Is Monogamy Unnatural?
As a species, you could say we’ve become overly fixated on what’s ‘natural’ and what isn’t – in fact, this fixation has given rise to an entire, at times dubious, food industry which promotes honey, for example, over sugar, simply because it’s ‘more natural’ – despite the fact that they’re essentially exactly the same thing. There is a similar argument to be made that what’s ‘natural’ is irrelevant when it comes to sex – just look at how homophobia has been demonised by the ‘it’s unnatural!’ argument, despite the fact that multiple species engage in homosexual acts.
Nevertheless, with evolutionary psychology growing in importance in the sphere of public scientific debate, the question ‘is monogamy unnatural?’ could be considered one of the most involving of our time. Increasing numbers of people are moving away from the traditional nuclear family and engaging in polygamy, polyamory, open relationships and every shade of experimentation in between. Whether the tradition of monogamy is, at best, unnatural, or at worst, impossible to sustain, has finally been opened up for debate.
The Argument against Monogamy
While there are other arguments against monogamy, the most interesting are evolutionary. In their work ‘Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality’, Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha argue that mankind used to exhibit the same kind of promiscuity and sexual freedom as bonobos and chimps, and that it wasn’t until the agricultural revolution, when man stopped being nomadic and began to settle, that possessions became important. As a result of this, knowing a child’s parentage became important, and monogamy was born.
They further argue that our very biology indicates we are not intended to be monogamous; pointing out that male sperm contains chemicals which protect it against the presence of competitor’s sperm. In addition, they posit that the shape of the penis may be designed to ‘scoop out’ any rival sperm and hypothesise that the greater length of time females take to achieve orgasm may be because they are designed to have sex with multiple partners consecutively. They also posit that the loud noises females make during sex may be a ‘call’ to attract other mates to the area.
These are compelling arguments, but perhaps the most convincing argument the authors make is the ‘proof is in the pudding’ one – namely, that people cheat. Despite loving their partners, standing to lose their families and every guard that monogamy puts in place to protect itself, 50-60% of married men and 45-55% of married women engage in extracurricular intercourse at some point in their married lives. If this isn’t because monogamy is unnatural, why is it?
Finding what Right is for you
Of course, you can just as easily flip this question on its head, pointing out it means roughly 45% of married people are faithful throughout their marriages, too. Incidentally, this is not something that could be said of bonobos, chimps or any of the close ancestors Jetha and Ryan use to underline their argument. So clearly, the question of monogamy isn’t as clear cut as promiscuity being an intrinsic, uncontrollable urge. It could be that, considering the complexity of humans, monogamy simply may not be the answer for everyone, and certain scientific findings support this.
For example, research from the Karolinska Institute in Sweden uncovered a ‘monogamy gene’ in 2008, finding that the more copies of the RS3 334 gene a male carried, the more likely they were to score poorly on a measure of pair bonding, and the more likely they were to have unhappy marriages. A similar indicator was subsequently found in women, with women who carry certain variants of the vasopressin receptor gene being found ‘much more likely to engage in extra pair bonding’ (infidelity).
So, if you were planning on running straight to your wife and demanding an open relationship on the ground of nature, hold your horses – while there’s sufficient evidence to debunk the idea that a ‘one size fits all’ approach to monogamy should be rigorously enforced across society, the fact is that monogamy does work for many people, and has for hundreds of years.
If you’re experiencing dissatisfaction in your relationship, a feeling of sexual staleness or boredom, the first thing you should do is talk to your partner. It may be that he or she feels the same way, and would welcome experimentation with a non-monogamous lifestyle – or it may be that simply the fantasy of doing so is enough to put a little extra spice back into your relationship. Whatever the outcome, deceiving your partner is rarely the answer – and minimising harm caused by any alternative relationship should be key.