Should Society Re-examine Monogamy?

Democracy is the worst form of government except for all those others that have been tried.” ~ Winston Churchill

You can rephrase the famous quote above, replacing ‘democracy’ with monogamy and ‘government’ with either marriage or something at once more precise and arcane, like psycho-sexual completion.

I write this as a happily married monogamous man who’s only been with a single woman, my precious Alchemist, and she with me. I’m not fantasizing about illicit pleasures, chafing at my vows, or any such other thing. So, if you chose to comment, leave your ad hominem at home.

Human beings are born incomplete. Evolutionary psychology would teach us that this owes to our primate heritage. Judeo-Christianity would point to the completionism inherent in the Adam-Eve myth. A thing may be both true and not true.

In my own experience, life without my wife would be a barren wasteland that no possible material success could replace. While it wasn’t quite love-at-first-sight, it was obvious to us and those around us that we clicked at a very deep level. Our romance was one that grew out of friendship and I’ve gotten frequent comments from men and women both that envy how deeply we connect compared to their own significant others. As the central love interests of Jacqueline Carey’s Imriel Trilogy continually ask each other, “why is it that we fit together so well?”

All of this would suggest that I’d be a staunch defender of the traditional “definition of marriage” but I’m not. Just as the traditionalists themselves leave open that celibacy or divine intimacy is a valid form of human completion, I’ve seen incredibly strong homosexual unions wherein the individual atoms truly join into a greater whole. Gay marriage is something that, I hope, is merely inevitable in the West but the persecution of homosexuals in vast parts of the world is a worrying human rights situation.

None of this yet provokes a re-examination of monogamy. Marriage, whether traditional or revised, is a one-to-one contract. This one-to-one relationship certainly seems the best, most stable extant form of human union. Polygamy where it still exists is grossly unequal in its implementation. When I discovered the essay Why We F*ck it really got me thinking. Why is sexual expression such a powerful human drive, even outside the bounds of selfish genes and procreation? Is monogamy the best structure or container for that expression?

Read the essay, even if you ‘know’ you won’t agree with it.

Sociology and evolutionary psychology are powerful tools in examining our societal norms, but they inherently limit us to the past and present. What if the ideal human completion is something we haven’t yet tried? This is where speculative fiction becomes a powerful tool.

Monogamy is stable, but inefficient. Pooling resources among two people is more efficient than one. Sexually intimate relationships surely cap out lower than Dunbar’s number but Robert Heinlein’s classic The Moon is a Harsh Mistress paints a society where all kinds of equitable polygamic marriages plausibly work. Anthropology and evolutionary psychology suggest that hunter-gatherer societies were close to this existence, albeit without a codified legal framework.

Sex is sacred. There is a gross difference between a sexualized society and a society wherein sex is revered. It’s easy to deride modern Western society as sexualized. Mores have clearly changed, but the core values have not changed in centuries. Sex is taboo. Hidden. Sex is caught in the bifurcation of pleasure and procreation. The exposure of flesh has risen dramatically in the past 50 years, but what has really changed? Pornography has been normalized, but the titillation of the medium requires treating sex as both hidden and taboo. Otherwise, why should voyeurism arouse?

Consider the world of Terre d’Ange created by the author Jacqueline Carey. Starting with the novel Kushiel’s Dart, she paints a world where prostitution is among the core practices of their religion. That sounds horrible (to modern ears) but the characters who inhabit the world see sex as the key to bringing people together, a form of worship in and of itself, and something which should be neither hidden nor taboo. Sex isn’t something people hide or feel afraid to talk about. It is approached with eyes wide open, whether in monogamous marriages or far more adventurous couplings. Always it is a choice of all parties, and never to be abused.

But sex can bring disease and ‘unwanted’ pregnancy. STDs, like disease in general, are an unfortunate part of the human condition. Yes, monogamy provides insurance against infection, but we also have sufficient technology that safety is guaranteed. Provided sex is entered into with eyes wide open, with total and complete honesty. If sex is a hidden, shameful act, it’s psychologically easy to hide things like dysfunction and disease. In the chapter titled “The First Stone” of The Wise Man’s Fear, the hero has what I would consider an ‘eyes wide open’ conversation about STDs. He asks one of the Adem how they can have such a permissive attitude towards casual sex, since wider society is full of the risk of disease. She responds that bringing disease into the village simply wouldn’t be done. The person would become anathema.

