Are We Wired For Monogamy?
A challenge to the idea that marriage and fidelity are "normal."
BY CHRISTOPHER RYAN AND CACILDA JETHÁ
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.”
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.
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 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.