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Sex, Husbandry, and the Infinite Scroll

How will we know when enough is enough?

Nicole Lavelle

A married friend, Anna, recently came to me with a conundrum. Not long ago, her husband had an epiphany that he confided to her: he wanted to have sex with anyone.

He didn’t mean garden variety polyamory or sex positivity. He meant that he had discovered a sexual identity of sorts. He thought of sex as an act of physical exploration akin to playing sports. His body wanted to collide with other bodies without boundaries or restrictions, without limits and free of moral judgment. The world and its seven billion inhabitants offered an untold variety of sexual experiences. So long as the acts transpired between two (or more) consenting adults, her husband contended, “What is so wrong with that?”

I believe the world needs more of these brave and honest admissions. This was a profound act of fidelity: the fidelity to himself.

Putting aside feelings of jealousy and the fear of abandonment, Anna and I were left with a thought experiment: could she remain the wife of a husband who had an unlimited number of sexual partners, ranging from one night stands, to group sex, to long-term relationships? “I mean, is that even sustainable?” Anna asked me over coffee.

The question wasn’t rhetorical.

Implicit in her question were bigger ones that apply to design, consumption, scale, nature, and our ecological future: how will we know when enough is enough? How will we know we’ve reached the breaking point? At what point will a quantity of something push us over the edge? What is the sign that this Arrangement can no longer be sustained?

We are so compelled by matters of the heart that we don’t often know what’s unsustainable until we can no longer sustain it. Not knowing when that point will come — when a relationship is to change, or end — is one of life’s terrifying and beautiful mysteries.

And yet pursuing anything in quantity — sexual relationships, love, money, LaCroix, iPhones — offers us the opportunity to consider some alternative definitions of what does, intuitively and individually, feel sustainable. Not only for ourselves, but for our relationships, our community, and the earth.

As one does in times like these, Anna and I found ourselves consulting the Oxford English Dictionary to look up the etymology of the word husband. In addition to the common “head of household” definition, a less familiar one emerged: “husband (v.) ‘manage thriftily,’ early 15c., from husband (n.) in an obsolete sense of ‘steward’ (mid-15c.).”

The OED offers even more specificity in its definition of the verb to husband: “to avoid the wasteful or destructive use of.” Synonyms include: economize, save, preserve, and protect. But it was when Anna and I read its antonyms that we understood why her husband’s proposition elicited the word unsustainable. Listed were: consume, deplete, drain, exhaust, expend, impoverish, use up, fritter away, squander, and waste.

To husband, then, meant to orient oneself toward thrift, conservation, and long-term thinking. No one speaks more eloquently on this topic than farmer, poet, and philosopher Wendell Berry in his essay, “Renewing Husbandry,” which describes the qualities of husbandry displayed by traditional, small-town family farmers. Berry writes, “The word husbandry is the name of a connection … To husband is to use with care, to keep, to save, to make last, to conserve.”

To husband means a promise to sustain. And to sustain implies a promise of restraint.

Design depends largely on constraints, said Charles Eames. Here is one of the few effective keys to the Design problem: the ability of the Designer to recognize as many of the constraints as possible; his willingness and enthusiasm for working within these constraints. Constraints of price, of size, of strength, of balance, of surface, of time, and so forth. Each problem has its own peculiar list.

Constraints, by definition — within a marriage, a town, or a digital environment — limit what is possible. The beauty that grows within that protected, restrained garden is the marriage Anna wanted for herself, where the couple’s love was most potent and visible. In the world of Facebook and the amassing of friends, this finite (but infinitely deep) intimacy is the impulse some of us wish to return, and yet most of us choose to reject.

Anna’s predicament kept me up at night. I saw the appeal of free love in the 21st century, and I couldn’t deny we were moving in this direction (if not already there, with books like Future Sex gaining in popularity and articles on open relationships published daily). As Leyla Acaroglu says in her DWP Main Stage talk, “Can we re-wire the consumption code?” our desire for love is powerful above all else. There is a wildness and addictive quality to limitlessness, to conduct oneself without boundaries or distinctions between “self” and “other.” In an era when online user experience is defined by consuming an “infinite scroll” meant to “hook” our attention, this design pattern of “more and unlimited” dominates our digital landscapes. It’s no accident that it's called a “feed:” we seek nourishment there.

