Does Monogamy Require Superhuman Strength?

Hugo Schwyzer tackles a new book by Eric Anderson, which claims that men are by nature polyamorous creatures, and attempting to stay within the confines of a monogamous relationship will almost certainly lead to resentment or straying.

Is monogamy an unattainable ideal? According to increasingly popular wisdom, it seems to be. One new book suggests that men (whether gay or straight) are particularly incapable of remaining faithful for extended periods of time. The end result of this disconnect between the expectation of fidelity and men’s inability to stay monogamous is heartache and disillusionment. The sooner we let go of the monogamy ideal, the happier we’ll all be. 

That’s the argument made by sociology professor Eric Anderson in his new book The Monogamy Gap: Men, Love, and the Reality of Cheating. Most men enter into heterosexual monogamous relationships planning to stay faithful, Anderson writes, but soon become “habituated” to their partners. Males are built to crave sexual novelty, he claims, and when deprived of the opportunity to licitly encounter new skin, guys begin to feel “sexually incarcerated.” The end result is almost certainly resentment, cheating, or both. 

Anderson’s prescription is “sexually open relationships…in an egalitarian manner, a couple reserves emotional fidelity, while structuring in rules for extra-dyadic, recreational sex.” Jealousy, he insists, won’t be a problem, as the green-eyed monster is all bound up with our irrational fealty to monogamy. Let go of the belief in sexual exclusivity, he cheerfully assures his readers, and know that “open relationships can wither jealousy scripts that lead to emotional distress in a relationship.” One wonders who’s being more naïve: those who continue to believe in the viability of monogamy, or Anderson, who believes that jealousy will vanish entirely once we let go of the monstrous regimen of the one-man, one-woman ideal.

Anderson roots his critique of monogamy not in a philosophical objection, but in a biological one—in his view, the vast majority of men lack the ability to remain sexually faithful to one person. Men want to stay loyal, Anderson notes, not only out of fear of a partner’s jealous rage but also out of a genuine romantic belief in extended sexual exclusivity. Alas, while the generous male spirit is willing, the flesh (in the form of testosterone, Y chromosomes, and so forth) is weak. Monogamy, in other words, is a colossal, unnatural “overask” for men.

The idea that monogamy is an unnatural invention that ought to be abandoned is an old one. The philosophe Denis Diderot made essentially the same argument in the mid-18th century. Many advocates for polyamory and other forms of open relationships make similar cases. Anderson’s thesis is slightly different, and more pernicious. Unlike Diderot (and many in the poly community), Anderson isn’t arguing that the problem with monogamy is that it’s a bad idea that limits human freedom. Rather, he seems to be suggesting that lifelong exclusivity is a charming aspiration—but a thoroughly unattainable one because of men’s nature.

Anderson’s insistence that men find monogamy more difficult than do women is problematic. While he believes that heterosexual open relationships should have room for both partners to have “extra-dyadic recreational sex,” he implies that monogamy is easier for women. The implication is that a woman ought to explore open relationships less for her own sexual fulfillment than as a means of guaranteeing an honest relationship with her male partner. One woman in an open marriage to whom I spoke spluttered in indignation after reading Anderson’s thesis. “It’s the old sexual double standard,” she exclaimed, “this time in the supposed service of healthier relationships. He’s slut-shaming women who are as sexually adventurous as men!”

Much like many of the men Anderson interviewed, I was enchanted by monogamy as a young man. I got into my first serious relationship with a girl when I was barely 17; I was married for the first time at 23 and divorced three times by my 35th birthday. Over and over again, I made promises that I soon broke. For a while, I convinced myself that I was a helpless victim of overwhelming impulses; I liked thinking of myself as a well-intentioned romantic hopelessly incapable of resisting temptation. Eventually, however, I realized that I’d bought into a myth about male weakness. I did have a choice about whether to cheat or not. And I chose to stop cheating. It wasn’t that my testosterone was lower, or my will suddenly superhuman. Fidelity became possible once I made the decision to stop buying a lie about my nature as a man. 

I’ve been in a monogamous relationship for 10 years, married for almost seven. I’ve been faithful that entire time. It’s impossible to prove a negative, so of course, I can’t prove that I’ve never cheated on the woman who is now my wife. No one can ever prove his or her fidelity to the point of absolute certainty. Anderson takes full advantage of the inevitable doubt that results from our inability to know whether any man has been as faithful as he claims. Therein lies the cynical appeal of his book: men lie because the unrealistic demands of monogamy make them into liars. Liberate them to have recreational sexual novelty while retaining the benefits of emotional connection with one person, Anderson suggests, and the reward for women and children will be boyfriends, husbands, and fathers who will happily tell the truth because they no longer have any reason to be dishonest.

That sells woefully short those many men who can and do match their private actions to their public pronouncements.

Adrienne Rich, who died last week, coined the term “compulsory heterosexuality” to describe the constellation of forces that rendered gay and lesbian desire invisible and impossible. Similarly, Anderson rightly describes a culture of nearly compulsory monogamy that shames people out of choosing other options. But just as gay and lesbian liberation didn’t rest on dismissing the possibility of opposite-sex desire, there’s no reason why acceptance of polyamory or open marriage should require the “dissing” of monogamy as a viable alternative for some.

All sexual relationships, even the most transitory, require negotiation and compromise. Whether sexually open or erotically exclusive, every relationship involves a certain degree of self-sacrifice. I honor the reality that people can find profound spiritual, physical, and psychological satisfaction in non-exclusive sexual relationships. I would like it very much if the Eric Andersons of the world would be as accepting of those of us who do find monogamy to be the most fulfilling of all possible arrangements.

Hugo Schwyzer has taught history and gender studies at Pasadena City College since 1993, where he developed the college’s first courses on Men and Masculinity and Beauty and Body Image. A writer and speaker as well as a professor, Hugo lives with his wife, daughter, and six chinchillas in Los Angeles. Hugo blogs at his eponymous website and co-authored the recent autobiography of supermodel Carré Otis, Beauty, Disrupted.

Related Links: