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Is Monogamy Dead?

04 May 2006

Exploring the myths and the realities

Many people were shocked when Hollywood actress Scarlett Johansson said she doesn’t believe in monogamy - that people weren’t meant to be with just one person

“I don’t think human beings are monogamous creatures by nature,” she told reporters while promoting one of her movies.

Is she right?

What Exactly Is Monogamy Anyway?

According to a many biologists, mammals which practice monogamy are uncommon. Only a minority of the approximately 4,000 mammalian species are monogamous. But what about human beings? Monogamy is often used to mean having only one sexual partner during an entire lifetime. Historically, monogamy was much less practiced than polygamy (specifically polygyny - where one male mates with more than one female while each female mates with only one male as in opposed to the female version which is called polyandry). Mostly because of European conquest, monogamy is now more popularly promoted than it was ever before. However doctrine and practice can often be two different things. Why is sexual fidelity so rare, even among animals which are socially monogamous?

Is Monogamy a Myth Then?

It would seem like the number of people claiming to be monogamous but are far from it, is steadily increasing. With the increase of infidelity, divorces, one-night stands, booty calls, pornography, teenage pregnancies, television as well as music videos glorification of sex, venereal diseases like AIDS and single motherhood (where the baby’s daddy has abandoned the family most likely for another partner) it is clear that monogamy, while it is the accepted institution of matrimonial relationships is not easy to follow at all.

What many people around the world tend to commonly refer to as their marriage system is actually monogamy. However, in reality it is serial monogamy; that is, most people are married to or date more than one person during their lifetime, but in series rather than simultaneously. Serial monogamy is unofficially but realistically the principal form of marriage in countries like Canada, and has been for several decades.

Before the cultural homogenization which came with Western influence, more than three-quarters of all human societies were polygynous. Today many African and Arab societies are still openly polygynous. Those which are not, are a combination of the accepted societal standard of monogamist matrimonies, which, along with many other things came with western indoctrination and traditional polygamists which have been entrenched in these societies for hundreds of years. Even many of the men mentioned in the bible; David, Moses, Jacob – with King Solomon being the epitome with over 100 wives - were polygynous. As recently as the seventeenth century, polygamy was practiced and accepted by the Christian Church. The Mormons (Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints) allow and practice polygamy in the United States.

Interestingly, in black communities outside Africa like the Caribbean and North America, with the baby father/mama drama, it would seem like many people live in polygynous relationships. It is becoming more common to see black fathers having children with several women and vice-versa – more single women with children from different fathers. Whereas there are many blacks in monogamous relationships, the increasing number of single-parent homes in the black community is alarming. It would seem like people are not as naturally monogamous as we might like to believe. Monogamy seems to be a struggle.

Is Monogamy Outdated?

For the most part, one man and one woman for life had become normative; until a few decades ago. Polygyny and polyandry and what is really defined as serial marriage seem to be becoming more common place these days. However, while we as a society ascribe to monogamy as the accepted standard of human sexual relations, we are becoming more tolerant of non-monogamous relationships. Former US President Bill Clinton cheated with Monica Lewinsky and yet he was forgiven by Hillary. Brad Pitt started an affair with Angelina Jolie while he was still married to Jennifer Aniston. Actor Jude Law cheated on wife Sienna Miller. Kobe Bryant cheated, but bought his wife a diamond the size of Madagascar and was forgiven. When former French president Francois Mitterrand was buried both his wife and mistress were present at his grave. But for every celebrity who cheats, there are hundreds of non-celebrities who do. They just do not end up on the front cover of gossip magazines. We live in a society where it is accepted for men to be polygynous; in other words to not be monogamous. When this happens, although there is always an outcry, they tend to be forgiven by their women in the end.

But are women as widely polyandrous as men as men are polygynous? That number of women who have several partners simultaneously is hard to determine as women in most societies are not very vocal about their sexualities, nor do these communities embrace the idea of non-monogamous women – hence it would make sense that women would be silent about their sexuality. However, women are sexual beings too and they have the same sexual urges. They are just more discreet.

In general, despite the advocacy of monogamy, it seems that more humans are serial monogamists, including women. People are more likely to have been married to more than one person or be involved with several lovers than they care to admit. Elizabeth Taylor, Madonna, Warren Beatty, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Dennis Rodman and Jennifer Lopez are all serial brides, bridegrooms and daters. However this is not just a celebrity trend, as many non-celebrities are following suite. The principles of monogamy seem to be failing for many human beings.

Is Monogamy Really Failing?

David P. Barash, who is a professor of psychology at the University of Washington wrote an article called Deflating the Myth of Monogamy. In this article he referred to well-documentation of monogamy’s failure in classical and contemporary literature. He writes:

“Monogamy’s failures are recorded in many great works of literature: Tolstoy''s Anna Karenina, Flaubert''s Madame Bovary, Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover, Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, Henry James'' The Golden Bowl. More recently, John Updike''s marriage novels -- not to mention scores of soap operas and movies -- describe a succession of affairs. And then there is the small matter of real life.”

The odds are split between the scientists who believe that monogamy is an unhealthy, unnatural, unrealistic, stifling state of the human mind, and those who believe the opposite to be true. In Civilization and Its Discontents, Freud argued that civilization is founded on the suppression of instincts. He emphasizes that civilization places limitations on sexuality; it not only dictates what forms of sexual expression are "permissible," and censors all others, but it even places strict restrictions on the forms of sexuality it allows. For example he suggests that society insists on monogamy, faithfulness to a single partner, and in the process it limits sexual expression according to gender roles, etc.

The arguments as to whether monogamy is realistic or not, whether it is natural or not, whether most people who say they are monogamous practice it or not are endless. Whether we choose to follow it, on the other hand, is another thing. Certainly there is lots of evidence to suggest that both opposites are practiced and preferred by different individuals.

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