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    Are We Wired For Monogamy?

    A challenge to the idea that marriage and fidelity are "normal."

    Sex at Dawn


    For centuries, theorists have claimed that married, monogamous couples are the natural unit of human society, a claim that doesn't explain why everyone from politicians to preachers — has so much trouble staying faithful. The following excerpt, from the book Dan Savage called "the single most important book about human sexuality since Alfred Kinsey,"  makes a different argument, against monogamy.

    Evolutionary psychology’s standard narrative contains several clanging contradictions, but one of the most discordant involves female libido. Females, we’re told again and again, are the choosy, reserved sex. Men spend their energies trying to impress women — flaunting expensive watches, packaging themselves in shiny new sports cars, clawing their way to positions of fame, status, and power — all to convince coy females to part with their closely guarded sexual favors. For women, the narrative holds that sex is about the security — emotional and material — of the relationship, not the physical pleasure. Darwin agreed with this view. The “coy” female who “requires to be courted” is deeply embedded in his theory of sexual selection.

    If women were as libidinous as men, we’re told, society itself would collapse. Lord Acton was only repeating what everyone knew in 1875 when he declared, “The majority of women, happily for them and for society, are not very much troubled with sexual feeling of any kind.”

    Why the electrified high-security razor-wire fence to contain a kitty-cat?

    And yet, despite repeated assurances that women aren’t particularly sexual creatures, in cultures around the world men have gone to extraordinary lengths to control female libido: female genital mutilation, head-to-toe chadors, medieval witch burnings, chastity belts, suffocating corsets, muttered insults about “insatiable” whores, pathologizing, paternalistic medical diagnoses of nymphomania or hysteria, the debilitating scorn heaped on any female who chooses to be generous with her sexuality . . . all parts of a worldwide campaign to keep the supposedly low-key female libido under control. Why the electrified high-security razor-wire fence to contain a kitty-cat?

    The Greek god Tiresias had a unique perspective on male and female sexual pleasure.

    While still a young man, Tiresias came upon two snakes entwined in copulation. With his walking stick, he separated the amorous serpents and was suddenly transformed into a woman.

    Seven years later, the female Tiresias was walking through the forest when she again interrupted two snakes in a private moment. Placing her staff between them, she completed the cycle and was transformed back into a man.

    This unique breadth of experience led the first couple of the Greek pantheon, Zeus and Hera, to call upon Tiresias to resolve their longrunning marital dispute: who enjoys sex more, men or women? Zeus was sure that women did, but Hera would hear none of it. Tiresias replied that not only did females enjoy sex more than males, they enjoyed it nine times more!

    His response incensed Hera so much that she struck Tiresias blind. Feeling responsible for having dragged poor Tiresias into this mess, Zeus tried to make amends by giving him the gift of prophesy. It was from this state of blinded vision that Tiresias saw the terrible destiny of Oedipus, who unknowingly killed his father and married his mother.

    Not only did females enjoy sex more than males, they enjoyed it nine times more!

    Peter of Spain, author of one of the most widely read medical books of the thirteenth century, the Thesaurus Pauperum, was more diplomatic when confronted with the same question. His answer (published in Quaestiones super Viaticum) was that although it was true women experienced greater quantity of pleasure, men’s sexual pleasure was of higher quality. Peter’s book included ingredients for thirty-four aphrodisiacs, fifty-six prescriptions to enhance male libido, and advice for women wanting to avoid pregnancy. Perhaps it was his diplomacy, the birth-control advice, or his open-mindedness that led to one of history’s strange and tragic turns. In 1276, Peter of Spain was elected Pope John XXI, but he died just nine months later when the ceiling of his library suspiciously collapsed on him as he slept.

    Why does any of this history matter? Why is it important that we correct widely held misconceptions about human sexual evolution?

    Well, ask yourself what might change if everyone knew that women do (or, at least, can, in the right circumstances) enjoy sex as much as men, not to mention nine times more, as Tiresias claimed? What if Darwin was wrong about the sexuality of the human female — led astray by his Victorian bias? What if Victoria’s biggest secret was that men and women are both victims of false propaganda about our true sexual natures and the war between the sexes — still waged today — is a false-flag operation, a diversion from our common enemy?

