think that was a low point in my relationship, in my life to be talking to that girl. It really had nothing to do with her. I was in the wrong relationship because I was with someone who was cheating. And I think that negotiating within your relationship about being allowed to cheat is absurd.

WENTWORTH: You know, Holly, it’s one of the things that I — I’m married. And one of the things that I think of in my marriage is that, you know, I can go to my girlfriends for emotional support or my shrink, and there are other venues where I can sort of get what I want.

But I feel that marriage, the one thing I have with my husband, which is sacred, is a sexual physical relationship. Otherwise, why be married?

HILL: I guess the only reason it’s sacred is because it’s — there’s old-fashioned rules that we’re obeying. And if you want to have a lifetime relationship with someone — which is what we all want — it’s about negotiating things within their nature and their biology.

WENTWORTH: Now, Sarah, you say that — you started a fantastic Web site, MistressesAnonymous. But you’re not saying that that’s a good thing. This is really a support group for a lot of women that have been brokenhearted because they had an affair with a married man or wanted to be with a married man. Am I right? SARAH SYMONDS, AUTHOR & INFIDELITY ANALYST: Absolutely. And first of all, hi, Ali, thanks for having me on. Hi, ladies. I can absolutely resonate with Holly, I’ve been through certain, you know, similar experiences that she has.

But I have to say, if you are negotiating with somebody you probably are in the wrong relationship. Anything that needs that much negotiation probably isn’t right and you should get out of it.

And that’s who my Web site is about, that’s what my support group is about. It’s called MistressesAnonymous, which is like Alcoholics Anonymous. But in my group we can drink, and trust me, you need to.

It’s, you know, a 12-step program. And literally I help women get out of their toxic affairs with married men, with unavailable men, with bad boys. It’s a phenomenon that’s going over America. You know women are attracting to these wrong guys. And I hear from women every single day. It’s unbelievable.

WENTWORTH: Now I want to sort of open this debate up to all three of you, which is that a lot of people say, men and women clearly are different, and we have different needs and men really biologically, physically, their urge is to spread their seed throughout the land, and ours is to kind of, you know, incubate.

And when you put that in its very kind of specific scientific DNA kind of way, do we allow men because it is their physical urge to go out and have at it?

FRANKEL: I think women — first of all, men are sleeping with the women. And I mean, speaking of the sharks that are going to be on the show tonight, there are a lot of women going out and preying on men. So I think it’s equal. I think a lot of women have a big sexual appetite.

Join the Conversation

  • http://feministing.com/members/roseblack/ Trinity

    Is it just me, or is “negotiated infidelity” an attempt to reinvent the polyamory wheel, but worse? Calling it negotiated infidelity makes it sound like it’s still cheating if everyone’s okay with it, which is buying back into the old-fashioned ideas of marriage that Hill is trying to step away from. And if everyone’s not actually okay with it, they need to do some work on negotiating more effectively. They’re all also stuck in the usual gendered idea of when relationships have to open up, which means they’re losing out on what I find to be the most beautiful part of open relationships: an understanding that no two people can fulfill all of each others needs, an acknowledgment of each person’s needs, and a combined effort to find ways for each persons needs to be met. Not all open relationships work like that, of course, but by limiting the discourse this way, they’re missing out on a lot of what open relationships can be.

    • thomas-macaulay-millar

      Exactly. In fact, that the media would let this person talk and not so much as ask, “how does what you’re saying relate to polyamory? Do you consider yourself polyamorous?” shows that the producer and reported either did not do basic homework, or intentionally avoided noting that there’s a whole community and literature around alternatives to monogamy in committed relationships. Either way, it’s irresponsible.

    • http://feministing.com/members/angi/ Angi

      Exactly my thoughts. There’s been a whole lot in the media recently about “negotiated infidelity” and “the new monogamy” that makes me, as a polyamorous woman, a little uncomfortable. These notions of “negotiated infidelity” seem to reinforce the idea of a heteronormative monogamous pairing as the foundation, while relegating other sexual relationships to a “whatever works behind closed doors” kind of status. I’m a lot more interested in upsetting the norm than reinforcing it, and this kind of media attention feels like a step backward when it comes to public understanding of my own lifestyle. It would be nice if these writers at least acknowledged the fact that in addition to getting sex on the side, there are also a lot of us in the world who are balancing multiple fulfilling relationships. It’s certainly not the way everyone has to do “open,” but it should at least be discussed as a possibility.

  • http://feministing.com/members/pedestrian/ Jonathan

    First, I question the simplistic idea that men are hard-wired to be promiscuous and that women must accept that as a social fact. Second, if a man is going to lie about infidelity unless he is given permission to do as he pleases, how can he be trusted to use a condom or follow the other negotiated ground rules? When, if ever, should a man’s “biological needs” also take the needs and feelings of others into account? There is an evolutionary logic behind rape as well, but that doesn’t mean that women must tolerate it because “men have different needs”.

    I am all for open relationships, if that is what all members of the relationship truly want. I just bristle at the assumption that where men and women have differing ideas about an ideal level of fidelity, the woman must yield to the man’s wishes or be left powerless and ultimately alone.

  • http://feministing.com/members/abbywankenobi/ abby_wan_kenobi

    I agree with @Trinity. Both the words “negotiated” and “infidelity” are casting this in a negative light.

    “Negotiating” implies that one or both parties are giving something up, compromising to get closer to the ideal, but not reaching it. I don’t think it’s unrealistic to assume that both members of couples in happy, successful open relationships are better off than they would be in a closed relationship.

    “Infidelity” means someone is still cheating, being unfaithful. If in the context of one’s relationship, monogamy is not expected, it doesn’t seem like anyone is being cheated. There’s no deception, no violation of rules.

