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From Phyllida's Desk

The Monogamish Myth

The panel that filled an entire 19th-century Episcopal church—pews and gallery, and sitting on the floor in the aisles—at last Sunday's Brooklyn Book Festival was a discussion of monogamy. The panelists were excellent: Eric Klinenberg, sociologist and author of Going Solo : The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone; Christopher Ryan, coauthor of Sex At Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Human Sexuality; Dan Savage, the superstar gay sex advice columnist who is currently promoting his idea of "monogamish" relationships; and Kristin M. Davis, the "Manhattan Madam," who ran one of the prostitution rings patronized by former New York State governor Eliot Spitzer.

By happy coincidence, my recent entertainment includes the 2011 film adaptation of Terence Rattigan's play The Deep Blue Sea, set in 1950 and starring the gorgeous and intelligent Rachel Weisz; and Georgette Heyer's lovely Regency romance novel Venetia, originally published in 1958.

The theme that connects all these disparate people and works of fiction and nonfiction is that age-old problem, the Double Standard. According to the DS, men are not naturally monogamous; in order to maintain a happy (heterosexual) marriage a wife must accept her husband's inevitable extramarital sexual activities. Women, by contrast, who perform the bulk of child care and domestic duties, and who value relationships over casual sex, are monogamous, perhaps out of necessity, with limited time and energy for extramarital sex, and needing the financial and practical help of a partner. In many "traditional" societies, and certainly in the recent past of Western civilization, men are not held to a strict standard of marital fidelity, while women are punished for adultery or, indeed, any sex outside of marriage.

Today we cringe at such an antiquated and cruel standard, and rightly so. But we haven't yet solved the problem of how to handle our tendency to form pair bonds, and our unhappiness when one or both partners, as Savage so eloquently put it, "wants to fuck other people."

In the Book Festival panel, Klinenberg began by talking about the enormous change in modern society, where for the first time in recorded history more people live outside of relationships like marriage than in them. No longer seen as outcasts and losers, single people today are neither lonely nor celibate, and the rise in their predominance can be directly traced, Klinenberg said, to the growth of the modern safety net of institutions that allow single mothers and older people to live independently instead of being forced to rely on the often grudging support of extended families.

Ryan spoke next, and discussed the premise of his book: humans have hundreds of millions of years of evolution away from pair-bonding behind us, and only three million or so years of evolution back toward it. Most mammal species don't form pair bonds, and the trend among the higher mammal species, the primates and great apes that are our closest relatives, is away from monogamous pairs. But with the extraordinarily large human brain and the change to walking upright, narrowing the pelvis, early human females began to give birth to helpless infants that required the care of two people if mother and child were to survive. Thus our evolution back toward pair bonds, and the reason for modern humans' difficulties with it. It may be useful for a few years to have two parents devoted exclusively to each other and their children, but with human lifespans approaching a hundred years, and with our physiology, in which women are theoretically sexually active all the time, not just in a mating season or period of heat, the idea of an adult lifetime of sexual fidelity to just one other person seems ludicrous.

Dan Savage discussed his solution: the "monogamish" marriage, in which both partners are emotionally faithful, but are allowed to engage in casual sex with other people. Klinenberg contrasted past ideas of marriage, in which divorce was difficult and had to be justified by evidence of cruelty or the wife's sexual misconduct, with today's attitudes, in which staying in an unhappy or dysfunctional relationship requires explanation. Ryan gave some examples of societies that have nothing even remotely resembling monogamous pair bonds, much less "marriage." And Kristin M. Davis brought us right back to that old Double Standard when she talked about the ongoing demand for prostitution among married men.

So here's my question: what do we do when casual sex turns into another relationship? Because that's what tends to happen. I've been single all my life, and my situation is atypical even by today's standards, so I'm looking at this from the point of view of an interested spectator. From what I see, men and women both have problems with monogamy, but "casual" sex, if it's with the same person and not a series of one-night stands or back-room encounters, almost inevitably becomes, over time, less like that "meaningless sex" that an understanding wife (or husband?) is not supposed to be bothered by, and more and more like what used to be called an "affair."

And there are very, very few of us, myself included, who really, truly "don't mind" if our partner has an ongoing affair while s/he is with us. It's those big brains again. We're rarely able to engage only body parts when we have sex. Stick that penis (or tongue or hand) often enough in the same person and chances are it will start to "mean" something, to both of you, if not always to the same level of intensity.

