The State of Affairs: A Brief History of Getting Some on the Side

The extramarital alliance has an interesting history of its own.  It’s not all clichés from John Updike and Gay Talese. Here’s a snapshot of how various moments in history might have completed the sentence, “Getting some on the side is _______”

…punishable by death.

The last person to be hanged for adultery in England was hanged in 1654. The latest and probably not the last woman to die for it in Afghanistan was two weeks ago. I don’t know who she was, but she’s been on my mind. Same planet, different worlds.


The 1700s was a “pro-sex” culture in comparison to the 1800s. It was a heyday for the mistress, the kept woman and the merry bawdy houses, a la Fanny Hill. Enlightenment ideas were loosening the severity toward adultery. Oxford historian Faramez Dabhoiwala argues that the “first sexual revolution” happened in the 1760s, not the 1960s.

I think he’s correct. In the 1700s, “people have started to think and behave differently,” explains Dabhoiwala, “there was a huge explosion in the amount of sex outside marriage, which was no longer punished.” Instead, we embraced “a completely new way of thinking about the purpose of life, [and] the greatness of sexual pleasure.” Says Dabhoiwala, this paradigm shift was all rooted in “basic Enlightenment principles.” The authoritarian, Biblical enjoinders weakened, and sex became something to celebrate.

a necessary evil.  

In the 1800s the mistress went underground and the double standard flourished. The American middle class was defining itself morally, and growing stronger. Getting some on the side became a target for more opprobrium and concern. Sexual license wasn’t condoned for men or women. But, ideas about women’s desires were also changing. “Respectable” women were no longer considered to be sexually dangerous and insatiable, but “passionless” and lacking desire.  Given the wife’s passionless respectability and the husband’s naturally lustier appetites, the affair was a necessary evil—one to be satisfied with vulnerable women of the working class, domestics, or prostitutes.


“If love does not know how to give and take without restrictions,” said free love advocate Emma Goldman, “it is not love, but a transaction that never fails to lay stress on a plus and a minus.” Radical feminists in the early 1900s thought that conventional marriage was a proprietary institution. It enforced sexual bondage, economic dependence, and women’s subordinate status. Goldman and Victoria Woodhull saw conventional marriage as a relationship of subjugation—the exchange of sex for support, albeit with just one client.

an open secret.

The 1940s and 1950s are more square retrospectively than historically, when mistresses appeared in screwball comedies and blues songs, and a fair amount of heterosexual queerness in the demimonde was tolerated. The 1950s is an age of salutary neglect for the side dish. Marriages maintained an illusion of monogamy, and paid it lip service, but didn’t actually think that they had to be strictly and entirely monogamous. Theirs isn’t a simple case of hypocrisy. Marriage was sincerely thought to be a good, serviceable institution for organizing society, and monogamy was a more or less workable idea, even if spouses sometimes, or often, tolerated affairs.


Remember the t-shirt, “if you love something, set it free?” With its clichés of swinging and wife-swapping, non-monogamy was all about “freedom,” recreational sex, the loosening of proprietary shackles on the heart, and ambitiously remaking the institution of marriage.  Non-monogamy was institutionally subversive in a way that the 1950s middle class wouldn’t have condoned, even with its salutary neglect of the affair.  The idea of open marriage was notably co-ed in the 1970s, but the foundation for it wasn’t.  Women didn’t have parity with men economically, socially or in sexual mores, so the booty wasn’t distributed to equal effect. Some women who reflected on the “sexual revolution” and loosening monogamy standard in Shere Hite’s important study thought it was the “biggest sham” of the century.


The “family values” retrenchment of the 1980s is glossed as a revival of the 1950s, but its ideas about adultery were different. The family values message was about actual behavior. Not only should a spouse say and act like they’re monogamous, they actually should be monogamous. The 1950s aspired to social order, but tolerated a level of discreet non-monogamous behavior. The 1980s aspired to our souls instead.


In the age of “free love 2.0,” the sexual double standard is being challenged and the idea of non-monogamy remade in women’s image. For decades the emphasis in feminism was to bring male sexual behavior in line with monogamy and marital fidelity, to neuter the tomcat. But as women gain more power in the economy and culture, they’re testing the old sexual mores and power. The major advice books on non-monogamy and polyamory are written by women; wives initiate the conversation often, and they approach and shape monogamy in a more ethical, even conventionally “feminine” way: Less about scoring and lying, more about trying to have integrity. The non-monogamy ideal today, as I describe in my book, has less political chic than in the 1970s, but a more solid footing in economy (women earn their own keep), technology (it’s easier to find people), and demography (we live longer than ever, challenging marital monogamy). Today, getting some on the side is… less lava lamp, more paycheck; less macramé, more Google.

Big Think
Sponsored by Lumina Foundation

Upvote/downvote each of the videos below!

As you vote, keep in mind that we are looking for a winner with the most engaging social venture pitch - an idea you would want to invest in.

