Is monogamy impossible? Yes, according to a spate of recent books and articles. After years and years of writing article after article about "affair-proofing" your marriage, advice columnists for women are taking a different tack. Stop pursuing the impossible dream of sexual satisfaction with a single person, and start exploring all the delicious options that come when you let go of the monogamy myth. Good advice for some — but what if, despite the seemingly dismal odds, you still want an exclusive relationship? In the rush to celebrate worthy alternatives to monogamy, are we discouraging the hopeful traditionalists from even giving it a try?
Monogamy is a "patriarchal myth," wrote Stephanie Iris Weiss recently; psychologist Vicki Larson calls it a "culturally compelled… unreasonable expectation." In Role/Reboot, Carrie Laski opines that sexual exclusivity is "like dubstep: I don't understand it."
Articles like this build on popular books such as Eric Anderson's "The Monogamy Gap: Men, Love, and the Reality of Cheating" and the bestselling "Sex at Dawn: How We Mate, Why We Stray, and What It Means for Modern Relationships" from Chris Ryan and Cacilda Jetha. Anderson claims that men are built for sexual novelty, a feature in our biology that makes our pledges of fidelity invariably impossible to honor. (He describes monogamous men as "sexually incarcerated.") Writing from a more egalitarian perspective Ryan and Jetha consider monogamy to be unnatural for women too, calling it "a distorted and distorting family structure inappropriate for our species."
The popularity of these books and articles reflects our hunger for an answer to the perennial question of why men (and women) cheat. They offer a comforting answer: it's not our fault that we can't keep our partners from straying; we're not entirely to blame if we stray. The problem isn't one of individual character, but of our obsession with what we're increasingly assured is an unnatural and perhaps impossible ideal. Time to stop being so hard on ourselves, on our partners, and on Kristin Stewart; time to start looking at options like polyamory, a permanent membership to OK Cupid, or happy singledom.
Without maligning any of those excellent life selections, what if you're still committed to commitment? What if — despite the reports that make infidelity seem inevitable and despite the scientific claims that exclusive pair-bonding contradicts our nature — that is still your ideal? Beyond the sugary reassurances of the industrial Valentine's complex, where's the pushback to what increasingly seems like a one-sided argument against the chances of making monogamy work?
The argument that monogamy contradicts human nature, so compellingly made by the authors of "Sex at Dawn," is impossible to refute. On the other hand, as Katherine Hepburn told Humphrey Bogart in The African Queen, "Nature, Mr. Allnut, is what we are put in this world to rise above." Rising above nature doesn't have to mean shaming basic sexual instincts. If you want monogamy — for whatever reason — then the fact that it isn't "natural" isn't an insurmountable obstacle. Peeing in toilets rather than in our pants isn't natural either (for that matter, pants aren't natural), but most of us rise above (or redirect) our most basic eliminative instincts pretty damn well.
One of the most common contemporary arguments against monogamy is that it makes liars of us all. "The Monogamy Gap," for example, argues that in a culture that values sexual exclusivity, men are "forced" to make promises of fidelity that they know they will eventually prove incapable of keeping. Anderson (and his defenders) make the case that the sooner we abandon an impossible ideal, men will get the sexual variety they "need" and women will get the radical honesty they crave. The compelling part of that argument is that by abandoning monogamy, you presumably get an insurance policy against betrayal. Of course, that raises a question for the critics of monogamy: do you dislike the idea of being with only one person because you want romantic and sexual options, or do you dislike the idea of being with one person because of the presumptive inevitability of experiencing the pain of sexual betrayal? Or is it both?
Talking about a "War on Monogamy" can come across like Fox News lamenting the "War on Christmas." Monogamists still seem to dominate the cultural debate, and those who are open about wanting alternatives still get shamed. The problem is that very few people are making the brief for monogamy (with or without state-sanctioned marriage) as just one among many equal goods. Either monogamy gets held up as an ideal to which all ought to aspire, or it gets denigrated as an "unhealthy" and "unreasonable" straitjacket that we would do well to avoid. It often seems as if the only people defending the viability of monogamy are the ones who insist it is the only morally legitimate (or at least the psychologically healthiest) option. Their sanctimony is an easy target. But there's an obvious problem in confusing the hypocrisy and self-righteousness of monogamy's traditional advocates with monogamy itself. The former deserves to be rejected. The latter, perhaps not.
Writing in the Guardian this week, Jill Filipovic makes sense: "Marriage should simply be one model among many for human kinship and a strong family. " The problem, of course, is that we haven't yet found a way to talk about monogamy (and marriage) as "one model among many." After so many years of being told that monogamy is the only legitimate option, we're now facing a barrage of books and articles suggesting that lifelong sexual exclusivity is something to which no rational modern man or women ought to aspire. "Let people do what they want," says Filipovic. She's right: we should let people do what they want. The problem is that as long as we make the case for monogamy's alternatives by denigrating monogamy as unreasonable, we're a long way from giving people the full range of options they deserve.
Jezebel columnist Hugo Schwyzer teaches history and gender studies at Pasadena City College and is a nationally-known speaker on sex, masculinity, body image and beauty culture. He also blogs at his eponymous site. Follow him on Twitter: @hugoschwyzer.