Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Monogamy: What is It Good For?

            I just started reading The Myth of Monogamy by David Barash and Judith Lipton. I am only a few pages in and it is already fascinating, so I will certainly give it a review on here when I finish, but it got me thinking about my own views of the subject, which led me to pick it up in the first place. Their approach is primarily from a biological perspective, whereas mine is from a practical and ethical one. I felt like this justified a separate post, both in the interests of focus and length.

From Arrested Development (my paraphrase, can't find the exact quote)

Tobias (to his wife, Lindsay): You know, as a psychiatrist, I sometimes advise couples in this situation to consider the possibility of an open relationship.
Lindsay: Does it ever work?
Tobias: Of course not. But, for us, I think it just might.

            For many people, probably most people, monogamy is synonymous with morality. The reasons for this are both biological and cultural. Religion, of course, has been a particularly potent force for the normalizing of monogamy. I’d like to take a look at some of the reasons monogamy is an almost universal “good” (though briefly, since you could fill a bookshelf with work on the subject) and why I think they are often invalid.
            First of all, let’s define our subject. Monogamy is remaining sexually faithful to a committed partner. I hate that androgynous term, partner, but it covers everything, so we are stuck with it. This can be a married or non-married partner, within an opposite or same-sex couple, and can even include, in some definitions, thoughts as well as deeds. To keep it simple, we’ll primarily be looking at a hetero-sexual married couple as an example, though when there are significant differences, I will try to point them out.
            The next thing we need to address is marriage itself. We need to be reminded that marriage for love is a very, very recent phenomenon in human history. Until a few hundred years ago in the West (these practices still continue in other parts of the world), marriage was an economic, political and sexual arrangement. Emotion was rarely, if ever, considered. If it came about as a result of the union, that was pleasant, but it was by no means a prerequisite. Of course, in most cases, young virgin females were married off to much older husbands with prior sexual experience.
Further, in many ancient cultures, men were allowed to have multiple wives, as many as they could support, as well as sexual relations with their slave girls. If you’ve forgotten this, just check out your bible or koran. So where did the institution of monogamous marriage develop? Why would men, who held all of the political and economic power, give up the luxury of having multiple women at their disposal?
Although there are many explanations, and many contributing factors, one is particularly relevant here. Counter-intuitively, it was better for the males. The math is simple; in a society where males and females are divided 50/50, and a small group of wealthy men have a monopoly of wives, there are going to be a lot of poorer men without any hope of marriage. Societies which contain a lot of poor and sexually repressed young men don’t stay stable for very long. So a compromise was reached; one woman per man, and the wealthy still had their slaves and the political clout to get away with indiscretions with lower-class women when they so desired.
Ironically, from a purely material perspective, and remember, being materially cared for was all marriage was for at that point, polygamy was better for women. Under polygamy a woman could easily marry up the economic ladder, since for women, there was lots of room at the top. Under monogamy, if you are a woman born on the bottom, you very likely marry on the bottom (Kate Middleton not withstanding). This is one of those discussions where just bringing up historical facts makes you sexist, but that is really just too stupid for me to acknowledge further. Pretending patriarchal systems didn’t, and don’t exist, is not the way to get rid of them. Sure, women’s emotional needs were not likely to be met under polygamy, but when have they been? What is the divorce rate right now?
            I’m not trying to justify polygamy, by any means, I think it is socially a terrible idea, but mostly because I am a poor male. I bring up this example to show that even our most basic assumptions about love, sex and marriage are more complicated than we imagine, going about our daily relationships. However, this example also allows us to see that the institution of monogamous marriage, despite the mythological and magical trappings that have historically been attached to it, is just another practical social solution to some of the problems that arise from social living. Further, the monogamous requirement has historically been imposed very unequally on the genders, and on different economic classes. But all of these solutions to the problem of sexual access have been successful, for a time, in the societies that employed them. Thus, the institution of monogamous marriage in itself carries no absolute moral authority.

            So we live in a society were religious morality and practical considerations have fed off one another to the point where, for most people, being in a monogamous relationship is the “right” thing to do. This point was really driven home for me personally last year when I read a study that showed that the percentage of gay-males in non-monogamous relationships was much higher than in hetero-sexual or lesbian couples. (That is a whole other subject.) I brought this up with a young gay man who I was working with at the time, and he nearly bit my head off. He was sick and tired, he said, of people always assuming that gay men were promiscuous and couldn’t stay faithful to one person, and that he and his boyfriend had been together for five years, which was a lot longer than most of the straight couples he knew, thank you very much. When I finally calmed him down, I tried to explain, “No, no, I wasn’t being accusatory. I want to know your secret.” Seriously, though, what this made me realize was how much this concept that monogamy = moral is so deeply engrained in so many people. Even among a group that is among the most socially marginalized of all time, one of the easiest ways to gain acceptance is to make a vocal commitment to monogamy. This is clearly apparent in the gay-rights movement fight for marriage equality, which besides practical considerations such as insurance coverage, is largely a matter of gaining social acceptance.
            I want to take this assumption and throw a little doubt on it. First of all, one of the biggest reasons people leap to the conclusion that being non-monogamous is immoral is that they assume it means lying to your partner. That’s not what I am talking about at all. Lying is very rarely, if ever, the moral thing to do, especially when it is to someone you supposedly love and care about. I’m not advocating “cheating” in any way. (I never have, personally, so I can’t really say much more about what goes on inside someone who does.) So let’s start by acknowledging the fact that there are people out there who are perfectly okay with the idea of their partner or spouse being with someone else. These are the types of relationships we will be discussing.

