The past two entries I’ve written have laid out a case against long term exclusive monogamy as the “natural state” of human sexuality. Here’s the bullet point summary:
- Humans are “built” for pluralistic sexual behaviors and multiple lovers, not serial monogamy.
- The shift to monogamy is caused by a combination of accumulating wealth (since the agricultural revolution) and egalitarianism (which allows women to use monogamy as a means of accumulating wealth).
- Our jealousy and rage at sexual infidelity stems from our loss of current and future wealth (real or intangible), not the act of sex itself.
- The model of “core family” and parenting is based on transfer of wealth, not the best upbringing for the children.
This is all well and good, and if it’s true, then it explains a lot about the modern sexual marketplace. It explains why real sexual exclusivity is both rare and very difficult to maintain. It normalizes serial monogamy as a compensation for not having multiple simultaneous lovers. It offers a genetic explanation for the high number of women having children with different men throughout their lifetime.
Unfortunately, it also doesn’t give us much information about how to function sexually in the current Western climate in which anything outside of legal exclusive monogamy is seen as deviant, and in which females with “promiscuous” pasts are often passed over as desirable exclusive mates. Or, to put it in laymen’s terms, it doesn’t tell us one thing about how to be more “natural” and survive the punishment of a culture that prizes sexual purity and exclusivity.
I’ve been giving this question a lot of thought, and in the process, have tried to build a mental picture of what the sexual marketplace would look like if non-monogamy was a realistic option for most people. Here’s my initial take:
We Already Practice Non-Monogamy
Like it or not, strict exclusive monogamy exists primarily in the wishes and hopes of the highly religious and doggedly old-fashioned. (Not that it was any different in the real good old days…) We practice a coy game of wink-wink-nudge-nudge when it comes to exclusivity. Estimates range as high as 40% for extra-pair coupling in some populations. In other words, we say we’re going to be exclusive, and then we practice non-monogamy on the sly.
Furthermore, a large percentage of young people are part of the “hookup culture,” in which some sort of sexual contact is a precursor to a possible relationship. They have friends with benefits, booty-call buddies, pretend boyfriends/girlfriends, and at least a dozen other kinds of short-to-medium term non-committed partnerships. It’s not uncommon for a young person to have uncommitted sexual contact with a half-dozen or more partners before finding someone to commit to exclusively. At nearly all ages, we practice serial monogamy. A significant percentage of young people have relationships that last less than one year. Most retirement age people have had at least two marriages, and several mid-to-long term relationships in between.
Add to this the growing number of committed couples who are participating in occasional consentual non-monogamy, such as sex clubs, threesomes, sharing prostitutes in Vegas, making out with the best friend, etc, and we realize that we are already non-monogamous. We just make a big show of telling everybody we aren’t.
What We Want From Relationships
I think one of the biggest reasons we don’t openly practice non-monogamy is that by doing so, we feel we would be giving up the benefits of an exclusive relationship. In general, here are the most common things we expect to get. (I’m going to focus on what women want, primarily because it seems that men are generally more amenable to non-monogamy, and often keep women at arm’s length to preserve it.)
- Social Status – Especially for women, having a boyfriend/husband often means acceptance in a prestigious social circle. Especially when all her friends start getting engagement rings, the pressure to find and keep a man is powerful. Friends, relatives, and colleagues start asking questions, lining up blind dates, and poring through their little black books for available bachelors. Single women are often perceived as having lower status if they can’t snag a man.
- Companionship – As much as women love to travel in packs, they also want to go shopping with their man. They want to be seen on the arm of a successful attractive man at the swanky restaurants. They want to cuddle on the couch and watch chick flicks. They want to make dinner together.
- Emotional Support – The shoulder to cry on and the attentive ear to gripe to are very important. There’s something wonderful about knowing that someone will be there for us for both the exciting times and the difficult moments. Feeling like we’re not alone in the world is very important.
- Sex – Of course women want sex, too. And whether it’s cultural or biological, there’s a strong pull towards “meaningful sex” as opposed to drunken slobbery sex with a stranger. Women seem to be less terrified than men of not being able to get sex when they want it, but they are more afraid that they won’t be able to find good sex that involves them as a human participant, not just a warm wet place for a man to get his jollies.
- Children – In America, it’s become acceptable to be a single mother, but the system is still extremely biased towards nuclear family units. Especially for men, it’s financially unfeasible to father children without securing the sexual and parental commitment of the mother. There are simply no options available for communal child-rearing, so out of all the aspects of an exclusive relationship, this might be the toughest to translate to any kind of non-monogamy.