    Further agreeing with @Trinity it seems to put an unneccesary amount of pressure on a marriage to expect one person to be another’s everything. Not every marriage or partnership needs an outside source for sex, but every one needs an outside source for something – moral support, career advice, reality tv viewing , golfing, religion.

    Not that skepticism isn’t warrented. No one should negotiate something that makes them uncomfortable for the sake of keeping a less than ideal partner. Opening up a relationship certainly isn’t a fix-all. It can create a lot more problems than it solves and from a safety standpoint is a logistical nightmare.

    Also, this article is focused on hetero relationships between cis gendered partners. Open relationships are much more common, and more socially acceptable in queer communities and could be examined as an established model.

  • http://feministing.com/members/mairemhor/ tomi

    first of all, i think that calling the situation “negotiated infidelity” casts real, working, polyamorous relationships in a negative light. it’s not “negotiated infidelity.” it’s the ability to love more than one person at once and overcome jealousy to work in harmony with your partner. monogamy is just another one of those things that society sells us. so, feministing, it’s okay to have sex with whoever we want, but only if we take it one at a time? serial monogamy will not prevent us from getting sti’s that come from skin-to-skin contact. neither will just plain monogamy. both of the women that i know in my life that have herpes and hpv respectively contracted it from their HUSBANDS who decided to CHEAT. (not have a polyamorous relationship, because having more than one partner with open communication ISN’T cheating, or “infidelity.” of course you go into an open relationship realistically thinking about sti’s. but you also go into the world of being sexually active with that in mind, too. real polyamorous couples have rules. they use condoms with everybody, or they only go bare with their primary partner. everybody gets tested. sometimes, sti’s happen, but only as much as they happen in serial monogamy. and yes, most poly people are of the belief that having multiple partners leads to more sex, mostly because when you become interested in somebody else you get whats called NRE: new relationship energy, and you want to have more sex. i don’t think it has anything to do with the orgasm gap between men and women (although that should continue be addressed everywhere.)

  • http://cabaretic.blogspot.com nazza

    I have known polyamorous couples ever since college. Most of them have had to hide or obscure it from others: parents, friends, employers, etc. They would laugh at the idea of “negotiated infidelity”, since decisions made were not made on opposite sides of a bargaining table. It wasn’t as though there was an antagonistic relationship regarding the subject of other partners. Everyone knew everything up front. And, as others have noted, it’s often difficult navigating jealousy, but there’s a concerted interest in dealing with it responsibly.

    My personal belief is that monogamy is awfully convenient, but perhaps not suited for everyone. I thought many times about polyamory, but have attracted monogamous partners. Some say that it’s more feasible in a same-sex setting than an opposite-sex setting.

  • http://feministing.com/members/summieshines/ Summer Shelton

    Why is this story about “Letting Your Man Cheat”? Is it completely disregarding the fact that women are sexual beings?

  • http://feministing.com/members/kleenexmcadams/ Jennie

    Even though I agree with the above commenters that “negotiated infidelity” is a problematic term, I don’t much care. If people want to be polyamorous, that’s great. If they want to be monogamous, that’s awesome too. Go for it. Whatever. What I cannot stand is people like this woman who tell everyone that this is what makes a successful marriage. That there is a perfect formula to marriage and that any marriage that isn’t this way is a failure. Butt the hell out of my marriage! Marriage isn’t an institution, there are no rules. It’s a partnership between two individuals who set the rules as needed. Why would I need someone I’ve never met to set the rules for how my husband and I interact with one another?

  • http://feministing.com/members/pothus/ Pothus

    A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose. Stop dressing this idea up to make it more palatable, and keep working on acceptance of open relationships and marriages.

  • http://feministing.com/members/cosoa/ Cosoa

    Why does this focus on the activities of men? Do women never get extramarital urges?

  • http://feministing.com/members/nancyblackett/ Emily

    “If you are negotiating with somebody you probably are in the wrong relationship. Anything that needs that much negotiation probably isn’t right and you should get out of it.”

    Many people in successful relationships would beg to differ with you. Couples “negotiate” everything from where to go on vacation, to what house to buy, to whose turn it is to make dinner. BDSM-ers negotiate scenes (because it’s important to know what someone’s likes, dislikes and limits are). And people in open relationships negotiate what types of sexual activity outside the relationship they’re comfortable with, and what would freak them out. A lot of commenters here seem to see the word as having negative connotations, and I’m not sure why. To me it doesn’t imply the people bargaining must have radically opposed interests and agendas. Two negotiaters might have slightly different preferences, and just need a little communication to reach a happy conclusion. Isn’t it better to spend a little time working out an individualized arrangement, rather than assuming a one-size-fits-all standard (monogamy, in this case) for everyone?

    Not that I’m agreeing with Hill. She is clearly a hack trying to cash in on a “shocking” notion, not a progressive sex educator who to raise people’s awareness about different relationship options. The proof of that is that she pretends to have invented the idea of “negotiated infidelity” — that’s what open relationships have always been like. It’s not as if they were no-rules, anything-goes extravaganzas until now. And she assumes that all husbands would want the opportunity to “cheat,” while no wives would. Her “negotiated infidelity” is just another one-size-fits-all relationship model that assumes all men and all women are the same.

    “So, STDs is an issue that couples still have to watch out for.” A responsible relationship expert (i.e. someone unlike Hill) would point out everyone who has sex outside of a 100% monogamous relationship runs SOME STD risk. Just like in other areas of life, a moderate risk is worth it to some people, if the payoff is high enough. If someone is terrified of herpes and HPV, non-monogamy might not be for her.

    I think open relationships can work great for some couples, but Hill is a terrible spokesperson for them.