Recently I was invited on to BBC Radio 4’s Women’s Hour to talk, as part of a panel of “young women” about modern attitudes to sex. As part of that discussion I touched on the fact that Juarez and I are not sexually monogamous.
“Oh, so you have an open relationship?” the presenter said.
“No!” I said. “That’s not what we call it. It’s more…” but I tailed off because the truth is, we don’t have an exact term yet for our particular flavour of non-monogamy. But I know what I don’t want and that’s to sign myself up to some bizarre edict that tells me I can only have sex with one person for the rest of my life and which shames me for my promiscuity.
This is long overdue as a blog post, if I’m honest. It informs so much of the way I feel about sex and relationships and human life and interpersonal interactions generally that it seems ridiculous not to have mentioned it. Plus, I’ve gone said it on the flippin’ radio now so I think it’s probably time I addressed it in a coherent, decisive way.
So here it is: I don’t believe in monogamy.
First and foremost let me explain that – in the context of this post at least – when I say promiscuous, I simply mean having more than one sexual partner. And when I say monogamy I mean sexual monogamy. As many pedants would be no doubt itching to point out, were I not to acknowledge it, the word monogamy actually refers to a single marriage, or as a broader interpretation, a single relationship or partner. And as far as marriage/life-partnership/primary relationships go, I am on board. I do not consider myself polyamorous (which I’ll come back to) and it is not my intention or desire at this point in my life to partner up with anyone other than Juarez. But promiscuous? Yes, definitely.
I do not believe that humans are meant to be sexually monogamous. It is not in our nature. Both of our closest primate relatives, chimps and bonobos are promiscuous. Males and females mate with multiple partners and not only for reproductive purposes. Bonobos are well known (particularly among the sex-positive human community!) for having sex as a means of appeasement and reconciliation, to reduce stress and alleviate social tensions, and of course for fun.
Everyone from anthropologists to social commentators have made the claim that, contrary to accepted wisdoms, human beings – and women in particular – are just not cut out for monogamy. Moreover, many argue it is not just reproductive instincts that drive us to sleep around, it is our social ones too. Yes, promiscuity is good for humanity.
Those who require more convincing (or those who just love reading about this kind of thing in which case: Hi, let’s be friends!) check out the following articles…
And then, when you’ve finished with those, check out Sex At Dawn by by Cacilda Jethá and Christopher Ryan which discusses at length the reasons why monogamy is bullshit [my words, not theirs]. The writing is relentlessly gleeful to the point of occasionally being obnoxious but it’s compelling stuff nonetheless.
Of course there are those that argue we should overcome our natural instincts since we have the reason and free will to do so. But history has shown us over and over again that when it comes to sex we can’t manage it. Even when adultery is a crime, when the penalties are imprisonment, flogging and death, as they are in many countries around the world, people still cheat. Even in cultures where condom use is prohibited or disliked and the risk of disease is high, people still sleep around.
When people all over the world are regularly taking their lives into their hands in order to have sex with people other than their partner, how can we keep fooling ourselves that monogamy is attainable?
I am aware that some people do achieve monogamy but I think that they do this in spite of their natural drives. That’s not to say I have any contempt for these people. Ultimately anything that’s consensual and makes people feel groovy is OK by me. I also know that some people continue to aspire to sexual exclusivity even though they know it could turn out to be an insurmountable challenge. Again, if they are happy with this situation, I have no quarrel with them.
For much of the human race monogamy is either impossible or excruciatingly difficult and even where they have entered into a relationship consensually, knowing there is an expectation of monogamy, they struggle to maintain it.
People cheat all the time. Even in my limited experience of the world, I can tell you there is no such thing the cheating “type” (or the non-cheating type, for that matter). Everyone has the desire to sleep with other people. Everyone has the capacity to decide not to. And yet here we all are, fucking around behind each other’s backs, despite full knowledge of the hurt it will cause, the pain we will feel and the judgment we will bring upon ourselves.
I am not an adultery apologist. While I may not have a problem with promiscuity I retain an aversion to dishonesty. If you’ve made a promise (however untenable) to remain sexually faithful to somebody and you break it, you are without doubt a bit of shitty person. But what I don’t understand is why this one thing – this one essential element of human life – should be able to bring down everything else.
