Is Monogamy a Myth?

At The Daily Beast, Jessica Bennett asks this question while reviewing new books that “challenge our idea of fidelity.” My answer: it’s definitely not a myth. It’s fine that people who prefer non-monogamous or non-traditional marriages are enjoying increasing mainstream acceptance of their choices. It’s also unfortunate that so many people who thought they were in a monogamous relationship will have to deal with the damage caused by infidelity. This should not be taken to mean that monogamy is obsolete or mythical, though, and it’s becoming rather tiresome to see so much shoddy analysis on this issue now that non-monogamy seems to have become a fashionable topic.

I first noticed this nonsense after the release of Sex at Dawn, by Ryan and Jetha, which argues that humans are naturally non-monogamous. The authors also took this to mean that non-monogamy is a struggle for most people, one which exacts a “cost” comparable to eating a poor diet, wearing “ill-fitting shoes”, or working the night shift, even though their evidence did not support such speculative interpretations.

Bennett’s article and many of the experts she quotes have jumped to similarly unsupported conclusions. Even though she cites evidence against the assumption that most of the cheaters are men, Bennett appears to assume that infidelity is the sort of thing that men do, such that “wives leave husbands”. She speaks as if stories about infidelity are “so common” that “we could argue doing away with marriage altogether”, which is a bit like saying that since telling lies is so common, we could argue doing away with honesty altogether.

Bennett argues that monogamy might be “delusional” based on claims like those of Ken Haslam of the Kinsey Institute, who insists that, “Humans aren’t monogamous, we need to get over that,” and that, “We fool around. We do! And if you don’t fool around, you want to fool around.” On what evidence does he claim that people who don’t fool around want to fool around? I certainly don’t. Am I simply a freak, or someone making unrealistic demands of a spouse, or both? The argument seems to be that because many of our ancestors were non-monogamous, and many present-day humans have had multiple sexual partners, we need to “get over” the desire to form a committed relationship with only one partner. Why? Is it somehow important that my enjoyments and choices be dictated by what other people find or have found naturally compelling or otherwise desirable? We wouldn’t accept this standard when it comes to other aspects of sexuality besides monogamy. Some people have a special liking for fancy high-heeled boots, for example. Most people probably do not, and even among those who do, most probably do not make them a regular part of sexual activities. Our more distant human ancestors did not have such boots, much less any natural proclivities for them. So do boot-lovers need to “get over it” and accept more “normal” or “natural” standards for their sexual inclinations?

Bennett also claims, echoing some of the writers she quotes as well as several others I’ve read recently, that “our views toward infidelity are comically naïve” because many people cheat even though even most people disapprove of cheating. This she considers “the ultimate hypocrisy”, but that’s much too hasty a conclusion. First, people may assume that more people are unfaithful than truly are. Tom Smith of the University of Chicago puts the number of married cheaters around 18% or lower, based on his study of American Sexual Behavior (2006) and other scientific studies. However, for the sake of argument let’s grant that people may not give honest answers to such surveys, and that the number is actually much higher. Peggy Vaughn, in The Monogamy Myth, cites “conservative” numbers of 60% of men and 40% of women. Bennett says that, “more than half of Americans cheat, and yet 70 to 85 percent of adults think cheating is wrong.” Even if she is right, this only means that at least a third or so of those who cheat believe that their own actions were wrong. It’s not clear that this is best termed hypocrisy, especially if some of the cheaters regret what they did and wouldn’t do it again, if they had the chance. The majority of the cheaters may believe they did no wrong, so there is no danger of hypocrisy, and it is certainly no hypocrisy for the non-cheaters to oppose cheating.

Even if we did assume that everyone who condemns cheating is hypocritical, though, how many of us believe it is better to be honest although we have told lies? Confronted with our failures on that score, we don’t simply abandon the preference for honesty, but we may need to revise our view of the conditions under which lying is morally acceptable. Similarly, the fact that some people find monogamy very difficult could mean that for some people it is better to openly agree to a non-monogamous relationship. Furthermore, those who find non-monogamous relationships morally acceptable may still disapprove of cheating, on the grounds that the partners had agreed not to do so.

Bennett approvingly quotes Jenny Block, who says, “Jude Law cheated on Sienna Miller, for God’s sake. JFK cheated on Jackie. Have we learned nothing from these scandals?” What were were supposed to learn from this? That people in monogamous relationships sometimes cheat, even if the relationship is high-profile and the spouse is considered very beautiful? This tells us nothing about whether monogamy is a viable or good relationship choice. For the large numbers of people who do NOT cheat, it appears to be both, but apparently that’s a less attention-grabbing or fashionable position at the moment.


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