    We’re being misled and misinformed by an unfounded yet constantly repeated mantra about the naturalness of wedded bliss, female sexual reticence, and happily-ever-after sexual monogamy — a narrative pitting man against woman in a tragic tango of unrealistic expectations, snowballing frustration, and crushing disappointment. Living under this tyranny of two, as author and media critic Laura Kipnis puts it, we carry the weight of “modern love’s central anxiety,” namely, “the expectation that romance and sexual attraction can last a lifetime of coupled togetherness despite much hard evidence to the contrary.”

    We’re being misled by an unfounded yet constantly repeated mantra about the naturalness of wedded bliss.

    We build our most sacred relationships on the battleground where evolved appetites clash with the romantic mythology of monogamous marriage. As Andrew J. Cherlin recounts in The Marriage-Go-Round, this unresolved conflict between what we are and what many wish we were results in “a great turbulence in American family life, a family flux, a coming and going of partners on a scale seen nowhere else.” Cherlin’s research shows that “[t]here are more partners in the personal lives of Americans than in the lives of people of any other Western country.”

    But we rarely dare to confront the contradiction at the heart of our mistaken ideal of marriage head-on. And if we do? During a routine discussion of yet another long-married politician caught with his pants down, comedian/social critic Bill Maher asked the guests on his TV show to consider the unspoken reality underlying many of these situations: “When a man’s been married twenty years,” Maher said, “he doesn’t want to have sex, or his wife doesn’t want to have sex with him. Whatever it is. What is the right answer? I mean, I know he’s bad for cheating, but what’s the right answer? Is it — to just suck it up and live the rest of your life passionless, and imagine somebody else when you’re having sex with your wife the three days a year that you have sex?” After an extended, awkward silence, one of Maher’s panelists eventually suggested, “The right answer is to get out of the relationship. . . . Move on. I mean, you’re an adult.” Another agreed, noting, “Divorce is legal in this country.” The third, normally outspoken journalist P. J. O’Rourke, just looked down at his shoes and said nothing.

    “Move on?” Really? Is abandonment of one’s family the “adult” option for dealing with the inherent conflict between socially sanctioned romantic ideals and the inconvenient truths of sexual passion?

    From the book Sex at Dawn by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá. Copyright © 2010 by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers.

    Commentarium (45 Comments)

    Aug 02 10 - 1:53am

    Monogamy isn't marriage. Religion is not reality. Historical rumor is not truth. Bill Maher is not a romantic role model. You can all fuck anyone you ever wanted, if you dare. Yet most will pair off or end up alone/jealous. Rinse, repeat...

    Aug 02 10 - 2:01am

    "Bill Maher is not a romantic role model"? Did you actually read the article?

    Aug 02 10 - 7:34am

    It's all in good fun, but let's be serious. It's a "Just-so" story in which complex outcomes are given simple, apparently plausible, and totally trite answers. Have you ever noticed that whenever anyone does an analysis of almost anything that is really pretty much self-defined, the results almost always match his/her own prejudices. The perfect example is the study a few sociologists made of status some years ago which managed--God only knows how--to indicate that researchers in social sciences stood at the top of pyramid.

    We have absolutely no idea what our ancestors were like. We have absolutely no idea which behaviors we have are a function of specific evolution and which ones are just weird. We only developed language a few years ago as geology measures time, so what it means to be human is pretty recent. And it's pretty damn obvious that we're neither chimpanzees (nasty, warlike, raping, eating other monkeys) nor bonobos (sex with everything, minimal tool use) nor gorillas (somewhat solitary vegetarians ) or orangs (note how everyone forgets about another cousin). We are not Neandertals nor Homo hablis. We're us...the missing link between ape and intelligent life, higher than the mud, lower than the sky.

    We are vast; we enclose multitudes. There is no way some made-up simplified biology defines us.

    Aug 02 10 - 9:41am

    Just finished this book (at the recommendation of Dan Savage) and it makes a compelling case. You should really give it a chance. The authors have researched quite thoroughly their subject matter and provide evidence that makes you rethink the validity of monogomy. Raises a lot of good questions. Definitely worth reading. Make up your own mind afterwards.