            The other personal experience that really drove home for me the pervasiveness of this biological and cultural bias was an experience I had a few years ago. Anyone who knows me well knows that I have been involved in a variety of relationships, some consensually open. When I mentioned this in passing to some people whom I had just started to become friends with, their responses ranged from awkward silence, to “That’s just weird,” to “That’s f&%$ing disgusting.” I was shocked, obviously, I didn’t expect to hear those responses or I just wouldn’t have brought it up in the first place. But it made me reflect; these were liberal, feminist (they were all women, not that that matters), sexually liberated, not particularly religious twenty- and thirty-somethings. But they still absolutely accepted a quasi-religious, bourgeoisie view of sex and relationships that I find to be completely archaic.
            I began to ask myself, “Where do our views differ?” I started at the obvious fact that they were women and I am a man. Was there an element of their feminism that made the idea of non-monogamy unacceptable? It seemed possible that their view was tainted by an assumption that the whole notion of non-monogamy is driven by insatiable male lust, with women as passive objects. Of course, nothing could be more sexist than that statement itself. The absurd notion that women don’t have a wide variety of sexual desires is precisely what pretty much the entire third-wave of feminism has arisen to challenge.
            The other possibility lay in the fact that it was just “icky.” (Or “f&%$ing disgusting,” if you prefer.) While it is certainly understandable for some people to be turned off by unrestrained orgies, that wasn’t what we were talking about. Sexual promiscuity has a legitimate history as a cultural no-no, in periods when disease and pregnancy were not controllable, but for all intents and purposes, among honest and careful people, they now are. (You can still get salmonella from eating chicken too, but that doesn’t make chicken salad immoral.) Sexual activity always carries risks, but many, many people regularly engage in sex with serial partners they know far less well than the situation I was describing, and their friends don’t call them “f&%$ing disgusting.”
            I ultimately decided that their reactions stemmed from the confluence of the unquestioned acceptance of all of these assumptions. That there had to be some degree of deception involved (there wasn’t), that in each of these situations, it was driven by male lust (it never was, it was always initiated by the women involved), and that it basically implied “sleeping around” (it didn’t- unless two concurrent, but faithful, partners counts.)
            The question remained; why would people leap to these conclusions? The first is simple; people are naturally pretty jealous creatures, and it is really hard for people to wrap their head around the fact that some people actually are completely and totally comfortable with sharing their partner in an open, honest and mutually respectful situation. The second assumption is also easy, both sexes have been taught for millennia that female sexuality is a dangerous thing which should be repressed at all costs including through beatings, genital mutilation, murder and “corrective” rape. There are biological factors underlying the differing views of male and female sexuality, but I don’t have the room to get into them.
The last is the most interesting, and I realized I had hit on something here. It is actually the knowing concurrence that upsets people the most. Let’s imagine a couple of scenarios. A woman has a guy who she has just started seeing, and sleeping with, but they haven’t yet had “the talk” and decided to be exclusive. She only sees him a few nights a week. She also has an ex who she is still good friends with, and who she occasionally hooks up when they get together. She doesn’t tell either about the other. This could be any Sex and the City episode. Would any of her friends, or any of the women I described, tell her she was being “f&%$ing disgusting?” Of course not. Religious objections to fornication aside, (no really, just stop, right now) this is pretty much standard fare for independent young women today. Now imagine the scenario I was describing. A woman is in a committed (married, but I’ll get to this is in a second) relationship, and she and her husband both agree that they are okay with the other seeing one other person. F&%$ing disgusting. Those pigs!
In the above scenario, the woman who is lying to her partners is morally approved, the woman who is honest is condemned. This is more than a thought experiment, this is what infallibly happens, at least in my experience.
As I mentioned, marriage was a factor in the real-life scenario, but how much difference does this make? If you are, like me, not someone who believes that a magical transformation occurs under god’s holy supervision when two people get married, then what does happen? Two people basically promise to be faithful to one another. Now, lying is, by definition, not being faithful. Cheating is a violation of your marriage vows, for those of us who still value our promises and commitments. But if neither partner views the other sexually coupling with someone else as being unfaithful, how can that be faithlessness? It clearly isn’t. Just because your view of marriage might not allow this behavior, doesn’t mean that other people’s can’t.

