by Liam Scheff
– The American Anti-Role Model (But Secret Role Model)
I’m reading “Sex at Dawn,” by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá (Link ), and it’s cracking open a long thought I’ve had for about 24 years (or all my life), and settling a bet or question I’ve had that long time.
Monogamy. “One marriage or partner for life.”
Does it exist? It is forced upon us at every angle – by ridiculous movies like “My Best Friend’s Wedding,” in which a cynical Julia Roberts returns to her on-and-off again “guy pal” with whom she shared “everything” for a period of her life. She’s not back to “make it legal” with him, but to observe his wedding to Cameron Diaz, who is bubbly and hideously annoying. By the end of the film, she has to choke down the homily of ‘happily ever after,’ as she watches her past-‘best friend’ jump into the wed-lock of another’s legs, arms and psyche.
The film is supposed to sell us on marriage – but what it clearly demonstrates is the ‘multi-marriage’ nature of Julia Robert’s character, and that of her ‘best friend,’ first to her, then to a new wife. At its center, it’s a movie about Julia’s jealousy about sharing her previous lover.
The film asks us to lie to ourselves and pretend this couple was never was never sexually intimate — but only ‘best friends’ who promised each other a ‘last chance’ eventual marriage. In reality, these friendships are common, and full of affection and sex; ie — they screwed liberally, and were open and honest with each other! Hence “best friends,” and not “married.” But, we see that our movies treat us like we’re infants.
– Hey! So good to see you! Let’s fuck! And then talk! You’re what?? Are you crazy??
Then we have “Hitch,” in which Will Smith plays a ‘teacher-of-men’ on how to woo women and “win” them (by playing a game, straight out of “The Rules.”) The film manages to demonstrate little except the power of immature attraction: ie, that when people have very little in common, but desire, they make desperate, foolish attempts to throw themselves, insanely, into a LIFE-LONG binding relationship, forsaking all future bits of desire, stimulation or, gasp – love and affection.
– God, I hate you. Let’s fuck.
On the negative, and perhaps more honest side – we have our mirrors in modern literature (aka television), “The Sopranos,” and “Mad Men,” and our avatars there, Tony Soprano and Don Draper. Here we see men who roam quite freely, without much shame, whose wives end up doing the same at times. They are both ‘rotten’ and ‘noble’ to the viewer, because they seem to embrace something that is unable to be suppressed – that thing we call “human nature,” or “our natural inclinations.” That the feeling for some sexual freedom accompanies, in their character, a number of rather sadistic or ignoble traits allows us to excuse their sexual dalliances, as though having many affections were the same thing as being a mafioso, or lying for a living.
– I know you want to.
We’re even lied to by documentaries about the natural world. “March of the Penguins” was trotted out to the world as a symbol of the ‘human-ness’ of penguin love. Devoted to their egg and child, long-suffering, cuddling and nuzzling each other through the long care-taking process. But when the camera shut off, and as soon as the chick is a year old, the adults who stuck together through sleet and storm, immediately all get a ‘no fault’ divorce and get busy with new partners. (Link) (Maybe we are more like them than the producers wanted to admit?)
– Man, glad that’s over. Let’s fuck!
Ryan and Jethá let us know that our ‘sciences’ have been tainted by psychological projection. “Scientists” (oh, they get away with too much) have projected their own wishful thinking and tortuous psychology onto the animal and tribal human world. But deeper study unravels reality from the web of Judeo-Christian fiction.
For example, ornithologists believed that almost all birds were ‘pair-bonded’ for life. But thanks to cheap DNA testing, ninety percent of the songbirds that we ‘believed’ to be so are now revealed not to be – and to be raising another bird’s chick. But have no fear! Birds, as a group, go on just fine, (when we’re not irradiating or spraying them). How do they survive their sexual freedom? (They do quite well, thank you.)
Monogamy. What does it mean? One partner, husband or wife – or lover – for life? Certainly we don’t even mean that. We allow ourselves a generally ‘free’ period in early life where human nature (poly-amorous or multi-partner) is allowed to happily exert itself — until the axe comes down, we ‘grow up,’ ‘settle down’ and stuff our unmet needs and feelings into … hobbies, activities, gossip clutches, strip clubs, pornography, sadness, unmet desire, marital dysfunction, grossly-excessive vicarious television watching, etc, etc, etc.
So, does it exist?
I’ve never seen it. I mean, no one I’ve ever met has ever achieved being – or wanting to be monogamous for life. To lift from the book: What does that say about us – that we need so many rules, so many compromises, tax-incentives, group-support, allowances for failures small and large – to be conscripted into something that is supposedly perfectly ‘natural?’
I think women tend to want to be monogamous – in this culture – through child-bearing years – but after that? It rarely holds. I doubt that most people are ‘swingers,’ I doubt that most want to wife or husband swap regularly (although many do). I just observe that most people hide their little dalliances, feelings, flirtations, and desires from each other. (But if we’re built – designed – to be ‘monogamous’ – why does it require so much compromise and suffering?)
Why do we strap children to one mother, instead of letting them be raised by large, extended families? (That’s what tribal relationships allow.) We make everything property, including people – we, Americans, do not value autonomy of individuals, though we pretend that capitalism somehow makes us freer than other peoples.
The book provides many examples of more tribal groups who minimize jealousy instead of maximizing it, as we do. One group admonishes a young married couple on their wedding day to ‘not be jealous of each other’s lovers, and to remain married until the children are grown.’
Interesting difference, huh?
And instead of talking about theory or idealized example; think about all of the people you know, and how they lived their lives, how they practiced their relationships. If the relationship ended, you can count one against “monogamy.”
What these tribal groups had was the understanding that the group was bound together without these isolating, ‘nuclear’ marriages. There were no divorces. There was simply a time that you were with someone, and a time when you weren’t, and you were with someone else. And you could, in time, go back, and some of these ‘husband’ or ‘wife’ (or ‘friend’ relationships, as some call them) would be naturally stronger, and some naturally weaker – and that was life.
But no one ‘walked away and abandoned’ anybody. That’s not what “monogamy” gives, nor what the ancient tribal, hunter-gatherer reality of ‘non-monogamy’ meant. (There are variations from tribe to tribe: Polygynous – “Gyny” (woman) – multi-wife. Polyandry’ (andro – male) means ‘many husbands.’ And multi-husband, multi-wife.)
I wonder what life would be like here if the primary obligation of all parents wasn’t to an archaic notion of property-holding – but it was to the future of the group – ie, the raising of children by adults; the getting of materials and provisions for the feeding of the group by adults. And not the continued isolation, the ‘re-nucleization’ of individuals into small boxes with TVs and video games – as though there were no neighbors, no village, no community?
I strongly recommend the book by Ryan and Jethá, “Sex at Dawn,” to broaden and deepen this discussion. Our society is changing. We need to find a way to keep our collectives together, to raise children regardless of paternity, and to support each other and minimize useless, childish jealousy. It’s either that, or we return to stoning the infidels among us, who dare let their hearts out for a walk once in awhile.
Or, try this for a mind-blowing experience: “Chinese Tribe Without Marriage Points to Future.”
Liam Scheff is journalist, non-monogamous-over-a-lifetime human, and author of “Official Stories,” because “official stories exist to protect officials.”