When Cheating is The Right Thing to Do: Dan Savage

Advice columnists are supposed to say that cheating is always wrong. But Dan Savage says that sometimes, it isn’t just okay, it’s ‘absolutely, positively, and without question the right thing to do’.

Seattle-based Savage has been writing his internationally syndicated sex advice column, ‘Savage Love’, for more than 20 years. ‘Except for pornography, he’s probably the biggest influence on what Americans do in the bedroom,’ says Salon. The New York Times brands him ‘Dr Ruth if she were interested in bondage and threesomes’. Savage’s values are shaped by both his Catholic upbringing and his gay identity. He is frank and open about the importance of sex, but also deeply committed to the concept of family. Part of the reason he is such an advocate for controlled cheating is that he believes it keeps couples together. He has been with his husband, Terry, for 20 years; together, they have a 15-year-old son.

Savage says that we’re conditioned to think that monogamy is natural, but it’s not – at least, not for men, who have, throughout history, had sneaky out-clauses, such as concubines, mistresses and access to sex workers. Given that straight women are married to men, that means monogamy is not straightforward. (Not that he thinks monogamy is easy for women either.) Rather than extend women the same license men have always enjoyed, we’ve imposed on men the same limitations about monogamy that women have always endured.

‘The truth is … even if you’re in love with your partner, and even if your partner is in love with you, you will both be attracted to other people,’ he writes in his latest book, American Savage. ‘You will feel lust in your heart – and in other organs too – but you will, if you can, keep that commitment, by keeping your heart, and other organs, in check.’ He believes monogamy should be seen as a struggle rather than a natural state of being. ‘Admitting that it’s a struggle makes a monogamous commitment more meaningful.’

In his own relationship, he describes himself as ‘monogamish’. This means they are more monogamous than not, but there are certain circumstances where it’s permissible for them to have sex outside the relationship. And they’re honest with each other about it.

‘If you have been with someone for twenty, thirty or forty years and your spouse only cheats on you once or twice, your spouse is good at monogamy. Not bad at it. Good at it.’ He quotes studies that estimate between 40 and 50 per cent of women and 50 to 60 per cent of men in long-term relationships have had extramarital affairs.

The problem, he says, with the kind of advice we’re conditioned with – that cheating should mean the end of a relationship – is that it too often ends basically good relationships, particularly those that involve children.

‘I’m frequently told that I overemphasize the importance of sex. But I think a marriage is about more than sex. I think sex is less important than marriage. I believe there’s more than one way to demonstrate your loyalty and commitment. And if your marriage is rendered meaningless the moment your spouse gets naked with someone else – even if it was just that one time on that business trip – then your marriage didn’t mean much to begin with.’

Here are some circumstances in which Savage believes it’s reasonable for people to cheat:

When one partner has mysteriously (and temporarily) lost their libido.

Men or women whose spouses have Alzheimer’s and are no longer husbands or wives but nurses and home-health-care aides

Men and women who are married to people who don’t like sex and do their best to make sure sex is so lousy that their spouses will stop pestering them about it.

‘If you are expected to be monogamous and have one person be all things sexually for you, then you have to be whores for each other,’ Savage told the New York Times in 2011. ‘You have to be up for anything.’

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