Ultimately, most people’s response to the thought of a non-monogamous relationship is not rational but emotional. Their response derives from the very natural, human emotional response to the thought of their partner with someone else- they get jealous. (I also think that there is another type of jealousy here- that they themselves are stuck with one partner and they look for ways to condemn what they don’t have, another typical human response.) I emphasized “their” in the preceding sentence because this is where I turn the tables and argue that not only are non-monogamous relationships not inherently immoral, but that monogamous relationships can themselves very often be immoral.
Jealousy is a disgusting emotion. Of the entire rainbow of human emotion, jealousy is probably the least productive. Anger, pride, even greed can be channeled to socially useful purposes. Jealousy is one of the least rational, the most commonly based on misconceptions about what we can and can’t control, and often one of the most destructive. Sexual jealously is probably the most common expression of it, and it is one of the most ridiculous. Again, I’m not talking about being lied to; that is infuriating and justifiably so, you have as much right to be upset with a partner who has lied to you about sexual indiscretion as when they have lied about how much money they spent when they went out with their friends. I’m talking about the patently absurd notion that because someone has favored you by sharing sexual intercourse with you before, that this gives you some kind of dominion over their body, their thoughts and their sexuality. News flash: You don’t own your boyfriend or girlfriend, your wife or husband. This is the first thought you have to drive from your head if you want to have any kind of balanced, respectful relationship with your partner. Monogamous relationships included.
Blind cultural acceptance of monogamy becomes immoral when we use our unquestioned assumptions about its righteousness to judge, punish or deny satisfaction to the people we supposedly love and care about. Does anyone need to have multiple sexual partners? No, but do you need them not to? But when your partner is unhappy, or unsatisfied, or neither, just looking to enjoy one of the better parts of life, and you deny them any degree of freedom in this area, and you don’t really have a good reason why, who is really being selfish?
Your partner is their own person, with their own body and their own desires. It’s okay for you and your partner to sit down to watch Mr. and Mrs. Smith and admit to one another that you think Brad, Angelina, or Bradgelina is hot. It’s okay that your partner was with other people before they met you, weren’t you? It’s okay that they still occasionally see someone on the street that turns their head. When that stops, it means they are dead inside. And, for some of us, it’s okay that your partner stretches their legs from time to time.
This issue also becomes a moral question when people use their unquestioned assumptions to judge what happens between other consenting adults. As I tried to show in my posts on ethics, the only truly moral imperative we have is to know when to leave other people, who aren’t hurting anyone else, the hell alone.
Wide-open relationships aren’t for everyone, and I am not in any way saying that everyone should be doing it. Some couples don’t want it, or need it. And recognizing the limits of your control over your own jealousy is vital. However, like with most things, increasing the freedom and autonomy of the people involved, to whatever degree you are comfortable, is a good thing. The problem with this blind adherence to monogamy being a necessary requirement to a committed and faithful relationship, is that when the relationship begins to possibly require change to keep it healthy and vibrant, a whole set of possibilities are dismissed outright. The solution to removing jealousy from your relationship is not letting your partner screw around with whoever they want. But it also isn’t pretending that they have no sexuality outside of what occurs in your bedroom at 9 pm on Wednesdays. (It’s business time!) I have no interest in being a sex or marriage counselor, so I will leave the details up to the reader to ponder, but ask yourself, really ask yourself, “If I let my partner X, would that really hurt our relationship?” Or would they instead be insanely grateful, and might it not add a spark that you may not have had in a while?


  1. Interesting that this is one of the few posts without comments....touchy subject (pun intended). Your subtle (or not so subtle) thread that the moral point of the story isn't the sex but the honesty within the relationship, is well taken. I believe no one should or can live in someone else's marriage (or relationship, partnership, whatever the term is today) and that each couple must define their terms for themselves. Whether this means sexual encounters 'outside' their bounds or not. Infidelity is consistently identified with sex when, in reality, there are numerous ways to be unfaithful that are more disrespectful to a relationship.
    As always, Rob...though provoking.

  2. Well, Bonnie, I have to give you some credit, for yes, being the first to post a comment here. I've gotten a few, via email, text, or personal conversation, from slightly less brave souls (or without a proper account, we can give them the benefit of the doubt.)

    I think you've identified my point exactly. Part of living in a society with a cultural/ religious history of being REALLY concerned with easy to identify transgressions, like which organ enters which orifice at which time on which person, rather than the ACTUAL transgressions, such as being emotionally unfaithful, whether to another person, or work, or sports, or alcohol, is that those sexual transgressions are automatically considered more of a crime than ones that may very well be doing more damage to a relationship.