Monday, March 16, 2015

The Absurdity of Monogamy

Monogamy is ridiculous. There, I said it. This is something that I've been subconsciously aware of for my entire life but only recently had the clarity of mind and testicular fortitude to declare, and I do so confidently and without apology. I offer by way of introduction this short video by Dan Savage, noted sex columnist, in response to the question, "Does society need to rethink its views on love and commitment?" (NSFW language - it's Dan Savage)

He gets at the core of this issue, which is that we as a collective society have placed the utmost importance on the idea of sexual exclusivity in all serious, long-term relationships and marriages. Nearly everyone agrees that infidelity is wrong. I'm firmly in that camp as well - infidelity, after all, amounts to lying, and lying is generally wrong. There is a massive disconnect, however, between the number of people who condemn infidelity and who refrain from it, and this disparity is a major contributor to the failure of monogamous relationships.

Statistical Reality

Finding rigorous, reliable, and recent statistics on infidelity is annoyingly difficult. First of all, much of the current research is to be found behind paywalls in academic journals, so direct access to anything but abstracts has been impossible for me. There's also the problem that these statistics all rely on self-reporting, and given the general stigma attached to infidelity, many people are reluctant to admit to it even in an anonymous survey. This is particularly evident when looking at the stats for people who reported being cheated on vs. those who admit to cheating - there's a rather large gap between those two figures in any survey of these questions. So, here are some of the figures I have been able to access regarding the prevalence of infidelity:
  • a Psychology Today article cites a research paper from the Journal of Couple and Relationship Therapy (Atwood & Schwartz, 2002) which completed a meta-analysis of existing research on marital infidelity. That analysis found that 45-55% of women and 50-60% of men engage in extramarital sex at some point during their marriages.
  • Peggy Vaughan in her book The Monogamy Myth reports similar figures - around 40% of women and 60% of men will have an affair during marriage, and perhaps more shockingly, 40% of these affairs go on for more than 2 years. These aren't drunken mistakes on business trips, they're fulfilling, long-term relationships with people other than one's spouse.
  • A recent survey of divorce professionals revealed that 28% of divorcing couples cite infidelity as the primary reason for separation.
  • There are entire dating websites catering to married people looking to find extramarital partners. has over 33 million registered users, all of whom are either married and looking to cheat or single and willing to be the home-wrecker.
So, nearly everyone agrees that cheating is wrong, yet better than 50% of all married people will do it anyway, and a quarter of all divorces will be a direct result of it. In order to try to understand why these problematic figures exist, we should examine why people place such an importance on monogamy in the first place.

Animals are Naturally Monogamous

This is one of those "science facts" that you've known for a really long time - that many animals "mate for life."(The Onion has even recently had some fun with this) The problem with "science facts" that you've known for a really long time is that most of them are actually wrong, including this one. Many species of birds, for example, appear to be monogamous, as they tend to form persistent "pair bonds." These are social bonds rather than sexual, though - genetic analysis of offspring frequently reveals that a percentage of them weren't fathered by the social mates. There are perfectly reasonable evolutionary explanations for why it's advantageous for birds to do this, and the same factors may explain human tendencies toward polygamy as well.

We have anthropological and biological evidence to suggest strongly that homo sapiens is not a naturally monogamous species, although biologists have trouble pinning us down on the monogamy/polygamy spectrum. Polygamy is generally abhorrent in the modern, civilized world, probably because the advantages it offers are no longer relevant to centralized, industrial societies. George Murdock's Ethnographic Atlas reports that, of the 800+ different cultures he cataloged throughout the world, only 137 of them, or 16.1%, were monogamous. Even without definitive answers to these questions of human sexuality from science, a glance back at those statistics above should dispel any notion that we are naturally monogamous.


One reason many people will insist on monogamy is that it's some sort of moral imperative as decreed by Almighty God. Of course, if actually asked to substantiate this strongly-held belief with specific citations of passages in holy books, the people spouting this tired argument will generally fumble and equivocate. The Bible says quite a lot of things about marriage, most of them the sort of laughable, irrelevant, contradictory nonsense that one typically finds in its pages. Deuteronomy 21:15, for example, addresses men with two wives (and not for the purposes of telling them not to have two wives.) Abraham has "concubines" (Genesis 25:6), Esau takes two wives (Genesis 26:34) and then another one (28:9). 1 Kings 11:3 notes that King Solomon, the greatest player in human history, had 700 wives and 300 concubines. Those are suspiciously round numbers, but apparently God was cool with K-Sol slamming 1,000 bitches, give or take.