The presentation of dating profiles on OkCupid, and pins of mid-century lamps on Pinterest, are not all that different. Covetousness and curiosity ensue. In this context, Anna’s husband’s request was rational: this collision of strangers, desires, knowledge, and impulses is already happening with vibrant, spontaneous, unfettered abandon online. Why not offline as well, with our genitals and our hearts?

For a while, Anna and her husband tested this hypothesis. Freedom was pursued. Sex was had. Bodies were explored. There were no hard rules or limits. Just an earnest promise for “open and honest communication.” In the middle of the night Anna and I would exchange texts:

“Sustainable?” I’d ask.

“Tonight, no.” she’d respond.

Sometimes there were one night stands. Other times, a relationship lasted a few months. Each new person in isolation was, in theory, fine, Anna said. “But, in practice, I’ve signed up for a limitless number of nights,” she said. “An infinite scroll of unknowing.” This, we joked, could be the name of the Zen center she might start.

Berry authored “Renewing Husbandry" in 2005, as mechanized farming and corporate agribusiness decimated family farms in pursuit of profit. With Facebook but a year old, that year also marked the dawn of social media. “We can no longer pretend that agriculture is a sort of economic machine with interchangeable parts...independent of everything else,” Berry pointed out. It is easy here to replace the word “agriculture” with any other boundless noun: venture capital, driving, social feeds, consumption, sex.

In describing the folly that consumption is zero impact, he also writes:

We had entered an era of limitlessness, or the illusion thereof, and this in itself is a sort of wonder. My grandfather lived a life of limits, both suffered and strictly observed, in a world of limits. I learned much of that world from him and others, and then I changed; I entered the world of labor-saving machines and of limitless cheap fossil fuel. It would take me years of reading, thought, and experience to learn again that in this world limits are not only inescapable but indispensable ... It appears that most and perhaps all of industrial agriculture's manifest failures are the result of an attempt to make the land produce without husbandry.

What can we learn to apply to our lives and our online spaces when we consider a future without husbandry? When trolls and fake news run unchecked on social media? When every “like” and “share” further feeds this economic machine, and our endless need for self-esteem and gratification? When we’re more concerned with amassing what’s new over tending to the familiar?

“Husbandry is the name of all practices that sustain life by connecting us conservingly to our places and our world,” says Berry. “It is the art of keeping tied all the strands in the living network that sustains us.” The discomfort I feel about “unhusbanded” places — online and in relationships — does not come from a puritanical, conformist, or intolerant mindset. It’s the same reason I value nature and environmentalism. It stems from the belief that unchecked actions will damage something that is precious, that we might wish to conserve. It also comes from a belief that there are only so many strands we can attend to, that we can actually husband well. Blessed are the few who manage to tend to the strands of their family, community, body, mind, spirit, and vocation with equal devotion and attentiveness. Yet the prevailing design principle, no matter the experience, seems to be “more strands sold here!”

Now, more than ever, how will we practice the art of keeping all of the strands tied in this living network that sustains us? Let me restate that with the tone of voice I am using in my own head, because this is the crux of the question we all confront today: HOW WILL WE PRACTICE THE ART OF KEEPING ALL OF THE STRANDS TIED IN THIS LIVING NETWORK THAT SUSTAINS US?

Each of us will find our own answer. And the answer will sit on a spectrum. It behooves us to see and to say honestly where we stand, and respect the variety of individual beliefs. The spectrum runs from limited to limitless; from enough to more; from local to global; from thrift to expenditure; from quality to quantity; from depth to breadth; from bonsai to garden of earthly delights.

After months of exploration, Anna chose the former over the latter. “It's wasn't a conscious decision,” she said. “It came from seeing with my heart.” This is how things end: the heart wants what it wants and sometimes two hearts want two different things. In the final months of her marriage, Anna turned to the poet Anne Carson, whose book, The Beauty of the Husband explores a marriage ending, and what is left. Carson writes:

Rich proposition, drastic economy, hours, beds, pronouns, no one.
No one is to blame.
Change the question.

We are mortal, balanced on a day, now and then
it makes sense to say Save what you can.

Anna changed the question from, “How much more can I sustain?” to the drastic economy of “What can I sustain well?" She discovered that language itself offered the answer to what she no longer found in her marriage. No one was to blame for differing interpretations of the word. By forfeiting her role as a wife, she husbanded. And ultimately, she saved herself.