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Old 07-03-2010, 11:37 AM   #1
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monogamy

we used to be good at these kinds of "thought" thread in FYM -- so this is meant to be non-political, though the personal is always on some level political.

anyway ...


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"Sex at Dawn": Why monogamy goes against our nature - Nonfiction - Salon.com

According to Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá, the authors of the new book "Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality," the state of the American marriage is awfully grim. We have a stratospheric divorce rate and a surge of single parents. Couples who stay together are often trapped in sexless, passionless unions. An entire industry — from couples therapy to sex supplements — has emerged to help people "rekindle the spark" without straying from the confines of monogamy.

But Ryan and Jethá also have a theory for what's causing this misery: From a biological perspective, men and women simply aren't meant to be in lifelong monogamous unions. In "Sex at Dawn," which uses evidence gathered from human physiology, archaeology, primate biology and anthropological studies of pre-agricultural tribes from around the world, they argue that monogamy and the nuclear family are more recent inventions than most of us would expect — and far less natural than we've come to believe.

Before the advent of agriculture, they argue, prehistoric humans lived in a much less sexually possessive culture, without the kind of lifelong coupling that currently exists in most countries. They also point to the bonobos, our closest relatives, who live in egalitarian and peaceful groups and have astronomical rates of sexual interaction, as evidence of our natural inclinations. While Ryan and Jethá's book (Ryan is a psychologist, and Jethá a practicing psychiatrist, in Spain) is often a bit scattered and hard to follow, its provocative argument is also impossible to dismiss.

Salon spoke to Ryan over the phone from Barcelona about the problem with American marriages, why gay men understand relationships better than straight men, and the hidden meaning of human testicle size.

You paint a bleak picture of the state of marriage in the West, particularly in the United States. What makes it so bad?

Marriage in the West isn’t doing very well because it’s in direct confrontation with the evolved reality of our species. What we argue in the book is that the best way to increase marital stability, which in the modern world is an important part of social stability, is to develop a more tolerant and realistic understanding of human sexuality and how human sexuality is being distorted by our modern conception of marriage. Certainly growing up in the '70s and '80s there were very few kids I knew whose parents weren’t divorced at least once. The economic, emotional, psychological cost of fractured relationships is a major problem in American society — with single mothers and single-parent families.

You argue that much of this misery stems from changes that occurred when humans developed agriculture, around 8000 B.C. What happened?

The advent of agriculture changed everything about human society, from sexuality to politics to economics to health to diet to exercise patterns to work-versus-rest patterns. It introduced the notion of property into sexuality. Property wasn’t a very important consideration when people were living in small, foraging groups where most things were shared, including food, childcare, shelter and defense. It makes perfect sense that sexuality would also be shared — why wouldn’t it be when paternity wasn’t an issue?

When you have agriculture, men started to worry about whether or not certain children were theirs biologically, because they wanted to leave their accumulated property to their own child. At that point, people also made a very clear connection between sexual behavior and birth. Lots of people didn't have a very clear understanding of the cause and effect of sex and birth, but when you have domesticated animals living side by side with people, they start to notice that the characteristics of a certain male that has mated with a certain female show up in the offspring.

One of the central ideas of much biological and genetic theory is that animals will expend more energy protecting those they’re genetically related to — siblings, parents, offspring — as opposed to those they're not related to. Why wouldn't that apply to humans?

There are many, many exceptions to that rule in nature. One of the exceptions we talk about in the book are the vampire bats that share blood with each other. They go out and they suck the blood at night and then they come back to the cave and the bats that didn’t get any blood will receive blood from other bats. They share, and that has nothing to do with genetic connection. And in terms of animals that are much more closely related to humans, when you look at bonobos and their promiscuous interaction, it’s virtually impossible for a male to know which of his offspring are related to him biologically. So to say that there’s this inherent concern with paternity within our species, I just don’t see evidence for that.

Does this mean that humans didn't form couples before the advent of agriculture?

Because human groups at the time knew each other so well and spent their lives together and were all interrelated and depended upon each other for everything, they really knew each other much better than most of us know our sexual partners today. We don’t argue that people didn’t form very special relationships — you can see this even in chimps and bonobos and other primates, but that bond doesn’t necessarily extend to sexual exclusivity. People have said that we’re arguing against love — but we're just saying that this insistence that love and sex always go together is erroneous.