    Aug 02 10 - 9:59am

    Agreed - the book makes a very compelling case. It's pretty readable too

    Aug 02 10 - 10:01am

    I don't know if I believe that any group of people is wired in any certain way. Different relationships work for different reasons and there are historical reasons why marriage is a model that sort of works and has been prevalent in so many cultures for so long. That being said, this book seems like sort of a layman's guide to social construction theory, which is cool.

    Aug 02 10 - 10:48am

    Human sexuality is way more complex than "monogamous" or "not monogamous." There are way too many factors involved for us to ever have a complete picture, and I think it's a foolish, if entertaining, pursuit to try to catalog human sexuality.

    Aug 02 10 - 11:20am

    this is a wonderful book that not only discusses human sexuality from a historical social stance but also a biological evolutionary one. Read the book!

    Aug 02 10 - 1:42pm

    Is this really supposed to be plugging a scholarly publication? Does anyone take the kind of reasoning presented in this article seriously? All the authors do is cite a few well-worn anecdotes about the 'insatiable' female and by the end of the article it is supposed to be well established that monogamy is the wrong answer for most people - what a joke! I can make a few cracks about the frigid woman and then move on to conclude that we are really supposed to be celibate I suppose. What passes for scholarship today is truly pathetic!

    Aug 02 10 - 4:01pm

    First, I love this book. ... BUT. Evolution doesn't have an end goal and with all the findings in the exciting field of epigenetics our genes are being mutated at a rapid rate. Maybe the bonobos don't have just one partner - but they also fling feces and somehow we have separated ourselves from that.

    Aug 02 10 - 4:29pm

    Have we really separated ourselves from flinging feces? Have you been to a Yankees game? We like to think we have evolved past our primal urges but more often than not we fail to to clear that hurdle......well argued premise in this book and I think many of the naysayers are reacting from an emotional standpoint rather than an intellectual one. And the premise is not that we are all polygamists but that we have a more complex relationship with sex than our current relationship models recognize.

    Aug 02 10 - 6:25pm

    Terrible excerpt from a terrible book. Biologists don't know how to speak about love.

    Aug 02 10 - 6:28pm

    Also, please note. This is an excerpt! Not the book. It's like a taste of the argument, not the whole thing. If you want to call it bullshit, there are 230-odd other pages you should read first.

    Aug 02 10 - 6:57pm

    yes: monogamy (or at least long-lasting marriage-ties which may be either polygamous or monogamous) is often considered 'natural'. a social structure that is the result of millions of years of social evolution. but you will be hard-pressed to find any biologist who has taken this 'natural monogamy' to mean 'no desire for cheating on your spouse'. wanting to fuck around is perfectly natural in the sense of wanting to spread your genes far and wide (and it doesn't just apply to men: women are better of being impregnated by that handsome dude with his good genes then by their 'settling for him because i want a husband' spouse) .
    but just because cheating is 'natural' doesn't mean it's 'right'. religion has always been about elevating men above beast. above the needs of the flesh. and no: it's not SUPPOSED to be all that easy all the time.
    if you want to live a purely hedonistic lifestyle always taking the easy route and only caring for your own wellbeing then that's fine by me. but it means religion simply is not your thing. and neither is marriage or any other longterm commitment.

    open marriage? if both sides agree on it then i don't have moral objections. but it's no secret those realationships rarely hold for more then a few years.
    cheating on your spouse? no amount of 'it's natural' reasoning is going to make you any less of a douchebag

    and i agree with AlanK's comment that this kind of books is more about furthering the pre-existing ideas the authors had then about actual research.
    and the same can be said about the readers: if people think the book is awesome then that is because it gives them new sientifically-sounding arguments for something they already believed (and apparently 'what they already believed' is often that it's totally okay to cheat on their spouse)

    Aug 02 10 - 11:44pm

    In Biblical times, life expectancy was about 35, so lengthy loveless marriages were the exception, not the rule. Nowadays, life expectancy is 70+ in most of the developed world, so lengthy loveless marriages are now the norm. The game has changed. Maybe we need new rules?

    Aug 03 10 - 1:46am

    we're wired for rape and polygamy and subjugating women and having kids at the earliest age possible. fortunately, we humans possess this thing called a brain. this means that we can choose NOT to do any of those things. have a single partner, have no partner, have twenty partners. have one child, have ten children, have no children. evolutionary psych is such a tired field.

