These days, it’s pretty much only staunchly religious (and profoundly unscientific) pundits claiming that humans are inherently monogamous. The evidence is too ubiquitous, and too overwhelming to ignore. From the archaeological, anthropological, sociological, biological, and anatomical records, we get a clear picture of what humans do. They have sex with multiple partners.
But this observation doesn’t help us very much in our day to day life. Particularly in America, we don’t have much choice but to toe the party line and at least pretend towards some form of monogamy, even if it’s serial. And scientists are far from united in their description of what we are “supposed to be.” So while we may all know intuitively that we aren’t built for monogamy, we don’t really know what we are built for.
The current model, largely promoted by evolutionary psychology, asserts a male-dominated, hierarchical competition model in which the best males gain access to multiple females, and in which females are highly selective, “saving themselves” for only the best males. While males fight it out for female resources (eggs), females attempt to monopolize as much of a male’s resources as possible, hunkering down for the extended pair bond in which she and the biological father raise their children together.
It’s not a very pretty picture. But it is making its way through the blogosphere. Susan Walsh’s popular (and somewhat controversial) blog Hooking Up Smart generally advises women to restrict access to sex, saving it primarily for men who will make good long-term companions. Athol Kay strongly advocates sexual exclusivity and long term monogamy at Married Man Sex Life. Multitudes of “Pick-Up Artist” sites buy into the model, advising men in the art of exploiting females’ natural choosiness to their advantage. (I do not advocate any of those sites enough to link to them.)
It’s kind of a puzzling picture, even at first glance. How exactly does it follow?
Humans are not naturally monogamous. Therefore, you should behave as if we were monogamous.
It doesn’t make a lot of sense to me, and there are plenty of scientists who are equally puzzled, but answers are hard to come by. Questions we have aplenty.
- If females are after stored resources, and the males are trying to accumulate resources to buy females, why wasn’t there any way to accumulate resources for 99% of our evolutionary history? (Pre-agriculture)
- If we are naturally competitive and warlike, what were we fighting over when there were no resources to capture?
- If we are designed to bond long-term with one partner (or perhaps two), why does our biology most closely resemble bonobos, who do not bond this way?
- If we are designed for sexual exclusivity, why are human vaginas designed specifically for intense sperm competition? (Sperm competition happens when sperm from multiple males is in the vagina at the same time.)
- Why do so many existing hunter-gatherer societies practice multi-male/multi-female mating?
- If we males are so concerned with passing along our genes, why don’t we have the ability to detect cuckolding, and why don’t we kill babies that are not ours?
- Why do so many “primitive” cultures believe that it requires the sperm from many males to create a healthy baby?
The questions go on and on and on. And the fact is, none of the “acceptable” answers make sense. Clearly, our social insistence on strict monogamy is largely attributable to the imposition of modern monotheism on the Western world, and as I’ve detailed in THIS ARTICLE, the motivations were hardly altruistic.
But there are questions in the opposite direction as well:
- If we are “supposed” to have sex with lots of people, why do we get so furiously jealous when our lover has sex with someone else?
- Though we don’t often kill non-biological children we are raising, we do tend to treat them worse than our biological children. If we are designed for “communal” child-rearing, why is this so?
- If this is all a land-grab by the evil church, why is the two-parent system so widely spread through the industrialized world, even where the big-three monotheist religions are not major factors?
- If females are so strongly designed for sperm competition, why is it considered “slutty” the world over for a girl to have two guys in the same day?
- If we’re “naturally” non-monogamous, why do STDs present such a problem for promiscuous individuals? Shouldn’t we have evolved mechanisms to lessen the impact?
It’s quite a puzzle, but there are strong clues both in human and primate culture, and even if we can’t pin down exact answers about our ancient ancestors, we can make better educated guesses today than we could fifty years ago.
For me, the two most glaring pieces of data involve “primitive” cultures and sperm competition. And I believe when we combine them, we get a relatively clear picture.