Given that these people have been dead for thousands of years, and we don't have a fossil record of sexual activity, isn't this hard to prove?

The evidence comes from several different areas. We look at pre-agricultural people who have been studied today and horticultural people who have been studied by anthropologists. There’s a fair amount of information about the sexuality of people who haven’t been deeply exposed to Western influence. There are accounts from travelers and colonialists, first-contact accounts from historical records, that we rely on. But you can also extract a great deal of information from the human body itself — from the design of the penis to the volume of the testicles to the sperm-producing potential of the testicular tissue and the way we have sex.

What does our testicle size tell us about the way we have sex?

Our testicles aren’t as big as those of chimps and bonobos, but our ejaculation is about four times as big in terms of volume. The theory is that when males compete on the level of the sperm cell, they develop much larger testicles, because in promiscuous animals, the sperm of the different males is competing with the sperm of other males to get to be the first to the egg. And the fact that our testicles are not as small relative to our body as the monogamous gibbon or gorillas reinforces the idea that we have been non-monogamous for a long time.

Plus the design of our penis strongly suggests that it evolved to create a vacuum in the female reproductive system, thereby pulling out the semen of anyone who was there previously. There are all kinds of indications of sperm competition in the human male. And one of the things that we suggest in the book that no one else has suggested is that because the testicles are genetically the part of the body that adapts fastest to environmental pressure, it’s quite possible that our testicles are much smaller than they were as recently as fifteen or twenty thousand years ago, to reflect the historical cultural imposition of monogamy. And of course we all know that sperm count is dropping precipitously even as we speak.

But that drop in sperm count has been reported over the last few decades, and I don't think American culture has becoming less sexualized since the 1950s — I think the opposite is true.

Well, it’s hard to say because it’s only been measured for about the last 100 years. So it’s very difficult to know what was happening before that. But yeah, it does seem to be plummeting faster and faster, and there are indications that it has a lot to do with industrial contaminants in the environment, and antibiotics and growth hormones in the food supply and so on.

But I think there’s this bifurcation of American culture where you’ve got the liberalization on one side with states passing gay marriage, but then you have other states veering off in the other direction. I think the Bill Clinton and Lewinsky situation could have been such a great opportunity for the culture to grow up instead of wasting so much time and money and political capital in this investigation of a victimless crime. If the Clintons had gone on their "60 Minutes" interview and just said, "You know what, our sex life is nobody’s business but ours," I think the country would have been so much better off.

I think from a cultural standpoint the idea of strict monogamy has far less currency within the gay male world than it does within the straight world. I’m a gay man, and I think probably about half the gay male couples I know are in open relationships. Why do you think that is?

First of all, they’re both men, so they both know what it’s like to be a man. They both know from experience that love and sex are two very different things, and it seems that for women the experience of sexuality is much more embedded in narrative, in emotion, in emotional intimacy. But also it’s really hard to judge what women would be like if they hadn’t been persecuted for the last five or six thousand or ten thousand years for any hint of infidelity.

Gay men in the United States have also by definition gone through a process of self-examination. The whole process of coming out is a process of integrating sexuality into your life in a way that takes courage, and it’s not something that happens naturally. I think gay people have an advantage because they’ve already gone through a process of saying: "Look, my sexuality is what it is. I’m not ashamed of it. I’m going to live openly and in accord with it." That puts them on a different level than most heterosexual people who are able to pass along and pretend that they fit into the normal parameters.

It seems like many Americans, in particular, have a very strong notion that a marriage must remain monogamous at all costs — and that any infidelity is grounds for divorce. In other countries, like France, for example, that doesn't seem to be the case.

I’ve been living off and on for almost 20 years here in Barcelona, and from outside, the United States looks very adolescent, in a positive and negative sense. There's its adolescent energy — its idealism — but there’s also an immaturity and intolerance toward the ambiguity of life and the complexity of relationships. The American sense of relationships and sexuality tends to be very informed by Hollywood: It’s all about the love story. But the love story ends at the wedding and doesn't go into the 40 years that comes after that.

So if monogamous marriage isn't the right arrangement for us, what is?

