Affairs

From Encyclopedia of Sex and Sexuality

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Love affairs—erotic or loving relationships between men and women outside marriage or between people of the same sex—have been the centerpieces of literature, from the Old Testament and Ovid’s Art of Love to the modern Western novel. Affairs are distinctive and diverse, both in literature and in life, but they do share some qualities.

It is usually assumed that an affair will involve a sexual relationship (though some may, in time, reveal their essentially platonic nature), but affairs are more than sexual encounters. They are usually rooted in love or erotic attachments of some strength and duration. If an affair lasts only a few weeks or a month it might be called a “brief” affair, but a weekend dalliance should be called a “fling,“ not an affair, and a “one-night stand” is just that.

Men and women involved in affairs may be married or not, have long term lovers or be totally free. A pair involved in an affair may promise and practice sexual exclusivity or they may be involved with others at the same time. Often, lengthy affairs will culminate in the couple choosing to live together, but at this point their relationship implies continuity and exclusivity, neither necessarily part of an affair. Yet the author George Sand lived with the composer Frederic Chopin for many years, and their stormy relationship has never been defined as anything other than an affair. In rare instances affairs will lead to marriage.

Today the word affair implies that either partner has the freedom to end it, even if one partner or the other dominates the relationship. In previous generations, however, the women in such relationships tended to have less power than the men and often were defined as mistresses, common-law wives, or even as “gold-diggers,” all terms with somewhat pejorative connotations that implied dependence on the men in the relationships. (Of course, sometimes women had the upper hand, especially if they had financial independence or other opportunities.) Yet while men may have had more power, they also suffered social disapproval as seducers and exploiters. If either or both partners were married (at a time when, for religious or social reasons, it was not always possible to divorce), there often was the additional social scorn reserved for adulterers.

It is probably true that many of today’s affairs fit the old categories, but many do not. Increasing equality between men and women has had a strong impact on their social and sexual relationships.

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