Polyamorous people are just about the only ones in today's society that attempt to deal with this situation honestly, but Savage dismissed them with some silly epithet ("dreadful"?) because they have so many "rules." I agree that the terminology is less than appealing, but sometimes calling a spade a spade is better than calling it monogamish, or claiming that one is thankful never to have seen a spade. That is, I do not want to be in a "primary" relationship with a man while he has a "secondary" relationship with another woman, and perhaps a third (tertiary?) and even fourth or fifth.*** And I sure as hell do not want to be a "secondary" (or god help me, tertiary) partner. But these terms do describe what goes on in real life. In societies that allow heterosexual polygamy (more accurately, polygyny) in which a man may have multiple wives, women almost never choose it. In societies with the one-wife-at-a-time custom, all those secondaries and tertiaries are the "other woman," and most "other" women want to become the (only) woman. We want to be the one who spends holidays and birthdays with our partner and children, not the one who gets the odd weekdays and the interrupted nights. And yes, I know there are exceptions; the problem is, it doesn't always work out neatly, that the "other" women (or men) are those happy exceptions.

***(As my faithful readers know, my feelings as to my male partner's having a boyfriend are very different, but that's a matter for another discussion.)

So what is the solution, if not monogamish or polyamory? I don't know, but I was surprised that none of these speakers even admitted there was a problem.

My opinion, borne out by some of the panel's exchanges and Q&A, is that old discredited notion: men and women are different. No, I don't think women are "naturally monogamous." But I do think men do "casual" sex more easily than women and are perhaps more able to handle it emotionally in a partner. It's still easier for gay men to find places (and partners) for anonymous sexual encounters, and the clients of prostitutes and escorts (of any gender) are almost all men. In same-sex marriages, there's (again, perhaps) more chance that this kind of arrangement can work. As Ryan teased Savage: "If there were a gym for straight men where we could work out and get laid, we'd all look like you."

In The Deep Blue Sea, set in a time and a place where the Double Standard was still very much in force, the female protagonist leaves a sexless marriage to be with her younger boyfriend. The problem is that she loves him more than he loves her, and a woman isn't supposed to allow herself to become so vulnerable unless it's genuine, requited Love with a capital L. But in this testament to women's sexuality, the contrast of a friendly but passionless marriage against a sexually fulfilling but emotionally disconnected affair is a no-brainer (pun intended). She can't go back to her kind, understanding husband because life without sex is insupportable, and when confronted with the cliché that there's more to life than sex, she says that her lover is everything to her, and to "put a label on that if you can."

Rafferty's plays are often interpreted as being "coded" stories about gay men written during a time when openly gay stories would be unacceptable, but by having a female protagonist Rafferty's story actually becomes more relevant to today's audiences. A man who leaves a sexless marriage is more sympathized with than blamed; it's women's passions, the "just physical" sex leading to the extreme emotions, that disrupt society's heterosexist institutions, and it's the woman protagonist's feeling of "love" that is inconvenient in today's monogamish discussions—and unavoidable. Human beings, women and sometimes men, do this: we have "meaningless" sex—several times—and then we fall in love. The physical acts lead to the feelings and, try as we may, we can't stop them.

In Venetia, one of Georgette Heyer's delicious confections of Regency England, the intelligent, necessarily virginal heroine, in love with a "rake," does not expect him to change his nature, to adapt to strict, literal monogamy, even for love. At the end of the story she refers to the real possibility of her husband's continuing to have "mistresses" and "orgies" after their marriage. The discussion is humorous in this lightest of romantic comedy forms, but the subject is serious. Heyer's fiction contains many examples of happy middle-aged couples in which the husband has "strayed" over the years while remaining emotionally faithful to his wife, while the wife pretends ignorance, secure in the knowledge that her husband has no desire to end the marriage.

It sometimes looks as if today's same-sex relationships are the ones most resembling traditional marriage. I read recently that, against conventional expectations, today's young (heterosexual) women are driving the hook-up culture. Busy with careers, children, and education or active leisure pursuits, and unencumbered with husbands and boyfriends, women see casual sex as the most appealing alternative. They don't need a relationship, "monogamish" or not, that simply adds another responsibility to their overscheduled lives, nor do they want to live without sex.

Here's hoping things work out.

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