    Aug 03 10 - 1:46am

    Gotta add to the group of people who liked and were swayed by this book after reading it fully. Stuff like this should always be taken with a grain of salt, but it's not something that should be so easily dismissed.

    I especially liked the explicit bits at the end.

    Aug 03 10 - 6:50am

    We are not wired for rape or polygamy or subjugating women....which is the book's thesis....and statistically speaking monogamy does not exist in a puritanical sense for over half of the population (of those who admit to it). It is also not a call for one or the other.....currently most of us are in or have been in or will be in non-monogamous relationships whether accepted or not...being more understanding about our relationships to each other does not mean unlimited hedonism....again many of the people posting against this article should read the book.

    Aug 03 10 - 8:15am

    "We're not evolved for monogamy..." we're also not evolved to wear shoes or live in wooden houses, but we're not giving that up any time soon.
    I haven't read the book yet, but I think that a point that can easily get overlooked in the debate about this is that we may not have evolved as monogamous creatures, but we can choose (or be led by culture) to be so, and understanding our evolutionary history can only help deal with the internal conflicts created by these changes.
    We are, as AlanK pointed out, not complete slaves to our biology, nor are we evolution's finished product, we're still changing, a still-evolving, bald monkey that can run on two legs, eat cooked food and throw overhand. Author Terry Pratchett called us the place where "The falling angel meets the rising ape."
    This book, which I'm sure is very good and I intend to read myself, doesn't mean you can't be monogamous any more than you have to stop wearing shoes or living in a house (although a weekend of running around barefoot in the woods with multiple partners DOES sound like a hell of a party), but it'll help you understand why, even if you're happy with your partner you still find yourself looking.

    Aug 03 10 - 5:13pm

    A lot of people seem to be under the impression that this book condones cheating. From what I understand, it simply is trying to subvert the long-held idea that monogomy should be easy and those who can't adhere to it are broken. I would hazard to say that knowing monogomy is difficult would better prepare people who want to be monogomous. That way, I know that when it gets tough, that it's normal and to stick it out. It's okay for me to get a crush on someone else when I am in a long term relationship, as long as I don't act on it. Knowledge is power, right?

    Aug 03 10 - 11:53pm

    Who ever thought monogamy would be easy? when was that an idea to be subverted? The book raises a paper tiger to argue against and, in so doing, condones cheating as 'natural'.

    Aug 04 10 - 3:01pm

    The book never condones cheating.

    Aug 04 10 - 3:13pm

    Describing something as 'natural' is a way of condoning it. Indeed, to confirm this one need look no farther than the book's own thesis. The authors claim to be 'fixing' a widespread problem - the problem is that because many people believe monogamy 'natural' they desire it and think it will be easy. How then is it possible to deny that by describing polyandry as 'natural' it is not being elevated as desirable and easier than unnatural forms of sex. There is more than one way to condone something and descriptions in glowing and effusive terms is one of them.

    Aug 05 10 - 10:14am

    Read The Myth Of Monogamy written by a married couple, one of whom is a psychiatrist and the other and anthropology professor.
    Read John Paul II's tome on marriage, men, women and the body.
    Rad St. Augustine on The Free Choice of the Will, and Merleau-Ponty's chapter on sex in The Phenomenology of Perception.

    Aug 05 10 - 10:24am
    harry krishna

    my life is centered on my pecker, quite a complex critter.

    Aug 05 10 - 10:58am
    Etta Place

    Check out a more enlightened perspective, that of author David Deida. He would place polygamous relationships in "stage 2", where each partner gives up something to get something back from the other. Sort of a bartering stage. Stage 3 is a level that reaches beyond what we want for ourselves or even for our partner, but instead asks,"who do we love in order to expand the whole world?" Typically, he would say that these most enlightened relationships are monogamous, except in rare cases.