We’re not really arguing for any particular arrangement. We don’t even really know what to do with this information ourselves. What we’re trying to do in the book is give people a more accurate sense of where we came from, why we are the way we are, and why certain aspects of life feel like a bad fit. I think a lot of people make a commitment when they’re in love, which is a sort of a delusional state that lasts a couple of years at most. I think it was Goethe who said that love is an unreal thing, and marriage is a real thing, and any confusion of the real with the unreal always leads to disaster.

All we’re really hoping for is to encourage more tolerance and more open discussion between men and women about sexuality and about marriage, and to come to see that marriage isn’t about sex. It's about things that are much deeper and more lasting than sex, especially if you have children. And the American insistence on mixing love and sex and expecting passion to last forever is leading to great suffering that we think is tragic and unnecessary.

does this call into question notions of what is and what isn't "traditional" when it comes to love, sex, and marriage? does this argue for the possibility of "loving deceit"? does the more adolescent USA strike you as more admirable for striving for a better ideal than the more weary Europeans, or do you admire their greater ability to culturally grapple with more complexity? what works for you, and why? could another model work for you, or would the deviation from the norm, even if it's more natural, create too much stress when coupled with societal expectations, that anything other than conformity is the norm? are traditional incentives for monogamy -- reducing the number of illegitimate children -- now no longer as persuasive? or, because our relationships are more equal, is the burden of betraying a genuine equal far to great to countenance non-monogamy?
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Old 07-03-2010, 01:03 PM   #2
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I always found it silly for anyone to suggest that monogamy was somehow natural. Isn't the fact that it isn't natural and yet some can acheive it happily somewhat of the point?

Marriage, for me, has never been about "the next step", or "what you're suppose to do", it's more about a relationship that is you and I against the world. It's about how we're going to strive against the odds.

Running marathons is not natural for the human body, yet some choose to do so. How is monogamy any different?

Just my thoughts...
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Old 07-03-2010, 01:15 PM   #3
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I remember during the Clinton-Lewinsky "scandal", Dan Savage was asked about his opinion and he talked about how monogamy should be seen equivalent to getting sober or losing weight. Sometimes you fall off and you have to start all over again. But that's not a reason to give up and continue drinking or eating irresponsibly. I think that's a good attitude towards monogamy.

I think what is good about monogamy is that not only it determines who exactly is the father of some woman's children, but I think it disciplines some people. If monogamy were not the standard in American society, guaranteed there would be some screwing around left and right like there's no tomorrow. They wouldn't have a reason to mature into having an intimate relationship. Look at Hugh Hefner. Sure, he's got the sex life men could only dream of. But does he really care for those women? Is he capable of long-term feelings for someone?

Also, I've read articles and saw programs on swingers over the years (Oprah did a show on that once), and those involved admit that its not for everyone. It takes a lot of trust to allow your partner to fool around with someone else, and know they would not emotionally stray from you. Additionally, I've heard that the divorce rate is no different among swingers than non-swingers.
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Old 07-03-2010, 01:17 PM   #4
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It would be interesting to see what anthropologists and other scientists would say about a book, an admittedly poorly written book, by a psychologist and a physician.
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Old 07-03-2010, 04:57 PM   #5
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Pearl View Post
I remember during the Clinton-Lewinsky "scandal", Dan Savage was asked about his opinion and he talked about how monogamy should be seen equivalent to getting sober or losing weight. Sometimes you fall off and you have to start all over again. But that's not a reason to give up and continue drinking or eating irresponsibly. I think that's a good attitude towards monogamy.

I think what is good about monogamy is that not only it determines who exactly is the father of some woman's children, but I think it disciplines some people. If monogamy were not the standard in American society, guaranteed there would be some screwing around left and right like there's no tomorrow. They wouldn't have a reason to mature into having an intimate relationship. Look at Hugh Hefner. Sure, he's got the sex life men could only dream of. But does he really care for those women? Is he capable of long-term feelings for someone?

