How we got here

Having now read all of Sex at Dawn, I’m going to tell you why I think it’s an important book.

It’s not important because it tells us something we didn’t already know. There’s no new research (as far as I can tell), and it doesn’t question common understandings of the way we are today. Its interest is in how we got here. One could claim that its basic message is trivial: that the confused sexual structure we currently live in (ideals of monogamy but frequent rule-breaking and temptation) is the product not of our evolutionary roots as a species, but of adaptations to the changed environment we created with agriculture. That’s it. “We are the way we are because of something that happened 10,000 years ago, not because of something that happened 200,000 years ago.” That’s the basic message, and one might be justified in asking, “So what?”

I’ll tell you so what. When an evolutionary psychologist says that strict monogamy is not natural to humans (and they pretty much all say that), someone usually responds, “Yes, but we have free will; we can choose to rise above our animal nature.” Now that’s a debatable point, largely depending on your definitions of “free will” and “animal nature,” but let’s set aside that question for now. A more pertinent reply to the “we can rise above our animal nature” argument is, “Maybe, but why should we?”

The standard evolutionary-psychology model, which I outlined ever so loosely here, frames nonmonogamy for both males and females as, quite literally, cheating. There’s a mutually beneficial arrangement (monogamy) to which both parties agree, but they can do even better in the grand genetic steeplechase by cheating on the agreement. It’s not pretty, but hey, red in tooth and claw. If this is the best account of the monogamy/nonmonogamy tension in society, then people have some justification for calling on us all to rise above it. We owe it to our partners to put aside our selfish urges toward outside gratification, and to devote ourselves to maintaining the pair-bond we’ve formed. If they really love us, they’ll do the same. That’s the narrative we’re often given.

Sex at Dawn takes that narrow perspective and splits it wide open, suggesting many more possibilities for human sexual behavior that are cooperative, loving, and beneficial to everybody involved. The narrative it offers goes like this: Humans evolved in small, egalitarian, hunter-gatherer communities where men and women both benefited from frequent, free, promiscuous sexual encounters. Paternity wasn’t an issue because nobody was hoarding resources to pass on to their children, and securing male providership wasn’t an issue because women were gathering the bulk of the food anyway. When we developed agriculture, suddenly it became advantageous to accumulate land and livestock, and to pass these on to your own genetic offspring. So men became concerned with controlling women’s sexual behavior. At the same time, being the bearers and nursers of children became much more incapacitating for two reasons: farming is more labor-intensive than foraging, and with property comes theft and territory conflict. So women had a much greater need for men to provide for and defend them.

At this point the narrative converges with the conventional model. Male sexual infidelity doesn’t hurt women that much (from an evolutionary perspective) since sperm is cheap and plentiful. The woman is concerned more with making sure that he continues to provide material support and defense for herself and her children. Hence, “emotional infidelity” is more of a threat to women. Polygamy works out okay for both men and women (again, from an evolutionary perspective), so a lot of societies do that for a while. Then we become more enlightened. We start to see the harm in oppressive patriarchy, the injustice of viewing women as property, and we work to correct the situation. But by this time the ideal of female sexual fidelity has become deeply engrained in our cultural morality; sexual jealousy in men has gained a strong memetic, and possibly genetic, foothold. We know the polygamous patriarchy is unfair, but allowing women sexual freedom feels “wrong.” (We’ve also, in our efforts to control female sexuality, repressed and denied it for long enough that it’s easy to believe that women wouldn’t really want, or benefit from, sexual freedom even if we gave it to them.)

There’s a parallel line of development around the “family.” Human beings need each other, need to exist in a small, interdependent network of other human beings, where regardless of how much they like or dislike one another, each one assumes some responsibility for the well-being of the others. In small hunter-gatherer tribes, the entire tribe can function as a family in many ways. Children are mothered and fathered by many adults; resources brought into the group are shared evenly with everybody. The bond each person has with their neighbors goes far beyond emotional affinity: they bear a responsibility to care for one another despite any conflicts or personality clashes.

With the advent of agriculture, territory, and a protected paternal line, this circle of familial interdependence was reduced to the immediate blood family: parents, children, grandparents. It’s been that way for so long that we’ve come to consider that kind of devoted interdependence as a unique feature of blood family relationships, and to consider other groups that have that quality (military units, for example) as an exception to the rule.

So we as a culture have talked ourselves out of believing that women want or should have sexual freedom, and into believing that the nuclear family is somehow sacred in the kind of bonds it creates. Which means that the obvious answer to the “polygamy is unfair, women aren’t property” realization is prescribed monogamy for everyone. If women shouldn’t sleep around, then clearly sleeping around in general is wrong. If the nuclear family is the source of familial love and bondedness, then we should protect and encourage it. Hence: monogamy. Now we’re expected to fall in love with someone whose lifestyle and personality will be compatible with ours in the long run, marry them, and make that our one sexual and romantic relationship.

