Throughout existence, love and sexual exclusivity has traveled together with mixed results. In the interest of personification, Love and Sex have done the cohab thing. They’ve lived apart. They’ve fought. Hugged. Danced. Met each other’s fams. They’ve even masterminded a crime or two. It has been nearly undisputed in mainstream culture of their link to each other.
Cain and Abel.
Marvin and Tammi.
Palin and the Tea Party.
Love and Monogamy.
Well, according to author Christopher Ryan, the latter two concepts are not necessarily linked. Not groundbreaking stuff, but he goes even further. Being faithful to a partner in modern times clash against biological instincts, he says. Monogamy today is akin to the evolving structure of our eating habits from eating meat to only eating vegetables:
“All the evidence points to the fact that we’ve evolved as omnivores, but that doesn’t mean that living as an omnivore in today’s world is inherently superior than choosing to be a vegetarian. Being a vegetarian can make perfect sense, it can be ethical, healthy and smart — but it’s not going to come naturally, right?”
It’s easy to write off Ryan’s musings as whimsical and apologetic of succumbing to the unmitigated desires of the flesh. His view isn’t supported by hardcore (quantitative) research; more by broad generalizations of hunter-gatherers and the evolution thereof. If you wanted to use that deficiency to knock his theory, I wouldn’t blame you.
However, I won’t do that. Ryan doesn’t claim to know the answer to relationship bliss or harmony. He seems to be careful about coming to such a conclusion. The book that elaborates on this, Sex at Dawn, is co-written with his wife, Cacilda Jethá. Although they haven’t admitted to an open relationship, Ryan stated the issue of monogamy is a “live issue for us.”
Throughout life, we are constantly assessing, acting and altering. We determine what feels good to us, what’s good for us and try to close the gap between the two. Many of us die trying. For the lucky few, that gap becomes nonexistent.
From dietary changes to sexual habits, it’s unavoidable. The sedentary lady told by the doctor that her lack of exercise will result in health issues has a choice to make. The guy busted by his woman but doesn’t want to lose her has to decide if keeping her is worth the change. For those who do change and adapt, the scent of old habits will always have its allure, even on the most miniscule levels.
“Just because you’ve decided to become vegetarian doesn’t make you an herbivore. You’re an omnivore who’s chosen to live as a vegetarian, but bacon is still gonna smell good and you shouldn’t feel guilty about that.” – Ryan
Here’s where things get testy. Implying that vegetarianism is newer and more unnatural flies in the face of anthropological studies over the years claiming the opposite. He also implies that meat is more exciting and desirable (obvious pun notwithstanding). Well, he does more than “imply.” It’s damn near stated.
I imagine this idea won’t gain much traction among those wary of male privilege’s ugly symptoms, simply because it does nothing to address ancient gender stereotypes where men tend to come out on top. If this attitude was to catch on, and women acted accordingly (being liberated sexual beings as their counterparts), the stigma would remain. So in a way, “vegetarianism as monogamy” reeks of patriarchal rubbish passed down from generation to generation, backed by pseudo-science and a woman’s face (the co-author of the book) to sell it.
Of course I’m not that cynical. At its heart, this issue explores the relationship between “what is natural” and “what is cultural.” Depending on the context, the two are not mutually exclusive. Whether monogamy is “good” or “bad” is another question, which often gets placed to the forefront of these debates.
If anything, time has shown that our knowledge of love and relations can be bankrupt. People seem to have an answer when it comes to the science of sharing space with another person of interest. But science is fortified through trial and error. In the case of a couple questioning the laws of monogamy, chalk this up to exploration.
However, there is a vital component “studies” like this often neglect to examine. Let’s concede the argument that the way people lived in pre-agricultural communities may have embraced polygamy or sharing. That still doesn’t address its relation to modern context. Monogamy didn’t just catch on because of religious dogma and government. It also caught on because of the explosion of industrial capitalism.
Monogamy leads to the formation of families, which is a safeguard against the demands of a market economy, where currency trumps the non-market value of love. Can human families thrive without monogamy (or striving toward it) in the current milieu?
Could a polygamous culture (with its emphasis on non-attachment and loose multiple connections) instill children with a sense of commitment, service and cordial relations, skills that are needed to ensure a well-ran economy?
As faulty as our definitions of relationships can be, this much goes without saying: It’s as big a biological need to be a part of a supportive family as it is to eat, copulate and procreate. (Among those biological needs is survival, as monogamy can be effective at thwarting sexually transmitted diseases).
Any issue that addresses non-monogamy and its “evolutionary changes” have to take these questions into account. Otherwise, it risks being blown away with the flotsam of liberal fancy.