Recently, a new book, Sex at Dawn was just released and it has stirred up a bit of discussion and controversy, not the least on Andrew Sullivan’s blog, which I tend to read a lot.
Basically, the book seems to make the argument that despite what a lot of societal groups and certain social scientists have said, it is really not true that monogamy has been the main form of sexual relationship in humanity’s long-term (say the last 100,000 years or so–but even further back into Homo Erectus, I bet… but I haven’t read the book yet..) history. Instead, they make an argument that in the small, close-knit nomadic hunting groups, sharing and exchange of almost everything–including sexual partners–was much more the norm than the more ritualized (and probably post-agricultural revolution) norm of “purchasing a wife” and the subsequent construction of a culturally de jure monogamous relationship.
Now.. this idea is rather provocative for many people in our society and it did, indeed, provoke many people to respond to Andrew Sullivan’s page. If you just run this google search, you can see a bunch of reader responses to Sullivan’s post that range widely in opinion about it. Some are in agreement with the book, while others are distinctly opposed to its conclusions for a variety of reasons.
What I found very interesting about the whole debate was how quickly and viscerally some people reacted to the claims of the book in a negative fashion. Most often, these negative reactions hinged on a willful application of the Is-Ought Problem that is so commonly at the root of debates like this… Basically, because the authors made claims about what they thought human sexual behaviors actually were back in prehistoric times–and these behaviors did not conform to what these people felt such behavior ought to be–they seemed to implicitly assume that the authors were also making a claim about how human sexuality today ought to be–specifically that people shouldn’t be monogamous–when, in fact, the authors made no such claim.
What the authors, from what I understand of the discussion and debate, did do is try to point out that because monogamy is probably not natural, we should be less shocked and appalled by the oft-occurring failures of monogamy in various relationships and should instead try to understand that monogamy is hard and that such failures are not grand catastrophes, but instead are somewhat common results that we would be smarter to forgive and forget than to demonize…
Dan Savage–who I find to be one of the most sensible people ever in such matters–had exactly this kind of reaction and outlined and explained it better than I could right here.
In any case, this whole fooferaw also got me reflecting on the fact that there are such a great number of people in this world who really don’t take the idea of diversity seriously. By this, I mean that the desire to impose clear dichotomies on the world and to create manichean/dualistic systems that divide the world into good and evil on a regular basis. This happens in the monogamy debate constantly and I’ve seen it espoused from all sides of the debate. I’ve had a few friends tell me that monogamy cannot possibly exist and that no one is monogamous and that everyone should just give it up. I’ve obviously also grown up in a society–and had many distinct people in that society directly argue to me–that we are all monogamous and that any deviation from monogamy is wrong on all levels.
Such claims don’t, however, jive with my experience of reality and of people. Too often, people try to make reality into a binary phenomenon, while reality is always analog… (at least down to sub-atomic levels..). The binary perspective–which implicitly relies on clearly defined boundaries that are enforced to make distinctions between groups–automatically tends to create us vs. them confrontations, which I don’t find productive.
One can see this, for example, in the whole debate around sexuality (hetero-/bi-/homo-/a- sexuality). This debate, in my honest opinion, would be less antagonistic if people stopped trying to construct and enforce rigid categories that clearly defined alternative “states” of sexuality. Instead of seeing someone as “either” straight “or” gay (“or” bi–which both groups tend to want to obliterate and subsume in various ways..), it has been my experience that people just tend to fall on a spectrum of attraction towards men & women. Some people are mostly or almost entirely only attracted to one sex, which would put them at the far end of one side of the spectrum and would define them as straight or gay depending on their own sex. Others are in the middle and are pretty much equally attracted to both sexes–bisexuals, obviously. Interestingly, I’ve rarely found anyone who is a self-labelled bisexual who is 50/50, but instead most of them tend to be be more like 60/40 or 70/30 or whatever, and tend to have a more general preference that can be “counteracted/overwhelmed” when they meet an individual of the less preferred sex who they consider extraordinary.
Getting back to monogamy, I think the situation is quite similar. My experience is that people–no matter what they claim to believe in–fall along a spectrum that measures the number of sexual partners they want. At one end of the spectrum, I would put the number “0,” which, for many people who appear to be asexual, seems to be perfectly fine for them. Then, there do seem to be a number of people who are most comfortable with just one partner and generally tend to stay right there. These people would be primarily monogamous. Then it progresses from there, and in my experience there are people who would be happy to stop at 2 partners, while there are others who go beyond that to ever more partners.
Now, in all of this, it should be clear that no matter what one’s natural “tendencies” are, a person can always choose to settle on a particular number of partners for whatever reasons they want. You could be someone who is naturally attracted to multiple people, but who chooses–for lots of good reasons–to be just monogamous.
That’s what life is about–making choices and living by your principles.
However–and it’s a big however–I do think that one should make all these choices openly and honestly and thoughtfully. One should not be afraid to speak of what one naturally feels and should be able to discuss this with a partner honestly. If you cannot do this, then you are setting yourself up for hardship later when circumstances conspire to put your chosen relationship to the test. Also importantly, one can change their minds over time and I do think that one will be happiest if they live in relationships that most closely resemble those that they naturally tend towards…
So.. to sum up–recognize the analog nature of reality, think about how that applies to you, and be wise enough and honest enough to address this analog nature when it comes to how you create your relationships. To do otherwise is to risk much and to set yourself up for failure.