It’s not working all that well; anybody with eyes to see can see that. Infidelity’s one problem, but even the honorable, conscientious folks typically engage in serial monogamy, and lots of it. The age of marriage and the divorce rate have both grown tremendously. Basically, we’re really just not all that good at monogamy. Religious conservatives will tell you that it’s not working because we’re letting our fallen sinful nature get the better of us. Evolutionary psychologists in the classic vein will tell us… actually pretty much the same thing, only with a secular story behind it instead of the religious one. The writers of Sex at Dawn suggest that maybe there’s nothing specially virtuous about monogamy; maybe the fact that we suck at it doesn’t mean we’re doomed as a species. Maybe there are other ways of being, ways that still allow for love and intimacy and deep concern for the people we’re closest to.

I think that’s a damn important message.

Negotiated fidelity

I finished reading Sex at Dawn, and I’ll have plenty more to say about it. The last chapter was mostly about application to modern life, and this post is taken partly from that and partly from my own thoughts and observations.

As a culture, we need to get rid of the idea that sexual exclusivity should come easily and naturally if a person “truly loves” their partner. Sometimes, for some people, deep love comes with a lack of any interest in other potential partners, but this is more likely to be true in the short term than in the long term, and should never be taken as a litmus test.

Whether a given couple should attempt sexual exclusivity is for them to decide, and ideally it should be decided after long, exhaustively honest conversations, and should be periodically revisited. Men and women both experience hormonal changes as they age, and are likely to find themselves feeling differently about ideal sexual behavior at different times in their lives.

In short, what I’m advocating for every committed couple is negotiated fidelity: a relationship where both partners can present their wants, needs, feelings, and fears on an ongoing basis, without either one feeling that the bedrock of their relationship is threatened if one of those feelings is something like, “I really like the idea of having sex with that barista.” It requires a lot of trust and security, a lot of willingness to delve into one’s own feelings and struggles, a lot of uncritical openness with oneself and one’s partner. If either party is feeling like they have to continually repress certain feelings to make the relationship work, then it is a bad relationship.

Repression is not the same as self-control. There is a huge difference between, “My partner wants me to be sexually exclusive, so I will refrain from having sex with others,” and saying, “My partner wants me to be sexually exclusive, so I will hide from myself and from my partner any inkling of a thought that I might be interested in having sex with others.” And, to be even-handed, there’s a difference between saying, “My partner wants an open relationship, so I will work to get more comfortable with their interest in other people,” and, “My partner wants an open relationship, so I will deny and suppress any feelings of jealousy and insecurity I experience.” In both cases, the former statement is an expression of self-control exercised to accommodate a partner’s needs; the latter is a repression that will only cause damage, both to the individual and to the relationship.

Negotiated fidelity. Give it a try.

like they do on the Discovery Channel?

I wouldn’t go so far as to say “I do whatever Dan Savage tells me to do”… but I did order a copy of Sex at Dawn pretty much as soon as I read his column on the book. I’m about a third of the way through it now, and I’m loving it so much that I expect it’s going to be fodder for several more blog posts in the near future.

It’s an attempt to rewrite the narrative of human sexuality as viewed through the lens of evolutionary psychology. And let me just frame everything I’m going to say on this topic: Evolutionary psychology is a pretty soft science. People shouldn’t go claiming that Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá have proven anything with their work presented in this book. We’re not looking for proofs here, we’re looking for a compelling argument. I’ve seen a couple of forum arguments around that question of proof, and it’s stupid. So let’s not have any of those, mkay?

The standard narrative of human sexuality from an evolutionary psych perspective goes something like this: Males need to be sure their resources are going to the support of their own offspring, not someone else’s, and females need extensive support during gestation and lactation, so women trade exclusive sexual access for long-term material support — thus is born the male/female pair-bond. But men benefit genetically from spreading their seed as far and wide as they can (since sperm is cheap), and women benefit genetically from having their babies fathered by the fittest possible man, so both men and women are inclined to cheat if they can get away with it: women at their fertile times with men whose physical qualities suggest genetic superiority, and men at any time, with any fertile-looking woman.

It’s not a pretty story, but it accounts for many common observations about male and female sexual behavior. Even if you hadn’t read it laid out like this before, you’ve probably read magazine articles or advice columns that took it for granted.

Ryan and Jethá suggest a very different context for the evolution of human sexuality. They propose that humans evolved in sexually gregarious tribes, and that both male and female bodies are wired to seek lots of sex with lots of different partners. They argue that the restrictions of patriarchy and monogamy developed in response to the economic changes brought about by agriculture.

