A couple months ago, at a group dinner, one non-American gentleman at the table said, "I have had sex with other women, but I have never cheated on my wife of 20 years." This was surprising coming from a man. Usually men consider infidelity the sole physical act; women tend to emphasize emotional betrayal. When I probed the guy on his answer, he just said that Americans are too obsessed with sexual monogamy. "What matters," he said, "is that you still love your partner."
Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá, the authors of the new book "Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality," would agree. In their fascinating interview on Salon, they explain their ideas, the central one being that monogamy is against our nature. Excerpts, emphases mine:
Marriage in the West isn’t doing very well because it’s in direct confrontation with the evolved reality of our species. What we argue in the book is that the best way to increase marital stability, which in the modern world is an important part of social stability, is to develop a more tolerant and realistic understanding of human sexuality and how human sexuality is being distorted by our modern conception of marriage.
Does this mean that humans didn't form couples before the advent of agriculture?
Because human groups at the time knew each other so well and spent their lives together and were all interrelated and depended upon each other for everything, they really knew each other much better than most of us know our sexual partners today. We don’t argue that people didn’t form very special relationships — you can see this even in chimps and bonobos and other primates, but that bond doesn’t necessarily extend to sexual exclusivity. People have said that we’re arguing against love — but we're just saying that this insistence that love and sex always go together is erroneous.
I think from a cultural standpoint the idea of strict monogamy has far less currency within the gay male world than it does within the straight world. I’m a gay man, and I think probably about half the gay male couples I know are in open relationships. Why do you think that is?
First of all, they’re both men, so they both know what it’s like to be a man. They both know from experience that love and sex are two very different things, and it seems that for women the experience of sexuality is much more embedded in narrative, in emotion, in emotional intimacy…..
I’ve been living off and on for almost 20 years here in Barcelona, and from outside, the United States looks very adolescent, in a positive and negative sense. There's its adolescent energy — its idealism — but there’s also an immaturity and intolerance toward the ambiguity of life and the complexity of relationships. The American sense of relationships and sexuality tends to be very informed by Hollywood: It’s all about the love story. But the love story ends at the wedding and doesn't go into the 40 years that comes after that….the American insistence on mixing love and sex and expecting passion to last forever is leading to great suffering that we think is tragic and unnecessary.
Here's my old post on whether you would still trust someone in the boardroom if you knew s/he was cheating on her/his partner. Here's a dense essay about how lesbians have the least sex of anyone. If all this is too depressing, here's an uplifting video of soldiers returning home and surprising their families.
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18 comments on “Do Love and Sex Naturally Go Together?”
“Marriage in the West isn’t doing very well because it’s in direct confrontation with the evolved reality of our species.”
Monogamy does quite well for a portion of the population. Best to talk about ‘human natures’ instead of ‘human nature.’
On a side note, in case it’s useful to any readers, I’d like to add that sexual promiscuity does have some costs.
If one finds themselves to have such a nature (or finds themselves attracted to those who do), it seems prudent to get vaccinated for HPV.
HPV is one of the common STDs that’s passed on regardless of condom use, and people can pass it on without displaying symptoms or knowing they have it.
Also if you’re ever involved with someone who has ever had it, you’ll need to wait 6 months for the vaccine course to complete before being certain sex with them is safe.
I admire those who choose to overcome their natures and base instincts. It’s a sign of character and recognition that some things matter more than serving ourselves.
Culturally-enforced monogamy is necessary precisely because it goes against our nature. Reverting to a more “natural” polygamous structure would result in legions of men going without love and sex, since simple math dictates that for every additional wife or mistress acquired by a man who already has one, some other man must go celibate. Even if we disregard the humanitarian costs of all that loneliness, no society full of men with nothing to lose can function for long.
Ryan and Jetha seem to be imagining some sort of free-love utopia, where everyone marries happily, and has affairs when they feel like it. In reality, most women would cluster around the 5% of men to whom they’re most attracted, and the bottom 25~50% would live lives of near-celibacy.
It certainly doesn’t help that advocating for polygamy is a credible way for a man to signal that he is a member of the privileged 5%.
