Perhaps you’re thinking you don’t know any non-monogamous people. But I wouldn’t be too sure.
There’s no longer anything unusual about wanting an open relationship. Many who consider themselves progressive about sex, gender, love and relationships know this. It’s just that almost nobody in an open relationship wants to be open about it. What’s surprising is that so many people feel the need for secrecy.
I’ve been out as polyamorous for years. Because of this, non-monogamous people who aren’t out often feel able to talk to me about their own situations. When I go to conferences, I can’t help noticing all the philosophers who are in closeted non-monogamous relationships. This discrepancy between reality and socially acknowledged reality can be disorienting; the ‘official’ number of non-monogamous people in the room is almost always one (me).
So what’s going on? No doubt there are several factors at work, but I want to talk about one that’s both powerful and insidious: non-monogamy isn’t considered ‘romantic’.
Romantic love is widely considered to be the best thing life has to offer: ‘failing’ at romance is often construed as failing at life. Amatonormativity is a name for the attitude that privileges lives based around a focal monogamous romantic relationship. What gets called ‘romantic’ isn’t just about classification; it’s about marking out those relationships and lives we value most.
This monogamous ideal is supposed to appeal to women especially. According to the stereotypes, single women are desperate to ‘lock down’ a man, while men are desperate to avoid commitment. There’s nothing new here: monogamy has historically been gendered. Even in situations where marrying more than one woman has been illegal, it has often been normal for men to have mistresses, but different rules have applied to women. This is unsurprising: in a patriarchal society with property inheritance passing along the male line, paternity is key, and enforced female monogamy is an effective way to control it.
Women’s sexuality can also be policed by developing a feminine model that includes a ‘natural’ desire for monogamy, plus social benefits for conforming to that model (and penalties for non-conformity). This model can then be internalised by women as a ‘romantic’ ideal inculcated via fairytales. In a similar vein, rather than allowing only men to have more than one partner, we can instil a subtler cultural belief that men’s infidelity is ‘natural’ and therefore excusable, while women’s infidelity is not.
Our language undermines gender-related optimism about monogamous romantic ideals: there is no word for a male ‘mistress’; romantic comedies are ‘chick flicks’. ‘Romance’ novels are marketed to and consumed by women. Brides are ‘given away’ by men to other men. We never hear about ‘crazy old cat gentlemen’. And how many married men do you know who’ve taken their wife’s surname? These attitudes persist not just in word but in deed: wives in hetero marriages still do more housework than their husbands, even if they earn more (which they rarely do).
Recent growing acceptance of same-sex love as ‘romantic’ has presented challenges to gendered norms. But this has happened alongside another change: monogamy has become an even more powerful ‘romantic’ ideal by including same-sex relationships. And its impact is intensely gendered.
Women who enter voluntarily into non-monogamous relationships are a direct challenge to the idea that women are ‘naturally’ monogamous. They are socially penalised to maintain the status quo. A non-monogamous woman will be portrayed as debased and disgusting – a ‘slut’. When I have discussed my open relationships online, I have been called a ‘cum-dumpster’, a ‘degenerate herpes-infested whore’, and many other colourful names.
My internet trolls focus on sex, partly because presenting non-monogamous relationships as ‘just sex’ makes it easier to degrade them, and partly because women who violate the monogamy norm – whose sexuality is out of (someone’s) control – are a threat to an ancient feeling of entitlement over women’s sexuality and reproductive potential. In contrast, a non-monogamous man is, at least sometimes, liable to be regarded as a ‘stud’.
Apart from monogamy, the only other relationship structure that controls paternity in a similar way is patriarchal polygamy, which is stigmatised in contemporary North America, for reasons including bona fide feminism as well as racism and cultural imperialism. One effect of this is that monogamy is seen as the only fair and liberal alternative.
Actually, there are many alternatives. But to tolerate them is to tolerate widespread social uncertainty about who is having sex with whom. This would extend to everything sex is entangled with, and everything it represents. Our ideals of ‘romantic’ love regulate not just our expectations about sex but also our conceptions of family and the nature of parenthood.
Ultimately, what we call ‘romantic’ is a philosophical issue that touches on the core of who we (think we) are, and what we value. I believe that the ‘romantic-ness’ of romantic love is largely socially constructed, and as such malleable. We collectively write the ‘script’ that determines the shape of the privileged (‘romantic’) relationship style. This script has changed, and will continue to change. But currently that process goes on largely below the radar: we aren’t supposed to see it happening, or realise that we can control it. Romantic love maintains a wholly ‘natural’ image, evading challenge or critical scrutiny by seeming inevitable, incomprehensible and wonderful.
We must get beyond this. We need to question the limits we have placed on what counts as a ‘romantic’ relationship. Freedom to love – the right to choose one’s own relationships without fear, shame or secrecy – is critical, not just for individuals but for us all collectively. Non-conformity is the mechanism that reshapes the social construct to better represent who we are, and who we want to be. Instead of forcing our relationships to conform to what society thinks love is, we could force the image of love to conform to the realities of our relationships.
But it won’t be easy. If the love of a polyamorous triad is seen as ‘romantic’, and hence as valuable as the love of a monogamous couple, then the triad should have the same social and legal privileges as the couple. How could we deny them the right to be co-parents? How could we defend the legal or financial benefits of monogamous marriage, or the lack of legal recourse for anyone fired for being polyamorous? These are the privileges by which we signal to monogamous couples and nuclear family units that theirs are the most socially valuable social configurations.