    Aug 05 10 - 12:41pm

    I have been practicing "serial monogamy" my whole life. That is to say, I have a monogamous relationship for a few years, then I leave and move on to the next person. When the attraction dies, or when the other person starts treating me badly, I get out and save myself the heartache and pain. I spent several years in an open relationship, screwing whoever I wanted, whenever I wanted. The man I was with had commitment issues; he wanted the security of being in a relationship without the "caged" feeling of being bound to just one woman. I don't believe we are wired for long term monogamy. I believe we are wired to be monogamous with the best mate available at the time, but to be constantly looking for someone better. I believe that women love sex at least as much as men, or why would there be so many different sex toys designed for women, while so relatively few designed for men. I have not read the book yet, but I think a major point the authors are trying to make is just that. Women do not desire sex any less than men do. Men are just more open about it because it is not as socially accepted for women to be open about their desires.

    Aug 05 10 - 2:55pm

    I too have been a serial monogamous for all of my sexual life. I have also had various lovers in between those relationships & sometimes during. I have embraced my sexuality & own up to like any adult woman should, but it amazes me how many women and men still think SLUT!I've always viewed sex as something natural and fun, whether with someone or by myself & not to be used as a bargaining chip or hindered by church related moralistic rules. I'm also not indiscriminate in my choice of partners & very safe in my sexual practices, always have been and plan on always being that way. The idea of monogomy is fine for others I suppose, but for me, it will never rule my sexual life. Life is a buffet I plan on enjoying all the courses I can.:-)

    Aug 05 10 - 10:25pm

    This article groups all humans into two sexes. Functionally speaking, there are three sexes:


    Alpha Male

    Beta Male

    Females want the alpha male. Their sexual appetite is for him only. Generally speaking, the average female would prefer to be the alpha male's second or third wife as opposed to Bozo the Beta Clown's first.

    Beta males, understanding this desire and realizing that they also greatly outnumber the alpha males, invent modern civilization and its institutions, including the institution of monogamous marriage. Only in this way can they have access to ANY female and the chance of passing their genes into the next generation.

    Any article about the "battle between the sexes" that does not recognize the dichotomatic nature of maleness vs. the monolithic nature of femaleness is doomed to be useless, misleading, ignorant.

    Aug 05 10 - 10:32pm

    The answer is to "grow up" and realize that growing old sucks. Losing youth, vitality, physically attractiveness to the opposite sex -- SUCKS! No way to avoid it.

    Human beings evolved to have A LITTLE bit of monogamy. Human beings bond long enough to reproduce and see the offspring off til the point that the kiddies are not totally helpless. Hence, the "seven year itch." The problem is that rarely do the members of the couple reach the conclusion that their monagamous feelings are at a end at the same time.

    So blah blah blah blah blah. Your partner will get bored with you. You will get bored of your partner. For your children's sake, it will be at a point in time whey they are say, older than seven years old. For your sake, you will get bored with your partner first, and then you can break off the union and seek someone else. Of course it will be painful and cause a lot of upset, but not as much as if it were your partner who reaches that "bored" point soon and initiates the process of finding someone else.

    The End.

    Aug 06 10 - 2:45am

    "Describing something as 'natural' is a way of condoning it." There are a lot of natural things out there no one condones. The authors aren't pro-cheating they're pro-honesty. I think you're oversimplifying their very complex and open thesis, which is that our polyamarous feelings are natural, so what should we do with them? Ignoring them or trying to stamp them out obviously hasn't worked, so let's try being honest and maybe, but not necessarily re-evaluating our default relationship patterns.

    Aug 06 10 - 9:42am

    Isn't it interesting that such individual comments arise out of a seeming 'scholarly' discussion about sex? Regardless of how we try to frame humanity, it is still a unit of individuals who have their own perceptions and thus a multitude of answers to life questions. The beauty of evolution is that it begins with the individual. What is intrinsic to us all is the one tool we have, our body. I have seen monogamy work--a pair of old people still really into each other and really into sex after forty-five years of marraige. I have seen a whole lot of other people get divorced, move on, and be equally as happy sexually. Really the excitement is in seeing all the different perceptions and how persuasive they are on both sides of the coin. If you ask me, sex is ultimately about reproduction. It is just the added bonus that it is pleasurable. Some people just gain more pleasure in its romance while others are turned on by its primality.

