Savagely Exploding Monogamy

I meant to quote this Dan Savage comment when he first wrote it on his blog in response to the Mark Sanford and Jon and Kate scandals, and then he ended up putting it in his column, so I missed out on the timeliness factor, but it's still quite good and relevant:

A new euphemism: When someone cheats on a spouse, that should be known as "hiking the Appalachian Trail" in honor of South Carolina governor Mark Sanford.

But I have to say that Adultery Confessional Theater is getting tired. Can our culture start to deflate the drama on extramarital affairs a little? Bill Clinton, Eliot Spitzer, Larry Craig, Jon and Kate, John Ensign, Mark Sanford: Yes, it sucks if kids are involved and it often leads to divorce. But I wonder if setting the panic bar a bit lower wouldn't save more marriages. Maybe we should embrace the fact that few of us will remain monogamous over the long life of a marriage.

Anne In NJ

I'm with you, AINJ: At the bottom of all these sex scandals—Sanford, Ensign, Spitzer, et al.—is our unnatural fixation on monogamy. Human beings, male or female, aren't wired to be sexually monogamous, and the feigned shock with which we're required to greet each new revelation of infidelity on the part of an elected official, a reality-show star, or a sports figure would be comical if the costs weren't so great. Elevating monogamy over all else—insisting that it, and it alone, is the sole measure of love and devotion—destroys countless marriages, families, and careers.

Which is not to say that people shouldn't honor their commitments or that there aren't folks out there capable of remaining monogamous over the five-decade course of a marriage or that the hypocrisy of assholes like Sanford—who called on President Clinton to resign during Monicagate—isn't worthy of censure. But think of all the people who've cheated and gotten caught. Now think about all the people who've cheated and gotten away with it. Our idealized notions about sex—within marriage and without—are at war with who and what we are. Sex is powerful; relationships are fragile. Why on earth do we insist on pitting them against each other?

The only part I'd push back against is his claim that humans aren't wired to be sexually monogamous. I have no idea how we are wired, if we are all wired the same, or if there are a significant number of outliers (and if these outliers are the consistently monogamous ones or the polyamorous ones), but there is clearly something wrong with the social expectation of life-long monogamy. It is totally unrealistic to the point of being laughable, and seems to lead to more frustration and family disintegration than if the expectation didn't exist at all. I understand some people have trouble dealing with their petty jealousies, but maybe they should try a little Don't Ask, Don't Tell instead of the nuclear option?

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On Wiring

The best evidence suggests that humans, like most other vertebrates, are not exclusive in their sexual relationships. But there's also good reason to believe that, despite our sexual infidelity, we're "wired" to act otherwise. So for those who are inclined to cite our biological underpinnings, it's important to consider more than just one aspect. We benefit from being sexually liberal while appearing sexually conservative.

As I said, I don't know

As I said, I don't know enough about our biological underpinnings to conclude either way, but I am very skeptical of claims that start off with a description of how we evolved a long time ego in societies very different from our own that somehow end up determining how we must or should behave today. Whatever constraints our biological underpinnings may create for us, as enlightened beings we might want to strive for honesty over deceit. Deceit seems pretty unhealthy.

Perhaps we are wired to be

Perhaps we are wired to be unfaithful ourselves, but demand fidelity from others.

It is a commonplace that "ought implies is", or one should not demand the impossible. I think fighting against the current is often futile, so best just to channel imperfections in the least destructive manner. Making it infeasible to maintain deceit through the expansion of common knowledge may be one way.

Re: Perhaps we are wired to be

To your first point, I think that's true, but we are also attempting to appear faithful, so as not to invoke the wrath of those who demand it from us. So being deceitful is, in fact, to our (evolutionary) advantage.

To your second point, I wouldn't even attempt to derive an ought from any of this. It is what it is. My earlier post was just an attempt to explain why it is that people are so hung up on politicians sex lives. I think it's largely due to our biological double-standard, not because we're simply a prudish culture. Though I'm sure culture plays a role.

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