Guy Talk: What’s The Difference Between Privacy And Secrecy?

Last week’s discussion about guys, porn, and honesty raised a number of interesting questions. How much truth do we owe our partners about what we do when they’re not around – and how much should we share about what runs through our heads? Almost everyone agrees that outright lies are bad. But are there some questions that invite lies? Are there some questions we shouldn’t even ask?

even the most sexually exclusive relationship functions a bit like a Venn diagram, in which the largest portion is a shared intimacy, but in which each partner is left with something that is theirs alone.

One helpful way to think about this topic is to draw the distinction between a private and a secret life. Secrecy is toxic, because it involves either a spoken lie (“Honey, I didn’t sleep with your cousin”) or the deliberate omission of critical information (like “accidentally forgetting” to mention you hooked up with your ex-boyfriend while your current guy was out of town). But while secret lives are fundamentally dishonest, we all need and deserve a private life — including one that is concealed from our partner.

The most obvious way to distinguish private from secret is to think about bathroom habits. Even when we’re around people we love and are intimate with, a lot of us still close the door when we’re planning to sit on the toilet. There’s no deception as to what we’re doing in there with the door shut. We’d just like to poop in peace without an audience. We’re asking for the right to privacy, not secrecy.

How does this private/secret distinction work around sex? One example concerns the number of sex partners you’ve had before you met your current boyfriend or girlfriend. He or she may have the right to ask how many people you’ve slept with, but you’re not obligated to answer. What you did before you were committed is private, and though you’re free to disclose your number if you like, you’re not being inappropriately secretive by lovingly saying “it’s none of your beeswax.” (For more on talking about a sexual past, see this post.)

In other words, the fact that you cheated on your current boyfriend is a secret. The fact that you had an incredibly hot ménage a trois in Florence during your junior year abroad – that’s private. And you have the right to keep your mouth shut about the latter.

Even in the most devoted of monogamous relationships, you’re likely to find yourself having wild fantasies that don’t involve your partner. Is it secretive and dishonest not to tell, or is having a separate fantasy world (with or without masturbation) part of a reasonable expectation of privacy? People disagree intensely. One way to discern the right answer is to ask yourself how troubled you’d be if you learned your partner was doing the same thing you were doing. Like everything around sex, this is largely subjective: what for one person falls within a reasonable expectation of privacy is another person’s inappropriate secret.

The great German poet Rilke says something helpful here:

a good relationship is one in which each partner appoints the other to be
the guardian of his solitude, and thus they show each other the
greatest possible trust. A merging of two people is an impossibility,
and where it seems to exist, it is a hemming-in, a mutual consent that
robs one party or both parties of their fullest freedom and
development. But once the realization is accepted that even between
the closest people infinite distances exist, a marvelous living
side-by-side can grow up for them, if they succeed in loving the
expanse between them, which gives them the possibility of always
seeing each other as a whole and before an immense sky.

Guarding the other’s solitude is about allowing your partner the right to a private, not a secret life. It’s a recognition that

even the most sexually exclusive relationship functions a bit like a Venn diagram, in which the largest portion is a shared intimacy, but in which each partner is left with something that is theirs alone.

It means having the trust to expect the truth, but also the respect not to ask questions that invite dishonest responses.

I’ve never asked my wife how many people she slept with before me. I don’t know how often she masturbates, or what she thinks about when she does. I trust her to manage her private sexual life in such a way that it doesn’t rob our shared intimacy of passion and power. And I trust her to be faithful as she trusts me.

We don’t have the right to a hidden life that contradicts our public commitments. But we have the right to a private world – and a private sexuality – that is ours alone.

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