Monogamy is an anomaly in nature
Modern biologists are now discovering after more thorough investigation, that more and more species, even those formally lauded for their “mate for life” commitment, like swans, are not actually monogamous. Genetic testing of several species believed to be monogamous has revealed that in many cases social monogamy (a pair bond) is not the same as sexual monogamy. It is becoming apparently clear that nature has little use for monogamy. But why?
Biologists are now discovering that not even swans, formally believed to mate for life, are strictly monogamous.
Simply put, monogamy is bad for natural diversity and species survival. Most biologists have known for a long time that the vast majority of males from a wide variety of species tend to be interested in sexual variety. The higher the intelligence of the species, the more promiscuous and complex the sexual behaviour, with dolphins, great apes and man ranking as the most sexually adventurous at the top of the heap.
Given the choice most men will easily go for more than one mate, even if not at the same time.
Males are sperm makers. Sperm are easy for their body to produce, readily abundant and expendable. Males do not have any further physical imposition after releasing them and that freedom from the constraints of pregnancy and childbirth only serves to liberate them to spread as much seed as possible. Human males peak sexually (19-25) earlier than females do (35-45). This affords them a jumpstart on genetic perpetuation. Studies reveal that men think about sex more often, are aroused more easily and though women also have as active a libido, longer more intense orgasms and eight times the erogenous surface area, men have more active pursuit of sexual release. As a result, given the choice, most men would rather have two women than one (although not necessarily at the same time), or better yet three or four.
Noted sociologist Camille Pagila once likened prostitution to a service industry, mopping up the overflow of male demand, which will always exceed female supply.
And what about the females of most species? Are we naturally more monogamous or have we just been socialized that way.
In a study of female sexual behaviour, women in committed relationships were blindfolded and asked to smell the t-shirts of different men and rate which ones they found appealing/arousing/stimulating. Women who were ovulating were more than likely to pick a shirt that did not belong to their husbands or boyfriends.
Well, much to the surprise of biologists, it turns out the gals are just as randy as the guys. But with us, it is all about quality and not just quantity. From barn swallows to gibbons to the lady who wore the scarlet letter in Hawthorn’s novel, we too have wandering eyes and hot blood in our veins. That may not surprise you. But what will is that our need to have more than one sexual option is also a biological fail-safe. Tim Jacobs, Professor of Physiology at Cardiff University, said: "Some studies have shown that during ovulation, there's a surge of oestrogen which increases a woman’s olfactory sensitivity.” And why would a woman need to have a better sense of smell during her monthly sexual peak? Why to sniff out a better potential mate!
In one study, women in committed relationships were asked to be blindfolded and smell the t-shirts of a number of men (who had worn it all day) and list which ones they found most appealing/arousing. Consistently, the women who were not ovulating picked their husband or boyfriend’s scent. However, those who were at their monthly sexual peak were twice as likely to pick another man’s scent and it was usually a man more rugged and physically imposing than their current mate, sometimes it would be a man they would not normally find attractive or consider as marriage material but was a better biological fit than their current partner. When blindfolded, age, race or social status did not matter. The only thing that did were the pheromones that communicated which male presented the best genetic option for them.
Our biological makeup is heedless of all social and religious expectations. Are you daunted by these scientific findings and the raw nature they expose within every single one of us, from pastor to jamette? Don’t be. You should be grateful males are compelled by biology to spread their seed and females are compelled to constantly sniff out the best mate, even if they are already attached. If you believe in a Creator, obviously, that is what It intended. If you don’t it is a fortunate evolutionary mechanism to help the human race survive. In fact, if we weren’t naturally promiscuous beings, our species would have probably died out a long time ago during our struggle to inhabit and conquer a planet filled with hostile environments, wild animals, biological threats, natural and man-made disasters.
Family and civilization are not dependent on monogamy
There is a true story of a Christian missionary who visited a Maori village in 19th century New Zealand and there was a feast in his honor. After the feast, the Maori chief called out, "A woman for the bishop!" The bishop took offense because of his restrictive religious and social views on casual sex. For the pagan, nature worshiping Maori on the other hand, the offer of a woman to a guest for his pleasure was not taboo. The obliging chief thought he must have not been generous enough and roared again, even louder: "Two women for the bishop then!"
Among many indigenous tribes, you will also find this rather pragmatic approach to sexuality. When you are just a small tribe against the elements of a vast jungle island, the last thing you want is people feeling squeamish about the processes of sexuality and reproduction that keep your numbers strong and your tribe happy and cohesive.
You see, for the Maori, polyarmory (loving many at the same time) was no big deal. Among many indigenous tribes, you will also find this rather pragmatic approach to sexuality. When you are just a small tribe against the elements of a vast jungle island, the last thing you want is people feeling squeamish about the processes of sexuality and reproduction that keep your numbers strong and your tribe happy and cohesive. That is why there is the Hudough Dance for the Navaho. During this festival, married members of the tribe are allowed to sleep with someone else and there must be no jealousy or possessiveness or reprisal the next morning. Before the countries of Europe were Christianized by the Roman Empire, couples lay under the stars while Beltane fires roared. During this pagan fertility rite, lovers copulated with anyone they wanted, whether their spouse or not. On the island of Mangaia of Cook, men and women receive sexual instruction at an early age and are expected to practice it on as many partners as they can. Marriage is merely an economic transaction or for family alliances.
The patriarchal namesake nuclear family is a recent construct. Where there has been long standing tradition of polyarmory and polygamy within a culture, family units may be different but strong and beneficial to children in their own way. Really, all a child needs is love, protection and a chance to learn how to be a valued member of the society.
In addition to polyarmory, there are also many culturally polygamous tribal societies. Polygamy was an accepted practice among early Hebrews. Who can forget Solomon with his 700 wives and 300 concubines. The Koran allows four wives and the Sephardic Jews still practice polygamy. Plural marriages have been commonplace among Native Americans, especially the Ojibway of northern Wisconsin, Mesquakia of Iowa and the Ho-chunk. Interestingly enough, in many of these tribes, a woman in a polygamous arrangement was not in a subordinate position because most tribes were not strictly patriarchal. The most common type of polygamy practiced by American Indians was sororal and filial polygamy, for example in certain indigenous tribes in Bolivia South America, married men may have sex with their wife and any of her sisters, in turn the wife in the relationship may enjoy her husband and any of his brothers. This is seen to strengthen tribal bonds. Among many tribes, if there was a shortage of females, a woman (she must takes lots of sassafras and ginseng) was allowed two husbands.
In some societies no word exists for, “bastard”. It is abandonment by the mothers that is seen as the only real travesty because in nature, that is truly the case.
But what about the children’s well-being?! Don’t children need one father and one mother in a monogamous relationship to thrive? Well, let us remember that the patriarchal namesake nuclear family is a recent construct. Where there has been long standing tradition of polyarmory and polygamy within a culture, family units may be different but strong and beneficial to children in their own way. Really, all a child needs is love, protection and a chance to learn how to be a valued member of the society. Children born to one of many wives in a Zulu village, among many brothers and sisters, several mothers, aunts and grandmothers fair just as well as a child raised by two parents, perhaps even better. If you have two parents and it turns out that neither is much good at parenting, then you are stuck with what you have. But imagine if you have an extended family and an entire village invested in your well-being, there is a better chance you will find at least find one adult who can truly mentor you.
Many of the great civilizations and nations throughout human history were built upon family units were not strictly monogamous. I am talking about empires lasting ages longer than our modern, post-colonial, western societies. Out of these great civilizations came astronomy, democracy, philosophy and medicine among other great inventions and feats of conquest proving that a stable and successful society does not necessarily require monogamy.
A large part of the concern for children stems from our own marginalization and discrimination of children born without a “father’s” name. This is patriarchal custom only. In some societies no word exists for, “bastard”. It is abandonment by the mothers that is seen as the only real travesty because in nature, that is truly the case. A baby lion, or bird abandoned by its mother will die and these indigenous tribes base their spiritual and social construct from what they observe in nature. So, for example, children who were conceived during the orgy of Belthane were considered sacred gifts of the God and Goddess and treated with special deference by the entire village. Ambiguous paternity was not a source of shame in these tribes as it is for our modern society because the mother was seen as the most important figure. The child took its mother’s name or her mate would happily welcome the offspring as his and the tribe would welcome the newborn with joy.