Lumina Foundation and Big Think have partnered to bring this entrepreneurial competition to life, and we hope you'll participate! We have narrowed down the competition to four finalists and will be announcing an audience's choice award and a judges' choice award in May.

The creator of the winning video — chosen by Big Think's audience, the Lumina Foundation, and an independent panel of experts (bios below) — will be flown to New York for a taping in the Big Think studio as a way to further promote their vision for a new, disruptive idea in post-secondary education.

Thank you to all of the contestants who spent time submitting applications, and best of luck to our final four competitors.

Finalist: Greater Commons - Todd McLeod

Greater Commons, founded by Todd McLeod and Andrew Cull, is an organization that helps people live happier, more successful and fulfilling lives through agile learning. The current education system is inefficient and exclusionary, in which many students who end up earning a degree, if at all, enter a career not related to their field of study. Greater Commons solves this problem and gap in post-high school secondary education in a variety of ways. Passionately and diligently, Great Commons helps others obtain skills, knowledge, wisdom, motivation, and inspiration so that they may live better lives.

Finalist: PeerFoward - Keith Frome

PeerForward is an organization dedicated to increasing the education and career success rates of students in low-income schools and communities by mobilizing the power of positive peer influence. PeerForward works with partner schools to select influential students as a part of a team, systemizing the "peer effect." Research in the fields of sociology of schools, social-emotional learning, adult-youth partnerships, and civic education demonstrates that students can have a positive effect on the academic outcomes of their peers. PeerForward is unique through its systemic solutions to post-secondary education.

Finalist: Cogniss - Leon Young

Cogniss combines technology and best practice knowledge to enable anyone to innovate and share solutions that advance lifelong learning. Cogniss is the only platform to integrate neuroscience, through which it solves the problem of access by providing a low-code platform that enables both developers and non-developers to build sophisticated education apps fast, and at a much lower cost. It addresses the uneven quality of edtech solutions by embedding research-based learning design into its software. App creators can choose from a rich set of artificial intelligence, game, social and data analytics, and gamification to build their perfect customized solution.

Finalist: Practera - Nikki James

Practera's mission is to create a world where everyone can learn through experience. Today's workplaces are increasingly dynamic and diverse, however, costly and time-consuming experiential learning is not always able to offer the right opportunities at scale. Many students graduate without developing the essential skills for their chosen career. Practera's team of educators and technologists see this problem as an opportunity to transform the educational experience landscape, through a CPL pedagogical framework and opportunities to apply students' strengths through active feedback.

Thank you to our judges!

Our expert judges are Lorna Davis, Dan Rosensweig, and Stuart Yasgur.

Lorna Davis is the Senior Advisor to Danone CEO and is a Global Ambassador for the B Corp movement. Lorna has now joined B-Lab, the non-for-profit that supports the B Corporation movement on an assignment to support the journey of large multi nationals on the path to using business as a force of good.

Dan Rosensweig joined Chegg in 2010 with a vision for transforming the popular textbook rental service into a leading provider of digital learning services for high school and college students. As Chairman and CEO of Chegg, Dan commits the company to fulfilling its mission of putting students first and helping them save time, save money and get smarter.

Stuart Yasgur leads Ashoka's Social Financial Services globally. At Ashoka, Stuart works with others to initiate efforts that have mobilized more than $500 million in funding for social entrepreneurs, engaged the G20 through the Toronto, Seoul and Los Cabos summits and helped form partnerships with leading financial institutions and corporations.

Again, thank you to our incredible expert judges.

  • Beethovan and Picasso are the perfect examples for mastering the creative process.
  • Behind each of their works are countless studies and sketches.
  • The lesson? Never erase anything, keep iterating, and find new paths to familiar destinations.

'Upstreamism': Your zip code affects your health as much as genetics

Upstreamism advocate Rishi Manchanda calls us to understand health not as a "personal responsibility" but a "common good."

Sponsored by Northwell Health
  • Upstreamism tasks health care professionals to combat unhealthy social and cultural influences that exist outside — or upstream — of medical facilities.
  • Patients from low-income neighborhoods are most at risk of negative health impacts.
  • Thankfully, health care professionals are not alone. Upstreamism is increasingly part of our cultural consciousness.
Keep reading Show less

Meet the Bajau sea nomads — they can reportedly hold their breath for 13 minutes

The Bajau people's nomadic lifestyle has given them remarkable adaptions, enabling them to stay underwater for unbelievable periods of time. Their lifestyle, however, is quickly disappearing.

Wikimedia Commons
Culture & Religion
  • The Bajau people travel in small flotillas throughout the Phillipines, Malaysia, and Indonesia, hunting fish underwater for food.
  • Over the years, practicing this lifestyle has given the Bajau unique adaptations to swimming underwater. Many find it straightforward to dive up to 13 minutes 200 feet below the surface of the ocean.
  • Unfortunately, many disparate factors are erasing the traditional Bajau way of life.
Keep reading Show less