"Yes, but," you retort, "those verses are all from Ye Olde Testamente, that forgotten opening act to the triumphant and glorious GOSPELS overflowing with the WISDOM OF JESUS OUR LORD AND SAVIOR!" Well, in Matthew 19, Jesus and his disciples discuss how, since divorce isn't allowed (19:9), it's probably best not to marry. Jesus suggests castration as another viable option (19:12). Jesus also advocates abandoning one's wife to follow him (19:29). In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul says it's best for men and women not to touch each other, and people who aren't already married shouldn't bother (7:27). I mean, the world is coming to an end really soon, you guys. There's no time to get married. So actually, the God of the Bible is perfectly fine with polygamy, and Jesus doesn't seem to give a shit either way, because he's more important than your marriage, and the world is ending soon anyway. The idea that monogamy is a Biblical imperative from God is simply false.

Exclusive Sex is More Special

And yet, the idea of monogamy is pervasive even among scientifically literate, secular people. Sure, the misguided religious folk have a monopoly on crazy reasons for insisting on it, but even your super progressive, Green party-voting, Chomsky-reading, Trader Joe's-shopping, vegan girlfriend would probably dump your ass the second she came home early from her barista shift and saw a pair of someone else's TOMS on the floor.

We're just doing yoga, I swear!
Certainly there are pragmatic reasons to prefer monogamy, like mitigated risk of STIs/need to go on the Maury Povich Show. [This of course only applies when both partners are actually monogamous, which, as we know, they often are not.] But this is not generally the justification given for monogamy, especially among unmarried couples who have no legal obligations to one another. In this case, so the argument goes, sex is a special thing because two partners decide only to do it with each other.

This argument could be persuasive, in the same way that communism could be a viable economic model. If two people go to their graves having only had sex with each other, then yes, sex was a special thing. Mission accomplished, criticism retracted. This accurately describes something like 0% of the population. In reality, most people will have multiple sexual partners in their lifetimes; hell, many people will even get married multiple times. The argument that sex is somehow special because you're only doing it with one person at a time becomes difficult to take seriously when you remember that you and your partner both likely had other sexual partners before the current relationship and will likely have more still after it's over. This argument from "special...ness" becomes less persuasive with each new sexually exclusive relationship.

Note also that it would be patently absurd to talk about other aspects of human relationships in this way. Parents don't decide against having a second child because they're afraid they won't have enough love for both of them. No parent looks forlornly at an ultrasound revealing twins and laments, "oh, now they're each only half as special." We don't put a limit on the number of friends we have because we're afraid that we're going to run out of love, or that our existing friendships won't be as valid anymore because we've made new ones. One can assert that having multiple concurrent sexual partners somehow renders the act less special, whatever that means, but the fact remains that there are no practical implications for this, and I'd defy anyone to demonstrate otherwise. The meaningfulness of sex is not inversely proportional to the number of partners, current or historical. (Einstein came up with that, I think. Look it up.) Just as we all have unlimited capacity to love our kids and love our friends, we also have unlimited capacity to have maximally meaningful sex.

Pretty sure it's that bit on the left there.
The Intimacy Fallacy

Sex is almost inextricably mated to intimacy, despite the fact that most sexually active people know from experience that the two aren't necessarily synonymous. Sex is not an inherently intimate act. (If you don't agree, consider sex workers of all kinds - are porn stars enjoying intimate moments when they saw away at each other on camera as a vocation? What about non-consensual sex? Incest? Bestiality? Necrophilia? Wow that escalated quickly...) Sex is a biological imperative; this we know for certain. What the act means, though, is entirely up to the individuals engaging in it, and it could be entirely different for each person engaged in the act. Sex can be powerfully intimate, completely meaningless, and every single nuance of difference in between. Simply combining one's genitals with someone else's does not in itself mean anything at all - it means whatever the people to whom those genitals are attached feel it means.

Two airplanes share a powerfully intimate moment.
"Sex" as a lexical item is woefully inadequate to express the innumerable manifestations of the act, which is why we consequently have innumerable colorful phrases to fill the gaps. Making love is different from fucking is different from shagging is different from going all the way, et cetera ad infinitum. Intimacy does not come from an act, it comes from the feelings that people have for each other, which they bring to any act. Two lifelong lovers gazing poignantly into each other's eyes is infinitely more intimate than two practical strangers drunkenly porking in a dance club bathroom. The idea that an unfaithful partner has shared a profoundly intimate moment with someone else is not necessarily true simply by virtue of the act itself.

