Sex is Not One-Size-Fits-All

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Americans have a difficult time accepting our sexuality. The Petraeus scandal makes it evident that we must move beyond personal morality and allow everyone to figure out what is right for themselves.

Whether we realize it ourselves or not, America is still quite a young country. One could even make a case that we’re in our adolescence. Nowhere is this more evident than in how we respond to sex scandals. Other countries, especially our European neighbors, often make fun of us for being so uptight about the sexual indiscretions of famous people. We even impeached Bill Clinton basically for the ‘crime’ of having a sexual relationship with an intern while he was President. Other male politicians — and yes, they’re almost exclusively male (that’s a whole other blog) — from senators and Congressional representatives, to governors and former Presidential candidates, have been pilloried and sometimes ousted from their jobs for sexual dalliances.

If you’ve been paying attention to the news, we’re at it again, this time with retired four-star Army General and (now) retired CIA director David Petraeus. According to news reports, Petraeus cheated on his wife of 36 years with his biographer, a woman 20 years his junior. Rumblings about a potential leak of classified material notwithstanding (so far, this doesn’t seem to be a big deal), the media’s treatment of this scandal reminds me more of a high school rumor mill than it does real news. People not directly involved want to hear more and more salacious details, and then take great joy in moralizing about what the key players should or should not have done. It’s silly. And what’s more, it’s frustrating because it obscures yet another adolescent aspect to all of this: the inability to understand the intricacy in our sexual relationships.

In general, when some sex scandal occurs, the American public acts like there is only one way to be in a committed relationship. People appear to believe that people marry or are otherwise committed, and then that’s it. They are monogamous and that’s just how relationships are. However, as a family psychologist, I can tell you that when it comes to sex, that is simply not the case. There is a whole host of other options that people frequently utilize and, when you weigh in on someone else’s love life, you may be ignoring the complexity involved.

Let me give an example. In an old episode of Friends, Joey discovers that his father is cheating on his mother. As you might expect, Joey is genuinely outraged on his mother’s behalf, and insists that his father stop seeing the other woman. However, what Joey soon learns is that his protection of his mother is unnecessary because, not only does she know exactly what is going on, but she actually approves of it. Although the parties involved don’t talk about it openly with each other, Joey’s father’s sexcapades give his mother a break and allow their marriage to remain happy. Once Joey understands that everyone is content, he backs off and lets them run their own lives without his interference. While Joey was often portrayed as a bit dim, we all could learn from him.

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What Joey discovered is that monogamy often has some serious pitfalls, especially when it comes to sex. If both partners in the relationship have the same level of desire and sexual ability, things can go smoothly. However, this is not always the case, and many people find themselves in a relationship where one partner has a high level of desire but the other doesn’t. For example, how is a couple supposed to negotiate sex when one partner has a high level of desire but the other has been sexually abused and wants nothing to do with physical intimacy? What does a couple do when one partner has particular fantasies in which the other partner doesn’t want to participate? Does one partner go without sex or should the other be forced to engage in something they don’t want to do? Neither solution sounds very workable. Or what if, as seems to be the situation with the Petraeus marriage, the couple is rarely in the same place at the same time? Are both of them required to go without sex for long periods of time? Some would say yes, but others don’t view that as acceptable.

Given these realities, many people practice a whole host of other options. Some, like Joey’s parents, have an open relationship in which either partner can have sex outside of the relationship, usually with a few conditions (which are negotiated between the couple ahead of time). Other people enjoy swinging, which is the switching of partners for sexual interactions. Still others do not view monogamy as viable, so they practice polyamory, which can be broadly defined as having more than one intimate relationship at a time. Polyamory is different from swinging in that it is more about relationships than just sexual interactions. I’m sure there are other options that I don’t know about, but the main point here is that sexuality and relationships are complicated and they aren’t one-size-fits-all.

If we want to move past our adolescent phase regarding sexuality and public figures, we need to stop focusing on sexual adventures as something worthy of our attention. I can understand people being upset with a powerful public servant who showed poor judgment by putting himself in a compromising position (so to speak), but if the American public weren’t so quick to judge things that aren’t our business, that wouldn’t be the case. Petraeus would then be free to do his job and concentrate on containing terrorism abroad instead of stepping down. And if we accept the fact that what works for one doesn’t work for all, we can stop moralizing and start improving the state of relationships in general. That would be good because adolescence can be extremely annoying. I’d like to see us grow up.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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