When Julie Little acknowledged to friends at work that she was married and looking for another partner, she was met with the shocked response, “Shame on you!” In retrospect, she says, she should have expected it – she had presumed too much on the basis of the day to day office gossip about relationships and men – but still she was left asking herself why. Why should she be ashamed?
At the time, Julie had been married for six years. Her husband was a sales executive who spent a lot of time travelling. They loved each other, but neither of them wanted to go without sex, and when Julie saw her husband flirting with another woman at a party she realised to her surprise that it didn’t bother her at all. They came to an agreement and now describe themselves as married and looking. Julie says it has taken the pressure off everything. Now when her husband comes home they can enjoy their time together instead of each worrying about what the other might have been doing while they were apart.
Julie’s case is similar to that of thousands of other people across the UK. She feels no shame about being married and looking for other sexual opportunities, perhaps even for another relationship – the two things don’t contradict each other in her mind. She has now had affairs with other men but she doesn’t feel they have affected her commitment to her husband.
Despite this, the popular attitude remains that it is shameful to be married and looking, and that it is especially shameful for women. Julie had thought her workplace was more liberal because, as she says, they talk about guys all the time, sometimes quite explicitly, and there are magazines handed around the office which are full of articles urging women to take control of their sexuality. But when it comes down to it, those women, like so many others, are really quite old fashioned. While they may lust over various men when they’re single, they all expect that one day they will get married, and looking at other men after that will never go further than ‘window shopping’.
This continued interest demonstrates that women’s sexuality is not always – or even usually – entirely contained by marriage. Many feel the need for another outlet, yet refrain from seeking it. Perhaps shockingly, some do this even when they know that their husbands are having affairs. Why shouldn’t they be married and looking too? Why is it a sign of success when a man does it, but shameful for a woman?
Julie’s lack of shame at the fact she’s married and looking is more than just a rejection of traditional expectations about relationships – it’s a rejection of social values that still say there’s one rule for men and another for women. Perhaps this is why it shocks her colleagues so much – because it represents a breaking away from the habits of shame that have kept women in their place for thousands of years. But times are changing. Looking on the internet for support, Julie came across a site called www.marriedandlooking.co.uk and discovered that there are lots of other people out there, from all walks of life, whose feelings about marriage are closer to her own.
Despite having been told by her colleagues that she’s betraying her husband, Julie feels strongly about her commitment to him, and still fully expects to be with him for the rest of her life. She sees marriage as a partnership, based on love, that enables a couple to build a home together and support each other, both practically and emotionally, as they grow older. Yet within this framework she sees no reason why she shouldn’t be married and looking for other lovers. The affairs she has had have been no threat to her marriage. She is confident that nobody could ever replace her husband.
What would a world be like, Julie has wondered, in which nobody was burdened by this kind of shame? Meeting other people with the same approach to marriage has assured her that being married and looking can work at more than just an individual level. The people she has talked to through the website all talk of successful, lasting relationships, some of which have been positively enriched by their other experiences. Above all, she says, they seem relaxed.about sex and relationships in a way that makes them better able to cope with the other things life throws at them.
Yet despite these postive experiences, Julie has not talked about the website at work. Why? Because she thinks it would only shock her colleagues more. Her experience of being told she should be ashamed has taught her to keep her private life very private indeed. She assumes that her colleagues know she’s still married and looking, but there’s a tacit agreement not to talk about it. The problem with this is that she sometimes finds herself wondering how many other people there might be out there – in her own circle of friends and acquaintances – who have the same feelings about these things, but stay silent.
Despite her own silence, Julie feels strongly that nobody should have to be ashamed of being married and looking. Why should she be unable to talk about her affairs when single colleagues discuss theirs? Now if she so much as comments on an attractive man – even when everyone else is doing so – she is met with frowns and stares. Ironically, she’s pretty sure that her colleagues wouldn’t have such a strong reaction if they thought she was looking for an opportunity to cheat on her husband, to have an affair behind his back.
Julie’s big hope is that this situation won’t persist. She feels that the presence of people who are married and looking on the internet is bound to spill over into other areas of life at some point soon, and that attitudes like those of her colleagues will soften with time. After all, traditional ideas about marriage were far stricter than they are today. In the long term, being married and looking might not seem out of the ordinary at all – certainly not anything to be ashamed of.