Instead of all this pain and fear and vainglorious judgement, couldn’t we perhaps try to find a way of acknowledging each other’s need for variety, without it undermining who we are and what we have together. The words “it’s only sex” are not ones I’d readily utter but in this context I can’t help but feel incredulous that we should lay so much weight and anxiety at the door of what ought to be one of life’s more pleasurable pastimes.
You wouldn’t eat in the same restaurant every day, even if the menu was amazing and the chef was constantly coming up with new and exciting specials. OK, I acknowledge some people would and that is a beautiful and cool thing in its own right but it’s not for everyone and it’s certainly not for me. I want to eat in all the restaurants. I want to try out all of them. Call it greed, if you like. I call it curiosity. And an appetite for life.
What monogamy boils down to for me is compromise. As humans we feel jealousy towards our lovers and, unwilling or unable to take that on, we decide instead to circumnavigate it by promising to love them exclusively. The vast majority of people who make this promise (either formally or implicitly) know it’s not their ideal scenario. They do it to avoid their own jealousy. But if you ask me, jealousy shouldn’t even be given the space to breath. There are those who regard jealousy as an indicator of one’s strength of feeling, I see it for what it is: an entirely destructive force.
But I don’t see it as inevitable. I see it as an irrational reaction that can be contained and managed in the same way as any other irrational reaction. After all, the very definition of jealousy is an emotional reaction to a perceived or anticipated loss. But if you don’t fear losing your partner, what reason could you possibly have for feeling jealous? And this is the point. It is not sex that erodes trust, it is lack of communication. In a mutually consensual non-monogamous relationships you have no fear of losing your partner because you know – you have agreed – that this is part of your life, your love, and your partnership.
I like emotional security. I need it in the same way we all do. But the idea that one cannot have emotional security without sexual stagnation is ridiculous. Security comes from within you – you as an individual and you as a couple. It doesn’t exist on its own, you have to build it. It’s a thing you can do, and work on, and continue to uphold. And that goes for monogamous relationships just as much as it goes for non-monogamous ones.
Then there’s the ‘stability’ argument. Monogamous pairs, we are told, provide a stable environment in which to raise children. Maybe but there are many different ways of creating a stable environment for children to grow up in and they don’t necessarily have to involve monogamy. That’s not to say it’s not a challenge but all parenting is. There is a whole chapter dedicated to the subject in Dossie Easton and Janet W. Hardy’s famous non-monogamy manifesto The Ethical Slut.
The key thing for children, other than all the obvious things like love and care, is consistency – why this should be presumed to be negatively affected by one or both of their parents having other lovers is beyond me. Furthermore, there are a great many so-called monogamous relationships that are deeply unstable for a variety of reasons. So the idea that promiscuity is synonymous with instability and irresponsibility seems to me to be verging quickly and dangerously onto the “moral highground”, as was evidenced today in this revolting piece by Steven Glover.
It covers the recent ruling by a judge that a “story” about a male married-with-kids celebrity who had a threesome was not of sufficient public interest to be published by the Sun on Sunday.
“What is notable about the ruling,” he said, “is the near absence of much sense of traditional morality.
“There was no sense of the celebrity having offended against mores which, even in a largely secular society, are widely shared, and should be upheld.”
When I’ve finished screaming, let me simply say this: It is absolutely nobody else’s business what consensual sexual activity goes on between adults, married or otherwise. And while I welcome debate on and engagement with this subject I should like to make it known that I entirely reject the premise that other people’s ideas about “morality” and “mores” are in any way relevant to the way I choose to conduct my (entirely consensual, adult) relationships.
To me it would be immoral to live a lie. To pretend I was capable of something which I am not and to be untrue to myself and the people I love. I also believe that my disinterest in monogamy comes from an innate interest in the world and its inhabitants. It comes from the desire to connect and communicate which is one of the human race’s most positive forces for good. Variety IS the spice of life. It is what drives us forward and gives us something to look forward to, to aspire to. Human beings crave knowledge, we crave new experiences. We are a species built to explore and adapt and learn and create.
So no, I don’t believe in monogamy. But I do believe in healthy, honest, communicative relationships with the people you share your life with. Where does that leave me? Pretty happy and fulfilled, actually.