Since western civilization has operated under conditions of legally and culturally-enforced monogamy throughout its ascendancy, it would be wise to think hard before demolishing what may be a crucial column holding it up. Kay Hymowitz’s “Marriage and Caste in America” is a good summary of the havoc wreaked thus far.
And of course, there’s also Roissy:
This “simple math” is only relevant if you assume that all sex is intended to produce children. Yes, many women would choose to be inseminated with the most popular/desirable 5% of available males. Even today, however, a woman (or couple) can choose to use contraceptives constantly and, when seeking insemination, visit a sperm bank to acquire the most desirable semen.
It *may* have been helpful to enforce monogamy in the opening centuries of western history, but the invention of effective contraceptives has wiped the slate clean.
I agree with Jackie. Genetics, wiring etc are easy cop-outs for everything from cheating to murder. While watching Wimbledon yesterday, I was noting how some of the best players on the circuit never played the field, once married. At most, they are serial monogamists. I would hazard the comment that the same is true of persons at the top of most professions. I realise it doesn’t address the link between love and sex, but love normally comes with a fairly multifaceted loyalty, sometimes, but not often, misplaced too. That loyalty often informs and drives many other behavioural choices we make.
Since you mention “non American”, I’d say Mthson above also makes a good point about human natures (in plural). Some behaviour may be culturally sanctioned (in both its meanings) but individuals often make choices that work for them not for the collective at large.
Interesting comments to a post that challenges conventional wisdom.
Love and sex don’t always go together. Just because you sleep with someone, doesn’t mean you can’t love someone else. You can choose to tell yourself a story about how love and sex must go together, or choose to see the world as it really is and embrace reality.
If you’re interested in the topic, i *highly* recommend reading Mating in Captivity by Esther Perel. Drop me a line if you’d like my notes on the book.
Thanks for the mention, Ben. Our web site has a lot more information about the book, if anyone’s interested.
This should be a lively discussion!
A few thoughts and questions:
1) From a hormonal perspective, sex has an inevitable emotional impact. The act of achieving orgasm releases oxytocin, the so-called “cuddling” chemical. Those who believe that sex has no impact on emotions are deluding themselves.
2) There seems to be a persistent strain of thought that says that Americans are naive and silly for wanting fidelity within marriage. I will simply point out that in most of the cultures that have this attitude, the social acceptance of male infidelity is far higher than that of female infidelity. If monogamy is for dummies, that should apply to your wife/girlfriend as well.
3) From a practical standpoint, monogamy makes a ton of sense. People in monogamous relationships have more sex. People in monogamous relationships can spend less time seeking sexual partners, and more time on their career, their calling, or their families. I have yet to hear anyone argue that pursuing casual sex is good for productivity or happiness.
I am biased, of course, as a married man who is always faithful to his wife, but I’d be happy to stack my happiness against that of any pick-up artist.
My friend was sent with the Peace Corps to Africa. His purpose was to try to slow down the aids epidemic by convincing the men to at least limit their sex to their several wives and friends. He made very little headway and it is a mess over there. Just one reason for self control.
Some years ago open marriages were the thing. I think it was Jane Fonda who was in one and said it was an absolute failure. I agree that sex is not always associated with love and need not be before marriage. After marriage -for both physical and emotional health- people of character should keep their promises.
Western women’s emphasis on the emotional aspects of fidelity in relationships has struck me as contradictory since I first started dating them at age fifteen.
In my experience as a perennial bachelor, the very same woman who would be most devastated if she caught her guy “cheating” is often the first one to throw herself at you when she gets the chance.
I’ve also found that when a heterosexual couple are looking for a threesome with a guy, it’s always the woman who makes the advances, and it usually seems that the guy sent her on the mission.
He wouldn’t want to look queer, now, would he?
I agree Americans are too obsessed with sexual monogamy, and they tend to have a hypocritical and leeringly adolescent attitude toward sex in general, as evidenced by the content of our TV programming.
Once a “friend” tricked me into ingesting some PCP without my knowledge and then we went drinking at a seaside bar.
The next thing I remember was waking up in the morning in a large bed with several people of both sexes, all of us nude.
