Marriage is one of the most powerful coagulants in any society and there are few words we utter in our entire lives of more importance than saying “I do.” Individual vows vary but they generally include a lifelong commitment to love, friendship, and to emotional and financial partnership. Then there is the not inconsiderable matter of sex.
Aside from the few couples that openly allow outside partners, the spectre of extramarital sex hangs over all marriages, often unacknowledged. For many couples the subject is never even discussed prior to the wedding. Her: (varnishing her toenails) “What d’you think, honeybuns; shall we have sex with others after we marry?” Him: (engrossed in the eighth minute of extra time at Old Trafford) “Whatever.”
Equally few couples directly reference sex—monogamous or otherwise—in their marriage vows. Yet all parties implicitly understand that a deep and binding agreement between the couple and the community is taking place. Like all agreements, this involves some give and take. On one hand, the community recognises the right for the couple to have sex with each other. This recognition is formalised in the patriarchal phrase, “You may now kiss the bride.” (For ‘kiss’ you can substitute another four-letter word that ends in ‘k’.)
On one hand, the community recognises the right for the couple to have sex with each other. This recognition is formalised in the patriarchal phrase, “You may now kiss the bride.” (For ‘kiss’ you can substitute another four-letter word that ends in ‘k’.)
But the price society exacts for this sexual licence is high: the commitment to monogamy. Although widely regarded as a romantic ideal, its purpose in societal terms is entirely practical: the happy couple commits to managing each other’s sexual impulses till death do them part. Misty-eyed romanticism may make this appear a less than onerous task, but the underlying implication is that any sexual disturbances will be contained within the family unit. If we are ever to escape from Sexcatraz, we must cast off the rose-tinted glasses and perceive our social structures with complete clarity: instead of addressing the underlying shame, society uses monogamy as a means of quarantining potentially harmful sexual energies.
All of this passes unnoticed as the champagne corks pop, the bride flashes her garter, and the bridesmaid French kisses the best man behind the port-a-loos. The films in the last chapter show that by the time most teenagers reach marriageable age they are already inmates of Sexcatraz. Clouded by a confetti swirl of feel-good emotions, the reality is that we blunder into long-term relationships blindly believing that our partners will sexually satisfy us (and vice-versa) for the rest of our lives. The very unwillingness to raise the subject—an obvious red flag—is itself the result of our censoring covenants. But the reluctance to discuss a subject doesn’t eliminate it, and many couples experience a sexual crisis involving a third party at some point in their relationship. This is the scenario of Stanley Kubrick’s controversial final film, Eyes Wide Shut.
 Statistics on open marriages are hard to find; unverified US estimates for 2010 are around 1-6%.
 The groom’s stag night is traditionally regarded as his ‘last night of freedom’; this refers mainly to sexual freedom. This is reflected in the Spanish word esposas, which means both ‘wife’ and ‘handcuffs’ (Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá, Sex at Dawn).