Unfortunately, a lot of our data about “primitive cultures” — those whose primary milieu is hunting and gathering — is skewed by researcher bias. There isn’t room in this post to give specific examples, but the general trend is clear. Observers assumed the modern Western paradigm to be the norm, and tended to over-emphasize any long-term bonding they saw, to the exclusion of much more prevalent and perfectly acceptable sexual behaviors which were not reminiscent of marriage. They also tended to view these behaviors as “abberant,” even when they were clearly the norm.
But modern observations, combined with careful reading of older data supports the conclusion that among hunter-gatherers, non-exclusive sexual relationships are the norm. In fact, it is quite common for such cultures to have rules against monopolizing sexual partners or preventing others from access to a desired partner.
This observation squares with the logical question: If pre-humans didn’t have possessions, why would they fight over mates, and how would they keep them to themselves even if they won?
To Darwin, competition for a mate happened externally. That is, once a male had copulated, he had won the sexual competition. But we know now that this is only half of the story. Many animals (including bonobos, and at least biologically — humans) have complicated internal mechanisms for mate competition. Rather than have males fight it out and risk injury or death, the female accepts sperm from multiple males, and the sperm fight it out in the reproductive tract. (If you want to learn more about the human female’s sperm olympics, read it HERE.)
Men also contribute to sperm wars. Individual sperm serve different functions, from blocking the way for competitors to actively killing them. We have exceptionally large testicles, and produce far more sperm than any sexually exclusive mammals.
Putting it Together
Admittedly, these are only two parts of a very complicated and multi-faceted system, and I don’t claim to be able to answer all the “big questions” from two bits of data. But these two bits do hint very strongly at a picture of pre-agricultural humans. Our biology clearly shows us that females routinely accepted sperm from multiple males in short periods of time. Most “primitive” cultures have orgy festivals, partner swapping, and other sexual rituals. Equally interesting is that so few of them have any concept of long-term monogamy. They don’t even have words to describe it, so foreign is the idea. Historically, Christian missionaries routinely decried the sexual lasciviousness of conquered converts, so it’s likely that this is not a new state of affairs.
So we now have a way to chip away at the current narrative. Why are humans so devoted to sexual possession and monogamy today? Probably because we are so devoted to accumulating resources. Without such accumulation, there would literally be nothing to fight over. Both males and females are perfectly capable of having sex many times in a day. Even in rigidly monogamous societies, extra-pair coupling is common. Our insane jealousy at the thought of our mates having sex with someone else stems largely from the sense of impending loss. If such a loss is not a threat, we have to wonder why we would be jealous in the first place.
What does it mean?
So am I suggesting that we should all ditch the idea of possessions, move to a commune in Utah, and start randomly having sex with anyone and everyone we want? No. But I am suggesting that we each have the ability — but not the obligation — to think about precisely why we are following the narrative. There is a growing infatuation in America with non-monogamy, and there have always been small communities of swingers, polygamists, polyamorists, and non-exclusive daters. And while nobody is going to promise an easy time of things for non-monogamists in America, it’s still worth knowing that exclusive monogamy is not the only available path.
Especially with regard to Susan Walsh’s target group — transient college-aged women — it might be worth thinking about our obsession with monogamy as a consistent goal. With so many people delaying marriage and children until their 30s or beyond, perhaps we are causing ourselves more problems than we’re solving by insisting that the only acceptable relationship is one with long-term potential for monogamy. To be fair, the question of how to buck the system without being buried by it is real, but this entry is long enough already. I suppose we’ll have to cross that bridge at another time.
In any case, even if we decide that monogamy is still our goal, it’s helpful to understand that we are not especially built for it, and it’s as much about ownership as anything else. Knowing that non-ownership is an option is liberating in and of itself, and perhaps it will open new doors for people who feel like they just “aren’t ready for commitment” at this time. Maybe it could even help redefine what it means to have a “friend with benefits.” We’ll see.