I haven’t gotten to the part where they hash that out in detail, so I’ll talk about that later. Right now the point that’s struck me most emphatically is the utter backwardness of our cultural ideas about sexuality and our animal nature. We tend to consider frequent, promiscuous sexual activity to be “animalistic,” taking us closer to our animal relatives and further from “what makes us human.” In fact the opposite is true: humans and our close relatives the bonobos may not be the only species that has sex for reasons other than reproduction, but we sure do it way more than any others. We’ve taken this reproductive act and imbued it with tremendous social and spiritual significance. The importance of sex, particularly sex that isn’t intended for reproduction, is a big part of “what makes us human.”

(Conversely, if you think about it, restricting sexual expression to baby-making is pretty animalistic. Take that, condom-hating Catholics!)

That’s what I’ve got for now. Stay tuned for more!

monogamy vs. fidelity

I was going to title this post “monogamy vs. commitment,” but “commitment” is kind of a cold word, and what I’m talking about is warm and vital. Fidelity, faithfulness… there’s a fire under those words. Commitment allows for a certain doggedness, a certain “because I have to” quality. You can be committed to a job or a diet. You can only be faithful to a cause, a passion, a love.

You can be faithful without being monogamous.

It’s so evident to me that this is so, that there’s no necessary connection between the concepts, that I almost don’t know what else to write. But let me try to spin it out further.

“My lover and I are faithful to each other.” What does that mean?

It means that your lover’s needs and wishes affect your behavior even when your lover is nowhere near. You think about how an action will impact them, whether it will enhance or impede your ability to love them. You give the whole question “will this strengthen or damage our relationship?” far more weight and prevalence in your life than you would give the same question asked of your close friends, or parents, or siblings.

I hope it need not be said that the question whether a certain action will strengthen or damage a relationship may have very different answers for different relationships. To take a non-sexual example: religious faith. For some couples, their shared religious faith (or lack thereof) is one of the pillars of their relationship, and a move away from that shared ground threatens the relationship. For others, it’s not that important; difference in their beliefs may fuel some interesting debates from time to time, but it doesn’t have much more impact than, say, one person loving musicals while the other hates them.

Similarly, for one couple sexual exclusivity might be a cornerstone of their relationship, while for another it’s not even expected. Definitions of fidelity vary widely from couple to couple. Some people feel cheated on if their partner masturbates or looks at porn (way over on the “unreasonable” end of the spectrum, in my opinion.) In the greyer areas, you have things like going to strip clubs… flirting with other people… getting cyber-married in Second Life. And the all the way over on the “laying no claim to monogamy” side of the spectrum you have swinging, relationships open to outside flings, and polyamory.

You can be faithful anywhere along this spectrum, as long as you and your lover have a sound understanding of what you each need from the other, and how your romantic and sexual activities will affect them. Your place on the spectrum is not likely to be static — I don’t think it should be. People grow, relationships grow, life circumstances change. It’s healthy to continually evaluate your wants and needs and the reasons behind them. Regardless of what boundaries you mutually agree on, it’s not exclusivity that makes a relationship secure — it’s fidelity.

What is monogamy?

I’ve had some conversations lately — I feel like every blog post I write could start that way — with self-identified “monogamous” people, and they’ve left me wondering: what is this  “monogamy” they’re talking about? I also had one conversation with Shaun, my very dear oh-so-poly boy, and it became clear (after much warm debate) that we were using very different definitions of “monogamy” and “polyamory.”

So, people who identify as monogamous, tell me what that means to you. I’ll get you started with a few ideas.

1) It means I hate the thought of my partner sharing sexual or romantic intimacy with another person. The idea of it gives me an awful feeling, and if it ever really happened I would be devastated. (If your answer is something like, “I don’t mind sharing a partner sexually, but I don’t want them to share romantic intimacy with anyone else” then can you please define “romantic intimacy”? Because it seems to be a concept that means something to people, but I really don’t know what.)

2) It means I can’t imagine giving sexual or romantic attention to more than one person. When I’m in love with someone, I’m blind to all other potential interests.

3) It means that even though I’m occasionally attracted to other people, I don’t want to assume the risks and possible costs of developing those relationships. I’d rather focus my time and energy on my single relationship.

4) It means that one of the most important things about a relationship to me is knowing we both come home to each other at the end of the day, every day. I want one person to be at the center of my life and my plans, and I want to know that I’m at the center of theirs.

Do any of these ring true? More than one? Do they capture the whole story or is there something I’m missing? I’m just curious about what monogamy means to people who choose it.