Pregnancy is turn is dismissed by the culture’s matriarchal nature. Men simply don’t have a place in child-rearing. In doing research for this essay, I discovered that this particular passage has been decried by feminists along the lines of “wow, men get it easy. They can f*ck all they want and the women get to clean up.” I don’t think that’s the interpretation worth taking out of it. As a man heavily involved in the upbringing of his children, obviously I’m not interested in shirking any responsibility. What caught my eye is the respect for the other in never hiding disease, and the acceptance that sex requires a calm acceptance of the possibility of parenthood. Modern birth control eliminates a lot of the risk, but even a several percent chance is quite real.

Sex is sacred, but so is life. A child should never be unwanted, regardless of the accidence of its conception. Keep in mind that arguing monogamy should be re-evaluated is not an argument for casual sex with no regard for the other. Monogamy works because it’s stable. Any replacement, for any set of individuals, should be equal or greater in stability. YOLO dalliances that kick consequences down the road aren’t exactly what I have in mind.

I’ve got quite a few years before I need to teach my children about sex. Writing things out like this is my way of preliminarily drafting thoughts, teasing out the structure of my personal values. Regardless of the final structure, what I am convinced of is that truth lies outside of the simple plane between the extremes of ‘traditional’ marriage and, for lack of a better term, pornographized society.

What are your thoughts?


8 Comments on “Should Society Re-examine Monogamy?”

  1. How familiar are you with the works of John Paul II, like Love and Responsibility and/or the Theology of the Body? They’re really long and difficult to summarize in a blog comment, but they go into a fair bit of detail about the significance of a fruitful union between one man and one woman.

    • David says:

      I recall reading Theology of the Body on my free time in college and not caring for it much but I can’t recall any specific objections at this time. My issues with Catholic Church teaching on marriage have had a long history that I’m still trying to piece into a coherent whole.

      Thanks for commenting!

  2. spakona says:

    I got really excited when I read your post, because you reference books. Pat Rothfuss is definitely pretty sexually permissive, especially when Kvothe goes and stays with the Adem. You can read a story about Deoch on Pat Rothfuss’s public Facebook. It’s strange to think that music and emotion must be private, while public sex is no problem. However, it’s only strange to us in America and in the places where religion prohibits polyamory in all its flavors.

    I liked the respectful line marriages in Heinlein’s book, because it is a sharing of property and love. Everybody looks after the children (just like the Adem), and everybody shares in the fruits of the community’s labor. Living like that, however, is based on societal consent not to take more than you need. You see people live like that in a kibbutz (and probably other communal places), but it’s very rare to see that in the wide world.

    • David says:

      Thanks for commenting!

      Fiction, especially within sci-fi/fantasy, is so interesting when it offers a culture that’s truly different from our own as far as values and permissiveness goes, especially if it is internally consistent and plausible.

      For how dominated by money and sexuality our culture is, they’re incredibly taboo if you really think about it.

      • Part of the problem, honestly, is that we’re so Puritanical about nudity. I think social nudity is a powerful antidote to the hypersexuality most religions so oppose, while protecting the sacredness of the human body and sexual relationships. Have you considered the role of nudity separate from the role of sexuality?

      • David says:

        That’s actually a good point Lindsay. Maybe I’ll have to write a separate post about that once I think on it. 🙂

  3. […] By joining together, we transcend what we were before. We wonder, like the lovers I wrote about here, why we fit together so well. Coming together is […]

  4. Gero1369 says:

    Good, thought provoking post. I don’t have the time right now to type a proper response, but I will in the near future (typing on my phone is not the quickest).
    In short, I agree that simple monogamy is not ideal and other arrangements would possibly be more so, but our society is slow to change on those matters.

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