Infidelity as an Extinction-Level Event

The lamentable consequence of these unrealistic expectations about sexual exclusivity is that countless otherwise healthy, loving relationships are destroyed simply because one partner, for whatever reason, has sex with someone else. Terminating a relationship based on the revelation that one partner was unfaithful sends the absurd message that a singular act can be more important than potentially decades of love and commitment. Marriages are destroyed and families are fractured because we have decided that unfaithfulness is the worst possible transgression in a monogamous relationship, and we see the unfortunate results of this in the divorce statistics.

This persistent attitude combined with the fact that around half of all married people will at some moment be unfaithful paints a terribly grim picture for the future of monogamous relationships. The solution, of course, is plainly visible, although most seem dogmatically unwilling to embrace it: we simply must be more realistic about sexual exclusivity. No amount of preaching morality and the sanctity of marriage, of swearing oaths before God and man, of insisting intransigently on uninterrupted monogamy will change the fact that people desire other people. Making a sexually exclusive commitment to one person does not palliate one's innate sexual desire to fuck other people. A lot of other people. As many other people as will agree to it. And yet many partners act completely surprised when they discover that they haven't been the sole object of sexual desire of their spouses.

Completely lost in the shame-and-blame hysterics about infidelity is the fact that cheating can actually save relationships rather than destroy them. It's not the solution for every struggling couple, but sometimes simply getting a need met elsewhere is preferable to ending an otherwise healthy relationship. Having an affair can also bring a trenchant and novel perspective to one's relationship by the inevitable comparison it engenders. This Psychology Today article describes how this is possible:
Why is this? Well, if we go back to the original premise -- stepping out of our primary relationship because certain needs aren't getting met -- and we are then finding those needs met in a secondary relationship -- the secondary relationship, by its very nature, stands in contrast to the first. By way of comparison, this contrast can prompt a shift in perspective that brings us from a place of seeing what were missing in our primary relationship to a place of recognizing what we have in that relationship. This shift in perspective provides us with a crucible for determining what it is that we actually need in a social relationship to feel satisfied.
We tend to hear about the relationships that are destroyed by cheating but never about those saved by it. From a pragmatic perspective, declaring infidelity to be implicitly, unambiguously wrong seems at least slightly misguided.

Honest Attitudes about Sexual Exclusivity

By no means am I contending that monogamy is impossible, or that it's even undesirable. There are happily monogamous couples who will remain happily monogamous for the duration of their relationships, and they wouldn't have it any other way, and that's perfectly fine. There are a great many people, however, who enter into monogamous relationships because they feel that they don't actually have a choice - a serious relationship generally entails, implicitly or explicitly, sexual exclusivity. Whether it's just a serious, committed relationship or a legal contract between two people who have promised in front of witnesses to be faithful, many people are making these vows knowing full-well that they're not likely to uphold them, at least not perfectly, not indefinitely. It behooves us to acknowledge that this obsession with monogamy is at odds with our nature, and this acknowledgment must color our perception of the importance of unbroken sexual exclusivity in relationships.

γνῶϑι σεαυτόν reads the sign at the Oracle at Delphi - know thyself. If you make a commitment to another person to be monogamous, you're obligated to uphold that commitment - a promise to a loved one is a promise, and broken at one's peril. If strict monogamy doesn't sound particularly attractive, or fulfilling, or even possible to you, then don't make any such commitments. Understand that this is a part of who you are and what you need to be happy and fulfilled, and be honest about it. Speaking openly and honestly about our desires in matters as important as these is imperative in order to destigmatize relationships that aren't strictly monogamous. Many people have these relationships now - whether their partner knows it or not - and we'd all benefit from a less hostile space in which to talk about them.

(A special thank you to many of my married friends who provided valuable insight on this matter as I was writing.)

1 comment:

  1. I agree one should made promises one cannot keep. Ethical and transparent polyamory is a valid option for monogamy, but not without it's issues. One can cheat in polyamory too and again it is about lying, breaking the social contract between individuals. However, with honesty and open communications the crime of cheating, the need to fight against out nature, can be dismantled. The feelings of jealousy that derive from personal insecurity can be defused when one realizes that love is infinite and that each partner is loved for who they are. It's not a competition. One does not lose anything when they partner has others. There is no need for rivalry, but fr learning to feel compersion. The only limitation is time. The requirements respect and transparency.