Nor could we defend the countless ways in which non-monogamous people are stigmatised and rejected. My boyfriend’s father no longer speaks to him about anything but the weather because he is in a polyamorous relationship with me. An extended family member literally prayed over me when she learned that I was non-monogamous, feeling an urgent need to ask Jesus to ‘save’ me from this ‘culture’. Stigma against non-monogamy is beyond a joke: researchers have uncovered assumptions that the non-monogamous are just bad people: less likely to walk their dogs, or floss their teeth.
It’s far easier to pretend that this is not really happening. Or that it’s not really a big deal. Perhaps you feel that way right now: perhaps you’re thinking you don’t know any non-monogamous people. But I wouldn’t be too sure. Until quite recently, an awful lot of people thought that all their friends and relatives were straight.
This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.
A groundbreaking study from a Harvard University team suggests that monogamy may be genetically programmed within some mammals.
Evolutionary anthropology has for some time tried to understand what natural relationship pattern humans follow, if there is one. In his book Sex at Dawn psychologist Christopher Ryan posits that our prehistoric ancestors practiced multiple kinds of sexual and romantic relationships.
Monogamy became a social institution and one that made sense. Polygamy was the most common practice in the ancient world, but it made women a commodity. Rich men could keep multiple wives for themselves, whole harems, which caused a lot of strife among others, fighting over those who were left. Monogamy however, eliminated this problem and helped seed societal stability.
Even so, multiple societies around the world still practice different forms of pair bonding other than monogamy. Even the most strident monogamist will admit that marriage can prove difficult. There’s things like the four year slump and the seven year itch. Some evolutionary biologists have explained these as a cessation of the pair bonding process.
When we were hunter-gatherers, we traveled in tight-knit bands. Children were raised not only by their parents but by the whole village itself. When the child was old enough to be a little more independent, the parents were free to go off and explore other relationships.
According to renowned anthropologist and love expert Dr. Helen Fisher, there are actually four different, unique personality types when it comes to human love. Each is driven by a preponderance of a certain neurochemical or hormone in the person’s system. And some are better suited for monogamy than others.
In this case, nature may have made some people naturally polyamorous and others monogamous, to ensure stability for raising children, while at other times, ensuring variety within the gene pool and to that end, aiding our survival.
Is there an evolutionary basis for cheating? Getty Images.
Now, a groundbreaking study published in the journal Nature suggests that monogamy may be genetically programmed within us, or at least in mice, to ensure offspring receive proper care. “Parental care is essential for the survival of mammals, yet the mechanisms underlying its evolution remain largely unknown,” the authors write. Researchers at Harvard University studied two breeds of mice to arrive at this conclusion.
The first was the oldfield mouse (Peromyscus polionotus), one of those rare monogamous animals. Only 5% of mammals practice monogamy. Both sexes of this breed are known to be doting parents. They will, together, build an elaborate nest for their young and lick or clean them.
The second breed was the deer mouse (Peromyscus maniculatus), who are promiscuous by nature, and look upon their oldfield cousins as helicopter parents. In most mammalian relationships, males mate with as many females as possible, but do little to help raise the offspring. What researchers discovered, by looking at these two mouse breeds, was distinct genetic variations, which coincided with each type’s relationship style.
Hopi E. Hoekstra was the senior author of the study. She’s an evolutionary biologist. Though oldfield and deer mice won’t mate in the wild, if a male and female are put into the same tank alone together, they will. The resulting offspring are healthy. It was a variety of such hybrids that led them to understand whether or not parenting and relationship styles are genetically influenced.
Is monogamy in our nature, polyamory, or a combination? Getty Images.
In a previous study, Hoekstra and her team took the pups of each type of mouse and placed them in each other’s nest. Researchers wanted to know if the mice acted this way because they were raised to tend to pups, or if each breed of mouse had an instinctual parenting style. The latter proved true. Once this was found, researchers went about investigating each type’s DNA.
They bred five mice, who created 30 hybrid offspring. These were bred and another 769 hybrid mice were born. Researchers looked at the second and third generations, to see what type of parenting each took up. Some put in minimal effort, others were completely aloof, and others still attentive parents. This wide variety of styles allowed researchers to hone into the mice’s DNA and find the differences. They came upon 12 areas or loci which were associated with parental instincts.
Researchers found that one loci controlled just one behavior, nest building, while others controlled more than one. These loci varied in terms of sex. One loci when activated, seemed to make fathers more attentive, but not mothers. Unfortunately, each loci carries many genes, so it’s hard to hunt down which is responsible for what behavior.
In their most recent study, these Harvard researchers looked at one biochemical in particular, vasopressin. This is a bonding neurotransmitter in many species, including rats and humans. Deer mice contain three times the amounts as oldfield mice, however. To find out what role it played, researchers injected oldfield mice with it. Instead of elaborate nests, they acted more like deer mice, and made simple ones. Yet, in terms of care, they were still doting parents.
Studies show that some may be better suited for monogamy than others. Getty Images.
According to their genetic research, the vasopressin gene only accounts for 6.7% of nest building instincts in male oldfield mice, and 2.9% in females. This opens the door to whether or not human pair bonding and parenting could be influenced by an instinct imprinted on our DNA. Though we’re a far cry from mice, we share many of the same neurotransmitters and hormones, along with other mammals.
Differences in biochemical makeup or neurotransmitters may signal how a species cares for its young, and whether it’s monogamous, promiscuous, or a mixture of the two. In exploring other species and working our way up, we may find out more about ourselves, even what relationship pattern or parenting style works best. Perhaps, we’ll find the genetic underpinnings of Dr. Fisher’s theory.
To learn what similar genetic underpinnings have so far been identified in our species, click here: