There are two different basic conceptions of marriage operative in society. The first, and socially encouraged, conception arose from the Christian, specifically Paulist, conception of marriage as a social control on the ‘evil’ of erotic passion.
Erotic passion is not ‘natural’ but a specifically human sublimation of the generically animal expression of sexuality as a means to encourage the reproductive cycle. The erotic is essentially individual and transgressive. Ontologically it is the erotic horizon that is transgressed by the individual uncovering of what is erotic, which in itself is indeterminate – what is erotic is specific to the individual and in general terms can be anything at all. In Lacan’s terms ‘There is no sexual relationship.” i.e. normalization of the erotic precisely undermines the erotic as erotic, returning it to the ‘natural’ expression of animal reproduction. For the Paulist Christian this is the lesser evil, since the passion of individual eroticism is made to conform to a non-transgressive, moral ideal of a socially acceptable sexuality, and is thus destroyed as erotic passion and turned into a social duty within the confines of a socially inscribed formalism. The civic conception of marriage simply re-inscribes the religious conception from a formalized union ‘in the sight of God’ to a formalized union ‘in the sight of the Big Other of the ideological framework, where God is removed from the place of the Big Other without removing that place as a structural necessity within the ideological framework. This removal of a God posited as loving and forgiving in fact absolutizes the formal rules of marriage since there is nothing in the place of the Big Other that can respond to an appeal for forgiveness in transgressing the formalism. It is within this conception of marriage that anything that does not follow the formal rules, such as gay marriage, cannot be considered a ‘real’ marriage in its institutional meaning, but only a civil union. Although a civil union is legally the same as a marriage, for a Paulist it does not properly reduce dangerous erotic passion to the societal duty of passionless ‘natural’ sexuality.
The second conception of marriage is precisely the equation of marriage with a civil union, a social convenience that itself is meaningless and simply confers social acceptance while not affecting the transgression of eroticism and romantic passion. In the case of someone whose initiation to society included a strong indoctrination of the first conception, viewing marriage in the second sense can even strengthen the erotic transgression of romantic passion, because the intentional refusal to engage with the expected formal rules of marriage is itself a further erotic transgression, enhancing the transgression of the erotic passion.
While a move to the second notion looks immediately as both simple and attractive as an operative notion where marriage confers social advantages but the partners have no intrinsic interest in submitting their passion to a socially acceptable formalism, the reality is that maintaining that understanding is far more difficult than it appears. We are all initiated into society with certain understandings and resulting inherent ways of interpreting given situations. We have all experienced, at least at second hand, the initially baffling situation where lovers who have already had a long term passionate relationship marry as a social convenience, and it results in a falling apart of the relationship within a short time. Many have also experienced on a more intimate level a sudden change in the other, where from being a passionate lover there he or she immediately conforms to the social expectation of the behavior of a husband or wife, confusing the person who hasn’t changed yet is expected to match the change by conforming to the social expectations of their role in the marriage.
Although the partner who suddenly changes may have believed himself or herself that marriage is simply a social convenience, the act of inscribing the relationship into the symbolic order of society results in an immediate change in the operative interpretation of the meaning of the relationship. Suddenly erotic passion becomes a more or less boring duty to one’s partner. Erotic passion becomes something looked for or at least fantasized about as extrinsic to the marriage, something to be enacted with another. Ironically, the fear of being found out that may be operative if this fantasy is indulged, or may prevent the fantasy from becoming more than that, is often not primarily related to the other partner discovering the extramarital activity, in fact they may be completely open about the situation with the other partner, who is often engaged in similar activities. The fear is primarily that of being found out by society in its guise of the Big Other that remains operative despite being unoccupied by a posited being. It is the fear of transgressing the inscription of the marriage into the symbolic order of society.
Often, precisely because the erotic is always transgressive in some way, the extramarital activities are perceived as ‘kinky’, which is nothing more than society’s judgment on the nature of fully erotic passion. The ‘kinky’ transgressions may include physical activities that are against the established societal norms, such as violence that may range from mild spankings to extreme whippings and beatings. Interestingly, within the ‘scene’ that provides both a relatively safe space in which to indulge this behavior, and a meeting place for those interested in the activities in the first place. In some cases the activities are not extramarital but are carried out with the married partner, in order to reignite the passion of the marriage that the social inscription has obnubilated or even obliterated, but more often the activities are carried out with other partners, although often with the knowledge of the married partner who tends, at least initially, to see it as a way of satisfying desires they don’t share, and thereby maintaining the marriage.
In other cases the transgressions are specifically opposed to current society’s conception of an appropriate intimate relation. This may take the form, for example, of an actual enactment of the largely mythical and now socially unacceptable ‘1950’s household’; it may take the form of the power differential initially found in a small minority of the ‘leather’ community (itself already a transgression of the societal stricture against damaging the liberal egalitarian ideal of marriage by adopting a dress and manner designed to evoke the impression of extreme masculine power); it may take the form of an extreme interpretation of the ‘courtly love’ relationship that initially required obedience due to the danger involved, but evolved into a dominant/submissive or even Master/slave ideal of extreme or absolute obedience for its own sake as fully transgressive of the liberal egalitarian ideals. This latter type of transgression often goes beyond the bounds of the specifically erotic situation and eroticizes the entirety of the relationship. While this remains a minority of the specifically erotic community, it has developed from a small and very secretive group to a group with a public international presence, one that very often wears external symbols of their relationship that are becoming more and more known within society at large, and even in a small way acceptable enough to be portrayed in mainstream media rather than only in small release productions that are unknown outside the community itself. In many cases these different forms are mixed, where the ‘leather’ dress and manner is adopted by the dominant partner, while a dress and manner reminiscent of 1950’s pinups is adopted by the submissive partner. This mixing is very prevalent within the heterosexual component of the community, especially those with a dominant male and submissive female. While this may be seen as ‘reactionary’ in terms of being a repetition of at least a perception of a historically older type of relation between men and women, the transgressive situation in which it is enacted changes the meaning of the power and authority discrepancy into an erotic, socially transgressive situation, which is unrelated to a reactionary stance.
While in many cases even the more playful, less relationship oriented types of transgressive eroticism erodes the conformist marriage to the point of dissolution. Other than the cases where both partners already married are simultaneously attracted to abrogating society’s expectations of the nature of their relationship in order to increase or reignite the erotic passion of the relationship, or conversely those already in a transgressive relationship get married for the sake of the social convenience but are careful not to let the expectations of others that they will now ‘act married’ affect the eroticism of their relationship, in most cases those that were married to another find their lack of real interest in the marriage inevitably leads to its dissolution. Of course this makes it all the more imperative, but all the more difficult, to maintain the initial level of eroticism in the transgressive relationship. By carefully avoiding any tendency to drift towards a normalized relationship or to accept others’ expectations (whether real or only posited) and change the relationship to be more in line with those expectation, the eroticism of the relationship can be maintained.