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The Falwell affair shows non-monogamy isn't rare — but it does challenge social norms

Monogamous marriage is still considered a bedrock of modern society, whether you're liberal or conservative. Maybe it's time to rethink that.
Jerry Falwell Jr.,Becki Falwell
Rev. Jerry Falwell Jr. and his wife Becki during after a town hall at a convocation at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., on Nov. 28, 2018.Steve Helber / AP file

On Monday, long-circulated rumors about evangelical leader and now former Liberty University president Jerry Falwell Jr. burst into public view, which may end up costing Falwell both his job and, perhaps, his political reputation.

According to what a former business associate, Giancarlo Granda, told Reuters, Falwell and his wife, Becki — who met Granda while he was working as a pool attendant at the Fontainebleau Miami Beach hotel — had spent years engaging in a sexual practice known as cuckoldry, with Granda serving as the “bull” with Becki as Jerry allegedly looked on. While Jerry Falwell ultimately acknowledged a sexual relationship between his wife and Granda, he contested Granda’s version of the events and said in a statement Sunday that he hadn’t been a consenting participant but a beleaguered husband who’d been cheated on by his beloved wife.

The Falwells are hardly the first prominent political couple to possibly have a sex life that strains the boundaries of monogamy. Non-monogamy — whether consensual, like the cuckold fetish Granda claims to have indulged in with the Falwells, or nonconsensual, like the infidelity Falwell says the relationship was — is a bipartisan issue.

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Its practitioners range from former Rep Katie Hill, D-Calif., a promising young politician whose career was derailed by non-consensually leaked photos revealing her consensual participation in a “throuple” with her ex-husband and a campaign staffer, to President Donald Trump, whose alleged extramarital dalliances are only rivaled in number by the members of his administration who’ve run afoul of the law.

Yet even as non-monogamy runs rampant in Washington, D.C., it’s difficult to imagine it ever being openly accepted. Politicians may find forgiveness after fumbling monogamy, but to openly reject the idea of committing to one partner for life (or at least for a few months or years) is, at best, to court ridicule as a freak show, à la Roger Stone, or, at worst, to completely tank your career. The idea that any current political figure — whether they’re part of the Evangelical establishment like Falwell or a recently elected progressive upstart — could survive publicly identifying as non-monogamous feels laughable.

It feels worth asking why.

After all, a 2015 YouGov study suggests that 20 percent of Americans — men and women — will cheat on a partner at some point (i.e., engage in nonconsensual non-monogamy). A 2018 peer-reviewed study from the Archives of Sexual Behavior, based on a 2012 study of partnered Americans, suggests that, at any given point, 89 percent of people are actively monogamous, while 4 percent are consensually non-monogamous and 8 percent are actively non-consensually non-monogamous. And two other studies suggest that Americans will engage in a consensually non-monogamous relationship in their lifetime — a number that is growing among younger generations.

Plus, on the surface, there isn’t much difference between an illicit affair and a consensually non-monogamous arrangement. Whether Becki Falwell was canoodling with Giancarlo Granda behind her husband’s back or with him in the room, she was still pursuing pleasure outside the bonds of supposedly holy matrimony. But the story that Jerry Falwell tells about the affair is one where the couple retains their fealty to the idea, if not the actual practice, of monogamous marriage — and to Falwell's stereotypically masculine role in that marriage.

That is very, very different from Granda’s tale of happy rejection of monogamous norms — which is a significant distinction, particularly for an evangelical leader like Falwell. Because whatever else it might be, monogamous, heterosexual marriage is a bedrock of the patriarchy. And a political establishment that’s willing to put a public commitment to monogamy aside is one that’s willing to truly challenge men’s power and dominion over women, their bodies and their sexuality ... which is something American society doesn’t seem quite yet ready to do.

This is not to say that all monogamous marriages are inherently patriarchal, or that casting off the shackles of monogamy suddenly renders your relationship egalitarian: Certainly, it’s possible to find gender equity and oppression in a range of relationships, whatever their arrangement with regards to monogamy. But monogamous heterosexual marriage as an institution has long been used to police the sexual behavior of women, with tools ranging from virginity pledges to slut-shaming employed to keep the ladies in line.

And, as a concept, monogamy is supposedly gender blind but, in practice, its social enforcement tends to favor men, with people looking the other way when men step out of the matrimonial bounds while harshly delivering consequences to women who stray.

What would it have meant for Jerry Falwell Jr. to openly admit that he enjoys watching his wife in the arms of another man? It would mean, certainly, a major challenge to the rigid sexual norms he's publicly supported for decades. But it would also mean challenging his own status as the patriarch within his family and society at large, acknowledging that the family structure and sexual roles on which men have based society for millennia just don’t really work for him and, likely, for many other people.

For many men and women, it’s far easier to continually patch up the countless tiny cracks in the foundation of the patriarchy than to openly participate in its destruction.

So, as long as that’s the case, we’ll continue to have “sex scandals” in which ostensibly monogamous political figures sheepishly admit their monogamy has been more aspirational than actual. And we’ll continue to uphold monogamous, heterosexual marriage as a goal and even a requirement for everyone's supposed happiness, rather than reject it as the ill-fitting, repressive and punitive institution that it has been since its beginning.