Also, I've read articles and saw programs on swingers over the years (Oprah did a show on that once), and those involved admit that its not for everyone. It takes a lot of trust to allow your partner to fool around with someone else, and know they would not emotionally stray from you. Additionally, I've heard that the divorce rate is no different among swingers than non-swingers.
+1
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Old 07-04-2010, 01:21 AM   #6
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Hmmm. I'm going to think about this and come back to it.
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Old 07-04-2010, 03:00 AM   #7
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Polyamory can be workable, but I think we're hard wired for jealousy coupled with serial monogamy (and this could be a reason why human males usually don't have the instinct to go around murdering the children of other males).
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Old 07-04-2010, 07:41 AM   #8
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Marriage, for me, has never been about "the next step", or "what you're supposed to do", it's more about a relationship that is you and I against the world. It's about how we're going to strive against the odds.



This. I'm attracted to a lot of women. I look at other women. But it's a great privilege to do what your describing, and I wouldn't want it with anyone else but my wife.
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Old 07-04-2010, 12:40 PM   #9
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They also point to the bonobos, our closest relatives, who live in egalitarian and peaceful groups and have astronomical rates of sexual interaction, as evidence of our natural inclinations.
Bonobos are also bisexual (perhaps pansexual) and matriarchal.
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Old 07-05-2010, 03:05 AM   #10
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Marriage, for me, has never been about "the next step", or "what you're supposed to do", it's more about a relationship that is you and I against the world. It's about how we're going to strive against the odds.



This. I'm attracted to a lot of women. I look at other women. But it's a great privilege to do what your describing, and I wouldn't want it with anyone else but my wife.
This.

I remember a Bono quote -- maybe from "At the End of the World" -- talking about how all these forces are pulling against two people choosing to stay together, and how maybe all those forces mean that choosing to hang on is a noble choice.
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Old 07-05-2010, 12:32 PM   #11
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Or as the Bad Touch so eloquently put it:

"You and me baby, we ain't nothing but mammals so lets do it like they do on the Discovery Channel."

I don't know. I think the big question here is what to do with the fact that there are times when we don't feel like being faithful, or exclusive. Not because we don't love our other half, but well, just because we feel like ALSO being with--no scratch thaat. . .okay, being honest. . .fucking someone else.

Some would say, well that's natures way and we should just go with that feeling. Some would say that we don't necessarily have to do everything we feel like doing.

I come down on the latter. Of course because I don't hold a strictly materialist view of human origins, the first has less weight with me any way. But even so, I'm not convinced that if I was an evolutionist I would concluded that well, since the bonobos are doing it,we should too. My philosophy is that it's human nature to want to do what we want to do, but we're actually better off if we're not living soley by those impulses--and that includes the impulse towards casual sex.
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Old 07-05-2010, 04:45 PM   #12
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I fully agree with that, Sean. Supposedly, the thing that separates us from other species is our ability to not go solely on instinct, to be able to reason out and come to conclusions rationally. If you want to go ahead and act out what you're thinking, fine, just be prepared for whatever situations come from it, positive or negative.

As for the article itself...fascinating stuff. I particularly found the idea that the agricultural revolution was what started turning things around in terms of monogamy rather interesting, and I can see where they're going with that. Never thought of it that way before, but yeah, that makes sense. And I wholeheartedly agree with the Clinton scandal bit.

Personally, I'll say here what I kinda said in the "cougars vs. sugar daddies" thread-I think people are way too hung up on whether or not what they're doing is okay in comparison to other people. Some people like monogamy, they're fully comfortable with it and enjoy it and it's the life they choose to lead. Some people don't want to settle down, like playing the field and seeing what's out there. So long as everyone's being safe about their choices and they and their partner(s) are on an even understanding, that's your business and your choice, not mine. I definitely agree, though, that if you're going to get married, there's a whole hell of a lot of things your connection should be based on, sex shouldn't be the sole factor there. I mean, who knows, perhaps some couple could make it work based on that alone, feel free to prove me wrong, but I've yet to hear a success story on that front.

For me, I'd be a typical woman in the sense that I would equate sex and love. I'm not big on the idea of sleeping around with a bunch of guys, I'd like to be in a committed relationship with a guy. I feel I'd have to be really comfortable around a man before we moved to that level of intimacy, 'cause if I'm not at ease around him in any other area of my life, I don't think that's going to bode well for the sexual aspect of things. I would like to be married someday-not looking to do it for a few more years, I don't think I'll be ready for a while for that sort of thing, but someday would be nice. However, I'm not going to feel my life's a failure if I never wind up married or with children. Course, I say that now, who knows how I'll feel in 5 years, but eh, still...