    Aug 06 10 - 2:46pm

    Why do you bristle so much at the word 'condone'? If I didn't know any better I would just say that you don't understand what the word means. 'Condone' means 'to accept'. In fact the question you claim to be central to the book "what do we do with polyamory now that efforts to stamp it out have been revealed as failures?" is really just another way of saying "in what form are we going to accept polyamory?" or, better still, 'what should condoning polyamory look like?'. If you can see clearly that book asks us to accept a certain form of sexual liaison, I don't know why you fail to see that to accept is to condone.

    Aug 06 10 - 6:23pm

    This excerpt was pretty disappointing -- where is the "research" the book is supposedly based on? The historical quotations? Doesn't give the book much credibility as authoritative or well-researched -- the authors would be well-served by highlighting a stronger passage if they are trying to get people interested in buying.

    Aug 06 10 - 9:37pm
    Christopher Ryan

    The authors don't get to choose what passages Hooksexup excerpts here, though I can assure you they appreciate the exposure and the discussion it provoked.

    Aug 06 10 - 10:47pm

    Well then Hooksexup really screwed the pooch on this one. They took a book that at least purports to be scholarly by its authors and associated it with a excerpt that will put it in the hands of vapid sluts, doucebags and swingers.

    ***Why wouldn't Hooksexup have consulted with them in advance? Are we supposed to believe that counts as journalism and so requires independence? Laughable!!!***

    Aug 07 10 - 5:02am
    Jim Stockman

    The thesis put forward in the book is not really new. Monogamy is a one type of sexual culture, the others being polygamous, in some primitive societies it is women who hold sway over men, meanwhile in other societies promiscuity is the rule. In tribal societies children are brought up by the village, as witnessed in African cultures, where children go into any house in their village. and are fed and looked after.

    Monogamy as a sexual norm is only found in advanced societies in order to protect property rights. Under Sallic law illegitimate children have no rights to inheritance from their parents.

    However as we know, there is a sickening hypocrisy surrounding Monogamy, for really it is not a natural state at all.

    Aug 07 10 - 8:02pm

    Nature used to have a way to deal with promiscuity.
    It was ugly, painful and fatal. Now that we stop nature from working those with a genetic predisposition to be philanderers will proliferate.
    Fortunately, Nature has already started fighting back with evolved bacteria and viruses.
    In the end the balance will swing the other way to reinforce the 1000s year old lessons that directed us to monogamy in the first place. Unfortunately, it will also mean the loss of weapons to save innocent children from meningitis, influenza, etc, etc.
    So enjoy your "liberation" while you doom your great grandchildren.
    At least you won't be alive to watch them die.

    Aug 07 10 - 8:04pm
    Atl Couples Play

    Monogamy isn't natural unless you're a goose

    Aug 09 10 - 9:13am

    I think that the idea people are missing is that monogamy does not exist or if it does it exists like abstinence exists...abstinence is a proven way not to catch disease, get pregnant or get in trouble with your parents but how often are people successful at it? Monogamy is the its purest form it might be attractive and symbolize stability for a small family unit but in practice people do not live up to its ideals. So why not be honest about it.

    Aug 10 10 - 1:09pm

    we are wired for sex. Somehow we all miss that basic rule. Beyond that you can discuss the dos and don'ts. But in the end we all want and need to fuck. A moral code that denys that hurts by creating wrong expectations.

    Aug 10 10 - 4:10pm

    We are wired to kill each other. Somehow we all miss that basic rule. Beyond that you can discuss the dos and don'ts. But in the end we all want and need to kill. A moral code that denys that hurts by creating wrong expectations.

    Aug 10 10 - 4:40pm

    If we all stopped masturbating too much, if we didn't have all this fake nudity surrounding us daily, if we had no social hesitations about what we like and how we like it, if we were not afraid of using our imagination... SEX would be more awesome! ;)

    Apr 13 11 - 11:11am

    Cool! That's a clever way of loiokng at it!

    Aug 11 12 - 3:09pm

    "Normal" is an irrelevant term. The fact that one man and one woman in a lifelong monogamous relationship is not the historical norm is also irrelevant. What if there is an absolute authority Who stipulates that a monogamous lifelong relationship is the only acceptable "norm?" Does humanity's failure to comply establish a "new normal?" Or just a failure to live to our design?