- Security – More than anything else, this is probably the greatest draw for exclusivity today. We want to know that what we have today, we’ll have tomorrow. That goes for anything on this list.
- Resources – Securing an exclusive partner generally means access to whatever resources they bring to the table. Whether it’s money, social access, gifts, a house, or anything else, resources are a big deal, and we generally only expect them from a partner when we’ve committed ourselves exclusively.
Obviously this list isn’t exhaustive, but I think it represents the “must have” list for a majority of people.
The Current Marketplace
If you can, try to take yourself “out of the box” for a moment and think about each of these broad relationship categories. Now, ask yourself this question: Is it possible to get this without sexual exclusivity?
- Can elevated social status come from pairing with someone who is non-monogamous? Ask anyone who’s ever married Hugh Hefner. The answer is yes. And there are plenty of polygamous societies in the world where being the fourth or fifth wife of a wealthy man confers plenty of status.
- Is it possible to give emotional support while not being exclusive? Of course it is. Have you ever had a platonic friend you supported emotionally? We all have. Emotional support is a function of how much we value someone, not whether we wet our genitals together.
- Can we have companionship while being non-monogamous? Again, we certainly can. In fact, most relationship experts insist that time away from our loved ones is crucial to long-term success, so all we have to ask is this: Does it really matter if our companion has sex during the time we shouldn’t be together anyway?
- Can we get fulfilling sex from more than one person? Well… yes. Lots of people do it. It would be absurd to suggest that literally thousands of non-monogamous societies throughout history have been plagued by ubiquitous un-fulfilling sex. It would be insulting to suggest that the small but significant number of openly non-monogamous long-term partners in America have worse sex than the exclusives. Furthermore, science backs up the notion that sexual variety promotes better sex in some ways. (The Coolidge Effect.)
- Can we have children while being non-monogamous? Of course. The legal aspects of it might get tricky if the biological father is not married to the mother, but if everyone involved knows what’s going on and covers their legal bases, it’s certainly possible. Lots of people have done it.
- Can we be secure about our future while being non-monogamous? Clearly we can. There are plenty of cultures where non-monogamous marriages are still binding. And in the end, marriage doesn’t equal security. We are always only as secure as our relationship is strong, and the question must really boil down to this: Is it possible for someone to want to stay with more than one sexual partner for the foreseeable future? I can’t think of a reason why not.
- Can we gain resources from a non-monogamous relationship? It’s clear that resources are not dependent on exclusivity. Ask any prostitute. (What is a prostitute with multiple “regulars” if not a practicing non-monogamist gaining resources?) Ask any mistress. Resources are exchanged every day for an almost infinite number of reasons. There’s no reason to demand sexual exclusivity as a prerequisite for resource exchange.
We have to admit that each aspect of a relationship is possible without sexual exclusivity. Granted, there are potential pitfalls and problems with each category, but that’s not news. There are problems with all of them in exclusive relationships, too.
A Recent Example
Ironically, even with our hyper-sexualized culture, we are less openly non-monogamous than we used to be. Growing up in the 1980s, I saw first-hand a standard practice of a kind of “ethical non-monogamy.” Unlike today, people went on “official dates” before there was any real possibility of sex. So step one was to ask a girl on a date. Somewhere between one and five or six dates, you could usually expect some kind of sexual gratification. But this did not mean sexual exclusivity. The girl was free to accept dates from other guys. At some point, the guy might decide to ask the girl to “go steady.” This was the equivalent of asking for sexual exclusivity. But until the girl had accepted the request, there was an understanding that she was more or less free to date, and if the guy had a problem with it, he could either demand that she go steady, or go find another girl to go out with.
Even in my highly conservative, religious part of the country, there were plenty of women who simply refused to accept offers to “go steady.” There were also plenty of guys who kept a rotating circle of three or four girls, and never popped the question. Granted, there was always social pressure on the girls to get a guy to go steady, and many girls would drop guys who showed no intention of doing so, but we have to ask the question: Without that social pressure, how many of them were having otherwise successful relationships without sexual exclusivity?
I hope I’ve built a strong enough case for at least the theoretical possibility of successful non-monogamy as a long-term strategy. In my next post, I’ll examine practical behavioral changes that could help facilitate a shift, both personally and culturally, so that ethical non-monogamy would be a viable option for fulfilling our relationship needs.