Many of the great civilizations and nations throughout human history were built upon family units were not strictly monogamous. I am talking about empires lasting ages longer than our modern, post-colonial, western societies. India, China and Japan in their golden ages, Eygpt, Babylon, Greece, Rome were cultures that separated the sexual/physical attraction from the domestic/social obligations of marriage and made social and religious allowances for extra-marital trysting without judgement. Out of these great civilizations came astronomy, democracy, philosophy and medicine among other great inventions and feats of conquest proving that a stable and successful society does not necessarily require monogamy.
We are terrible at monogamy, always have been, always will be
When we are truly honest with ourselves, we must admit that it is virtually impossible to maintain a strictly monogamous state of mind and body. Even couples married for fifty or more years will confess they have often fallen in love with another in their heart, some even pursued it and were later forgiven by their spouse. When this is made into a sin, it is even harder to cope with our inevitable nature. Imagine the pressure and guilt of those who adhere to certain religious standards, where even thinking about another person in a sexual way is equal to the act of adultery. So how do societies where monogamy is preferred socially and religiously even though human nature dictates otherwise find a way to allow both monogamous marriage and rampant sexual attraction to co-exist? Simple. Hypocrisy and female subjugation.
Historically such societies produce a duality where all that is needed is just an “appearance of respectable monogamy”. This duality can be seen in the extra-marital outlets for the libido that are allowed to exist with little to no challenge but only for men. Foremost among these are courtly love and prostitution. It would surprise many to know that in the middle-ages, the Church accepted alms from prostitutes. By accepting a prostitute’s money, the Church sanctioned the act that produced the money. But why would The Church support the institution of prostitution? Why did St. Augustine who led the Church’s sanction against all forms of sexuality outside of holy intent to conceive children, refuse to outlaw prostitution? Because the Church knew all too well that the elimination of prostitution would create a pressure cooker situation that would dismantle society were it to explode.
Not even St. Augustine would outlaw prostitution. A man’s daughter was valuable property that could secure a dowry or even business and political alliances if it was delivered “unspoiled” to the arranged husband. So better for a young man to visit a whore and then go to confession, than ruin a hymen and cause lasting upheaval.
Without prostitution, there was no way to safe-guard the virginity of the daughters from all those horny young men in the village. Remember a man’s daughter was valuable property that could secure a dowry or even business and political alliances if it was delivered “unspoiled” to the arranged husband. So better for a young man to visit a whore and then go to confession, than ruin a hymen and cause lasting upheaval. Prostitutes also helped ease the rigorous restrictions of marriage, many of which were loveless business arrangements. Arthur Schopenhauer once said, “There are 80,000 prostitutes in London alone and what are they, if not bloody sacrifices on the altar of monogamy?”
It is not just the prostitutes whose well being is sacrificed in man’s quest to condemn yet satisfy his own human nature at the same time. Even though both genders are biologically and emotionally prone to sexual attraction to multiple partners, in traditional patriarchal societies with sanctions against sexuality, only men were allowed any chance of fulfilling their sexual drive with little to no condemnation. For a long time women were expected to repress their urges and be long-suffering when the husband goes to his mistress or visits the brothel. Kings, dukes, soldiers would carry on affairs with the woman they loved but otherwise could not marry because they were already in an arranged marriage. Most of these affairs were done with the full knowledge of the clergy. Of course, if a married woman dared do the same, the public and religious scandal would liken her to a whore and a witch. If she was a Queen, she could be executed for committing treason against her King, even if he was a cheating dog.
