Litigants of love: Sex fraud case puts matrimony on trial

April 13, 1993|By Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES — If marriage were a contract, most lawyers probably would advise potential newlyweds not to sign it.

After all, matrimony is considered one of life's greatest commitments, but it contains absolutely no provisions or guarantees about what husbands and wives are entitled to. Six children? A big paycheck? A golf partner? Great sex? One newlywed might be perfectly happy with someone who can afford to buy half a house in the suburbs, while another demands unbridled passion.

All these ambiguities about the embattled institution of marriage erupted last week in the case of Ronald Askew vs. Bonnette Askew.

When their marriage of more than a decade ended in divorce, Anaheim, Calif., banker Ronald Askew sued his ex-wife for fraud because she admittedly concealed the fact that she had never felt sexually attracted to him. An Orange County jury agreed, and ordered Ms. Askew to pay her ex-husband $242,000 in damages.

Such sexual tugs-of-war between couples are not uncommon, therapists and psychologists say. But the Askews' most intimate troubles were not confined to a private bedroom, they were divulged in a courtroom, where they were analyzed by a jury rather than a counselor.

Psychologists and anthropologists say the fraud case reflects the incongruities of love, American-style. Clashes inevitably arise, especially in a culture that puts so much emphasis on romantic love, because everyone's idea of an idyllic marriage varies.

Experts say brides and bridegrooms often utter "I do" while deceiving their mate, or themselves -- sometimes unwittingly -- about what they expect after the honeymoon. But, they ask, is this fraudulent behavior or just human behavior?

"I'm astonished by this verdict, and I've looked at divorce in 62 societies," said Helen Fisher, an American Museum of Natural History anthropologist who wrote the recent book "Anatomy of Love: The Natural History of Monogamy, Adultery and Divorce."

"Since when do people demand passionate love?" she asked. "It's not a commodity that you can buy, or will, out of someone hTC else. You either have it or you don't. . . . In America, we are demanding everything from our marriage. This court confirms that is the American way."

Ms. Askew, 45, acknowledged in court that she had never been sexually attracted to her husband. But she said that she'd always loved him, and noted that their marriage was not sexless and that they had two children together.

But Mr. Askew, 50, said his lawsuit had more to do with honesty andintegrity than sex. He felt deceived, especially because he said he repeatedly asked her before their marriage to be honest with him and disclose any important secrets.

If Mr. Askew believes total honesty is the foundation of good marriages, Ms. Fisher has a message for him: "Grow up."

"Since when is anyone truly honest with anyone?" she said. "Did this man really want her to say: 'You're short, fat and you're terrible in bed?' Much of the world is amazed at what they see as brutal honesty in America. She was operating on an entirely different set of social values, which much of the world operates on -- delicacy as opposed to brutal honesty."

Although the jury saw it as betrayal, "it is more likely she marriedhim for other reasons, that she saw there were much more valuable things in the marriage," Ms. Fisher said. "She undoubtedly married him because she loved him enough, and felt he was the right man for her."

Failing to admit a lack of sexual desire does not necessary mean a person is being intentionally deceptive, said Lonnie Barbach, a psychologist and sex therapist in Mill Valley, Calif.: "People enter into marriages under false pretenses. They may not be $l absolutely clear at the time why they do it. She may not feel that she was deceiving him. We fool ourselves in so many ways to get something we need."

However, New York psychologist and author John Ross said men and women should be able to expect mutual sexual attraction, and enteringinto marriage without telling your partner otherwise is deceptive. "Often people get married for neurotic reasons and not out of passionate love. I don't know if it's a crime or not. That's up to the lawyers. But it's dishonest to be deceptive about your feelings," he said.

Even the experts disagree about how important sex is to a marriage.

"There are lots of marriages that work well even though there is no sex," Ms. Barbach said. "Relationships are not perfect. You have to pick the areas that are most satisfying to you. To some people, having no sex is inconceivable. But somebody else is using totally different criteria."

"The trick is finding someone who has the same expectations that you do," Ms. Barbach said.

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