As for the U.S. versus the rest of the world, again, that just comes down to personal preference and opinion. I wouldn't consider us "adolescent" for wanting to go the monogamy route, and I wouldn't call people in other parts of the world "evil sinners" or on the opposite end, "more cultured", because they're not as committed as we like to be, or try to be, anyway. I also think we need to get rid of the shame and stigma surrounding divorce. No, you shouldn't divorce simply because your husband has an annoying habit of not cleaning up his clothes right away or because the wife yaks on the phone to her sister incessantly or whatever trivial reason some people come up with. But some people just don't match up. They tried it, it didn't work out, and it's not fair to expect them to stay together if they're not happy together (and then of course there's abusive situations, but that's an entirely different situation altogether). If there's kids involved I can understand the hesitation and caution, but so long as you handle the divorce and your dating life afterwards in a mature, responsible way, your kids'll be fine, I would think. Divorce isn't fun, no, but sometimes it is necessary.

No matter what your love life, if there's children involved, you should definitely take them into consideration. When it's just you, you're the only one who's going to be the most affected by your choices. But when you've got kids, you have to think of them, too. Doesn't matter whether you're monogamous or not. Just make sure they understand what's going on (with age-appropriate explanations, of course), be careful about who you're with, and make sure the kids don't feel like they're being mistreated or ignored or whatever by the adults around them (and vice versa).

Um. Yeah. So there's my rambling thoughts on the matter.

Angela
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Old 07-05-2010, 10:17 PM   #13
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i have lots of thoughts, but i'll get to them tomorrow. sorry i haven't been back to this, but i'm glad some people thought the article was interesting.
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Old 07-06-2010, 09:24 AM   #14
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Many things go against our nature-doesn't mean we shouldn't strive for them. If you're in a committed relationship or marriage I just don't see the point of not being monogamous. It's not just about sex, there can be emotional infidelity that doesn't involve sex at all. Indifference to the relationship, inattentiveness to it, things like that-that can also be a form of infidelity. If you are having problems in a relationship why not confront that instead of turning to someone else-if that's the reason. Not always the reason.

Of course people are attracted to other people-that's always the way and it's totally unrealistic to think or expect otherwise. You can't stop that no matter how much you love someone else. But it's the decision to act on it, that's all that matters. If you don't want to make that sort of commitment then don't-and if both people don't want to be in a monogamous relationship that's fine. But it has to be both, obviously. And even if both openly agree to that there will still be issues when emotions are involved.
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Old 07-06-2010, 10:49 AM   #15
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I have many thoughts too. Where to start, hmmm...I could easily parrot the virtues of monogamy as I'm in a solid, long-term partnership. Although, like the article (and like many of Bono's lyrics actually), I find it more interesting to explore the complexities and contradictions of our inclinations compared to what is expected of us, or what we expect of ourselves.

It seems on some level we all seek and strive for unconditional love. True love. To give and receive it. The bar is set pretty high though. The easy default may be parental love but based on comments in the "Christians are Compassionate" thread, even parental love can come with strings attached.

You hear about the idea of two people becoming one in marriage. Or I can say "you complete me" and you know exactly where it comes from and what it is intended to mean and how it makes us sigh and swoon. (ha, if we were really informed by Hollywood we'd all have multiple marriages, same-sex dalliances and a brood of children from multiple partners and probably Africa, but I digress).

I'm not sure I fully agree with either of those ideas. To me, the partnership of marriage is almost like a 3rd entity. It's bigger than you and me. It's the realm in which you and I get to be better together than we could have been apart. And as Alex said, it is a great priviledge.

If I need you to complete me, then that sounds a bit like a zero sum game. On the other hand, if you compliment me, then we have the capacity to grow, individually and collectively.

I think we seek fulfillment in unconditional love, yet the conditions we apply particularly to our romantic partners, end up precluding us from achieving it.

Is it possible to love unconditionally the person from whom you expect so much in terms of a shared life, livelihood and sense of security which are inherently conditional? What would loving unconditionally entail in terms of sacrifice and forgiveness?

Where does sexual fidelity fit into that picture? Jealousy?

Does truly unconditional love trump biology?
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