Everyone was good-looking and well-built, so my only regret was that I couldn’t remember what we did.
I agree free love wouldn’t work as social policy, even though it might work in the context of some male gay partnerships, and it is potentially dangerous to good health.
Apropos of Zdeno’s suggestion, if I were a feminist woman, I would launch a stealth Operation “Lorena” to bobbitize those despicable cads at Roissy, and Tucker Max, too, even if, as I suspect, most of his adventures are fabricated.;-)
I can’t see the difference. Cheating is cheating. The only time it isn’t cheating is if it is an open relationship and the partner knows about the extra-marrital relationships.
Maybe there is some logic to “monogamy is for dummies, that should apply to your wife/girlfriend as well.”
What other cultures are advocating is preserving love not fidelity.
If men are promiscuous they are not likely to fall in love and find a new significant other.
If women are promiscuous, since they are so much more emotional about sex, and craft much more elaborate narratives, it is likely the person they’re sleeping with becomes a new significant other.
Romantic love, sex, monogamy, I can’t think of any other subjects that cut deeper into the core of what makes us tick. Sure, there’s love without sex and sex without love. Friendships and happy marriages certainly exist within those conditions. And I suspect casual relationships with little commitment can do very well when sex is shared and nothing is on the line. But what about two people who deeply love each other, who promised to remain loyal, can this union survive the betrayal of breaking a promise? Probably not. So why make promises at all if we’re all biologically wired for multiple partners?
REASON: We’re also wired for jealousy. We may deny it, or want to get past it, but I haven’t met one person who has, even in the most open and free conditions, like the porn business in the seventies. Yeah. I was there. And what I discovered, is that we all NEED validation from the people we love, or care about. And so did porn models in a universe of free love.
You see, if we invest our feelings within a union, we need to KNOW, and have it proven, that we are number one in our lover’s world, and that she won’t lie about it or betray us. We need to KNOW, that he’ll lift us up when we fall. I can’t imagine someone not wanting that. Because in a world of uncertainty, that’s mostly unfair, don’t we need at least one person we can trust? Do we not need that intrinsic certainty? I do. And I have it, as long as I don’t break my vows, as long as I honor truth in our marriage, as long as I refuse to live by a double standard. Meaning, my heart would crush if my wife cheated on me, so how can I rationalize doing that to her? I can’t. So I won’t. Sure, another sexual adventure would be exciting. But I’d lose so much, to get so little.
There is, of course, a whole range of stuff between rigid monogamy and pick-up games, as well as between ‘married sex’ and ‘casual sex’. If you’ve internalized the belief that all sex other than with your one committed partner is ‘casual’ and relies on PUA techniques, then your happiness/productivity calculation is probably right. But if we’re talking about meaningful sex outside of a marriage (committed relationship), with emotionally important partners, I doubt it’s accurate to say it could NEVER up your happiness or productivity quotients. I’d argue that for some (many?) artists and musicians, productivity seems to increase along with intimate relationships outside the marriage, at least up to a point.
Love and sex are “supposed” to go together, at least traditionally. However…
Look, if you and your partner agree to be monogamous, then cheating isn’t the right thing to do. If one wants to have sex with men/women besides their partner, then seek out an open relationship.
Those two words — open relationship — are what scare people the most. Goodness, admitting upfront that one wants to have sex outside of marriage with other people?
Interesting post – many thanks.
Most men I know seem to like the idea of an “open relationship” with their female partners. One key exception – they don’t like the idea of their female partners having sex with other men around the same time they are having sex with those partners in order to have children. Trying to attain certainty over paternity is one of the key drivers of civilization…
Primates are evidence yet the entirety of human civilization is not?
Me thinks the authors are cultural marxists who take for granted the flawed belief that civilization is equivalent to dominant groups oppressing others.
A real scientist would note that considering monogamy is and has been a social deal in nearly every successful civilization that has ever thrived would mean that it has a strong basis in human nature. There is simply no other explanation. It’s not as if the evil white man 10,000 years ago conspired with every leader around the world to impose this oppressive system on the carefree proletariat.
There is no reason to read the book for the simple reason the author cannot admit this obvious fact. He is blinded by ideology.