I wrote this ages ago for The Big Issue, but it's not online anymore and I wanted to show someone. So I'm posting it here.
Woman lives but in her lord;
Count to ten, and man is bored.
Count to ten, and man is bored.
There’s a school of thought that says a man begins his reproductive years young, dumb and full of cum. A woman, on the other hand, will road test a few men to get a sense of her options, then wind up with Mr Good As It Gets. At first, these two lovebirds are all over each other, but eventually – after a couple of years – it all gets a bit samey. She’s happy enough – sex is better when you really know each other, she tells her friends – while he’s either boning a compliant colleague or wishing he were. As the father of modern psychology William James put it: Higamous, hogamous, woman monogamous / Hogamous, higamous, man is polygamous.
Unfortunately, Dr James didn’t expect a development that was to, among other things, make the CSI franchise the televisual success story it is today – DNA testing.
You want monogamy? Marry a swan.
Nora Ephron, Heartburn
Nora Ephron, Heartburn
To work out what makes humans monogamous – and unfaithful – scientists have long observed the behaviour of other monogamous animal species. As it turns out, monogamy is pretty rare among mammals – there’s us, and few dozen others species – but common in the bird word. And birds are perfect for observational purposes – they don’t indulge in such experiment-skewing practices as popping a morning-after pill or opening several separate internet accounts.
What the swab-swiping biologists discovered was nothing short of a revolution. Yes, males are just as likely to seek sex outside their primary relationship as we’d thought. But – and here’s the surprise – females are also frequently unfaithful to their partners. With many bird species at least, the truth is not that males are polygamous and females monogamous, but that both genders are socially monogamous – they live and rear children within couples – and both are happy to avail themselves of extra-pair sex when opportunity presents.
There were clues, even before DNA testing. In their 2001 bestseller, The Myth of Monogamy, biologist David Barash and psychiatrist Judith Lipton describe a 1975 experiment where an American research team sterilized a number of male red-wing blackbirds to see whether this would help control their expanding population. It didn’t. In fact, a large proportion of the female partners of the infertile males miraculously managed to produce chicks anyway. Barash and Lipton speculate that male biologists may not have fully explored the ramifications of this research because of their own “unspoken anxiety” about female infidelity.
But DNA testing showed us that the bird species scientists thought were models of monogamy were in fact fully-fledged swingers. One study, amongst Australian fairy wrens, found that a staggering 95 per cent of all nest contained at least one chick sired by fathers from outside the immediate flock. Female fairy wrens are generally the initiators in these extra-pair matings. Now you can see where those unspoken anxieties are coming from.
Wives in their husbands' absences grow subtler,
And daughters sometimes run off with the butler.
And daughters sometimes run off with the butler.
There are many reasons why males have a strong desire for sexual variety, but most of them stem from the idea that sperm is more plentiful and biologically cheaper to produce than eggs, and hence a less valuable resource. So while males can afford to splash it about and hope for the best as far as reproduction goes, the ladies need to be choosy. (Unsettlingly, in the month is takes me to release one egg, my partner can produce billions of sperm.)
What we now know is that it is also in the biological interests of females to seek extra-pair sex as males. Sperm may be plentiful, but that’s because a female needs plenty of it. If a male has only twenty million sperm per ejaculate he’s generally considered infertile. Having sex with more than one mate during fertile periods increases the chances of conception, and of the best stuff reaching the egg.
Sperm quality and difference are the aphrodisiacs here. Females need the social security of a pair-bond, but they can generally get a higher class of fellow from extra-pair sex – as we’ve already seen, males will do it with pretty much anybody, so a male may mate casually with a female that he wouldn’t necessarily pursue as a partner. Females also have a “strange male” preference – a desire to mate with newcomers or males from different localities over the local boys.
Studies also show that females of many socially monogamous species will seek out extra-pair sex with a male who has nothing more to offer than that he is popular with other females – a chick magnet. Think Sandy Freckle in Kath and Kim. He was thin-lipped and frankly revolting, but somehow the fact that he’d seduced all Kel’s other fiancés made Kath feel like her head was “screwed on backwards”.
The interesting thing is that humans are not the only species to believe males are by far the more unfaithful gender. Among many socially monogamous species, males don’t always bother to disguise extra-pair sex, but females will go to great lengths to keep it hush-hush. According to Barash and Lipton, a female macaque monkey (another monogamous mammal) deserves an Oscar for the nonchalance she affects after a quick extra-pair romp in the underbrush. Meanwhile, her male lover will immediately cover his still erect penis with his hand. Being caught in the act can be damaging for males, but it is generally disastrous for females – in the animal world, no one wants to be a single mum.
So for your face I have exchanged all faces
What does this all bird biology mean, then, for us? About a year ago, I found myself staring at my partner and thinking: I may never have sex with anyone else ever again. There’s a lot of hope and horror in that; a lot of comfort and doubt. What if I get bored? What if I fall for someone else? What if he does? Is it really love, I wonder, to demand such sacrifice of each other? Or is it just a pact with fear – I’ll promise if you promise, because while frankly I’d love to, I couldn’t bear it if you did.
And why, given the instinctive desire to be unfaithful, do people persist with monogamy in the first place? Like birds, humans instinctively want to shag, and we want to shag a variety of people. But, for some reason, right when we’re at our most shaggable, we give it all up and cleave to one person until we’re creaky and crinkly and no longer attractive. What’s more, monogamy requires ignoring culture’s deafening cues to do whatever feels right, and be mature in a world that no longer values maturity.
One answer to the mystery of monogamy is that there aren’t particularly great alternatives. Communes and other movements that advocate sexual freedom frequently crumble because, faced with freedom, men and women still persist in falling in love. Open marriages have never really taken off – there is no antidote to jealousy, it seems. Men sometimes advocate a harem approach – forgetting that that would probably mean that Richard Branson and Rupert Murdoch would have hundreds of partners, while most ordinary blokes would have none.
Even serial monogamy doesn’t really work. Falling in love or into sexual obsession with someone floods are bodies with hormones. They’re the “going crazy” hormones – the ones that send you staring into space for hours at a time and absentmindedly putting the kettle in the fridge. Sure, it feels fantastic, but eventually you’ll need to find the kettle again.
Infidelity is such a problem because we take monogamy for granted; we treat it as the norm. Perhaps we should take infidelity for granted, assume it with unharassed ease. Then we would be able to think about monogamy.
Unlike birds, homo sapiens have the balls to argue with biology. The human experience of monogamy and infidelity is where instinct and consciousness collide. The truth is we want socially monogamous, sexually slack relationships for no other reason than it is our biological interests. But that being the case, we have built up around this system uniquely human constructions – marriage and mortgages and Jennifer Aniston movies. And we’ve tried to contain our lusts with virtues like restraint, fidelity and commitment.
These qualities have gone out a fashion, and frankly, that’s been a good thing. Historically, men have built invisible chastity belts out of virtues like restraint and used them to control women. But perhaps with our new knowledge of bird life we can revamp the old-fashioned idea of being good. We know now that monogamy is difficult for both sexes, but rather than get stuck in a hole where infidelity is sinful and fidelity impossible, we can build new structures that accept the former while striving for the later.
Many of the people I spoke to while writing this article – both male and female – posited that infidelity only happens when the core relationship is unhappy. That’s not entirely untrue – people in unhappy couples do seem more likely to commit adultery, and those more happily mated are more likely to resist temptation for fear of upsetting their union. But it’s not entirely true either – many people are unfaithful purely for sexual variety.
Infidelity happens. “It’s really hard to pin down what percentage of people have affairs,” says Rosalie Pattenden, a psychologist at Relationships Australia, “but there’s a general acceptance that it happens in around 30 to 40 per cent of long term relationships.” But this doesn’t mean monogamy isn’t a worthwhile goal. To understand what drives infidelity, and – perhaps hardest of all – to not take it personally if it does happen, can only strengthen and deepen one’s experience of being in a relationship.
There’s another answer to the mystery of monogamy – it does us good. As well as writing The Myth of Monogamy and several other books together, Lipton and Barash have also been married 30 years. It’s with some experience, then, that they tell us “the fruits of shared imagination may be beautiful”.
Monogamy may make sex less sexy, but it can make it more meaningful. It makes us – and our children – feel safe, secure, known and loved. And it means we can take time out from the relentless routine of getting laid and focus us on the making and doing and creating stuff. If love is a battlefield, then monogamy is our grand old warhorse. There are chinks in its breastplate, but it’s still our best chance of getting across that field alive.