If a man find a damsel that is a virgin, which is not betrothed, and lay hold on her, and lie with her, and they be found; Then the man that lay with her shall give unto the damsel's father fifty shekels of silver, and she shall be his wife; because he hath humbled her, he may not put her away all his days. -- Deuteronomy 22:28-29
How did you get us women to do this? Well, by using religious and social mandates which place a greater value on female chastity and female fidelity. The penalty for female infidelity or loss of virginity has always been harsher than for male infidelity and loss of virginity. Just read Exodus and Leviticus. Everything about a woman’s sexuality is unclean and a woman who is raped is treated with suspicion and must prove she screamed in order not to be stoned to death. If a man violates her, his only punishment is to be forced to marry her. He of course, under Hebrew law, which allows polygamy, can take another woman or concubines as the true love of his life if he so chooses. She loses no matter what. Even today, women often risk stalking, abuse, violence and death if they reject a male suitor let alone cheat on him, so that sense of “ownership” over a woman still lives on.
Even in societies that require us to give up our autonomy and become nothing more than property to be passed as “unspoiled” as possible, from father to husband who then becomes our lord and master, women still find options. In ancient Greece, many women actually volunteered to become temple prostitutes because being a wife in ancient Greece was like being in prison. In general Grecian philosophers with the exception of Plato, believed that women had strong emotions and weak minds and did not deserve freedom. A guardian or kyrios was appointed to them to monitor their behaviour. Grecian wives were not educated in anything but household duties and once their marriage was arranged, they were cloistered inside the home. Only servants were lower in rank and Grecian men treated their wives like nothing more than breeding machines.
On the other hand, if a woman became a prosititute or hetera, she was allowed to walk freely and go where she pleased and speak to whom she pleased. The chance she would find sexual fulfillment was also greater. She was educated in the sensual arts, learned to read and write and was also skilled in music, dance and poetry. The poor wives at home would faint if they could see their husbands in the presence of these women. Men who considered their wives too insipid for even casual conversation, would be engaged in banter with these heteras who could hold their own in a conversation about politics, art and philosphy. In fact some heteras were so accomplished, they were lauded for their wit, wisdom and even high ranking Grecian officials would give them an ear. They often became not just lovers but trusted companions to men. Some also could become so prosperous they could afford their own property in a culture where women were not allowed to own anything.
Thankfully in our modern western societies, women have fought long and hard for their own autonomy. We have more options for fulfillment other than subservient wife/mother, nun or whore. Today, when you think of monogamous marriage, it is not arranged just to make political and financial alliances between families, passing a woman on like property from father to husband. Couples have blended romance and love into marital duty where it traditionally was not mutually exclusive. It is now entered into freely by two people wanting to be soul mates and in most cases, the woman had an equal chance to become sexually experienced before making a permanent decision about a mate for life. Her virginity is not a more valued commodity than her husband’s and her sexuality is her own. Ideally, her own dreams and goals and sense of fulfillment have the same value as her husband’s. She is not property. Her fidelity is assured by her own promise, not social restrictions that limit her freedom and rights. Best of all, she expects the same of her husband (in most cases) and can divorce him if he does not live up to his promise to be faithful. In marriage, both are expected to be equal companions, friends, lovers and co-parents.
An improvement? Certainly! A monogamous success? No, not really. It is still a fact that the vast majority of men still cheat (several surveys put it at 75%) and woman are quickly catching up in the percentages now that we have the freedom to explore our sexual desires. If that is just actual physical cheating, those cheating in their heart with extra-marital crushes, lusting and fantasizing must be close to 100%
Even now that marriage is an equal partnership we just cannot stop our wandering eyes and hearts.
So is it hopeless?! Should we even bother to be monogamous? Well, yes but not for the reasons you think. Stay tuned and I will tell you why. Those who are cynically against monogamy may not like the follow-up article just as those totally for monogamy may have cringed reading this one. But personal opinions and social/religious indoctrination aside, I think everyone can benefit from looking at every side of the issue and most importantly taking an honest look at their own motivations in their relationships. Is it based on love or obligation? Is it loyalty or ownership? Asking these questions led me to a personal position on monogamy that was superior to the usual sanctimonious, dishonest or fairytale fluff I was taught and you’d expect to hear. In the next article I intend to share this brutally honest position with you.