Biology, Culture, and Relationships

One of my classmates at Cherry Hill posted this article on FB and ask for comments Is Monogamy Outdated? Sure, I can do that…

Statistics on the failure of monogamy are easy to find, especially in the polyamory community. For some interesting reading on the biology, I highly recommend The Myth of Monogamy by David Barash, Ph.D. Barash is a psychologist by trade, and has written many books about the biology that lies beneath behavior.

Both males and females have drives that send them towards other partners. Biologists tell us that for males this is about spreading genes around, and for females its about hedging their bets. To take an example from The Myth of Monogamy, birds were once thought to be highly monogamous, which, with the advent of genetic studies, turns out to be quite wrong. Babies in the nest were often not the genetic progeny of the attending male. The males tend to fall into two categories: the ones who were great at displays and the ones who were great at nest building. The flashy types flitted about seeing how many females they could mate with, while the nesters stuck to one female. It turns out that both strategies will successfully spread genes. While the flashies go from gal to gal, the nesters have more opportunities, while having the bonus of the greater likelihood that their progeny will survive because they are there to care for them. For the females, they can have the advantage of the genes from the flashy guy and the protectiveness of the nester.

And lest we think that females are more prone to monogamy, biologists have discovered that female chimps are extremely clever at sneaking off into the forest with non-dominant males. And then there are the Bonobo chimps, our closest genetic relative. They are (ahem) rather sexual with everyone in their group. It is a social management system in which they use sex instead of violence to maintains social structure. It should be noted that it is the females rather than the males who are dominant. I’m not a biologist, but I think I’m pretty safe in saying that female animals being sexual with multiple male partners who are NOT fighting over them is rare. Biology tends to favor aggression and/or territoriality in males. In sexual terms, this means that cheating is better survival tactic for both genders.

So back to the question of monogamy and whether it is still applicable in our modern society. As Pagans, we view sexuality as both sacred, and no one’s business but our own and the consenting adult(s) with whom we choose to engage. The government does not always agree, especially where children are concerned, a fact that is a nail biter for polyamorous parents. But the question is not just about sex and who is putting what, where. Polyamory in particular – as opposed to sex without attachments – is about the connections. The shifting tangle of partnerships, business relationships, and sexual contacts that shows up in the Pagan poly community can become a substitute for one’s family of origin. But what becomes problematic is that those connections have no support in law.

I doubt very much that the writer of this article had polyamory anywhere on her radar. It is just too obscure. Swinging is far better known, because it has more adherents. Swinging tries to strike that balance between the failure of the model of monogamy and human biological tendencies toward jealousy and aggression by engaging in friendly sex while being clear that emotional attachment is unacceptable. Poly attempts a much more lofty goal: compersion. This is where one is happy because one’s significant others are happy, even where one’s self is not the cause. For those that are inclined toward inclusiveness, this is a joyful, spiritful state. For those not inclined, it is a mirage of water in the desert. To be blunt, polyamory is hard. Really hard.

As our laws and culture now stand, non-monogamy in any form is an uphill battle. And yet, I think it is one worth fighting. The bottom line is that human nature does incline us toward sex without regard to social definitions of what bonding should be. And that biology is not going to go away. We are internally conflicted, and the folks who choose this as a lifestyle have to learn brand new coping mechanisms and skills. I believe the rest of us need these skills. Like fighting skills learned on the battle field, people engaging in non-monogamous relationships learn what behaviors and communication techniques actually work, even when you are freaked out and hurting.

But however much I value alternative forms of relationship, I still think monogamy has a place for those who choose it consciously. But let it be a conscious choice, not one that assumed because marriage vows have been spoken. If a pair chooses to partner up, there are numerous reasons besides the sexual why that partnership will serve both parties. Ideally, prior to such bonding, we examine what we want and expect from a relationship. Sex, and whether or not it will include others, should not be excluded from the discussions. Such conversations bring up personal demons that are best addressed if the relationship – monogamous or not – is going to survive long-term.

So is Monogamy outdated? No. Should it be assumed? Definitely not.


About selinarif

Selina came across Paganism around age 15 and it felt like coming home. She has been solitary, and worked in numerous circles, both formal and informal in several different traditions. She is a massage therapist, home-maker, amateur home re-modeler, and a martial artist, and ties all of these things into her spirituality.
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2 Responses to Biology, Culture, and Relationships

  1. Pingback: Reflections on Polyamory « thepaganperspective

  2. “But however much I value alternative forms of relationship, I still think monogamy has a place for those who choose it consciously.”

    CONSCIOUSLY; couldn’t agree more! Sometimes I tell someone about my “lovestyle” and they say, “I couldn’t possibly do that!” That’s okay! I don’t want/need you to. . . but I do want you to at least have given it some thought and decided it’s not for you, rather than defaulting to monogamy because it’s the norm.

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