Multiple Sex Partners in Marriage? The Case for Sleeping Around

In Sex at Dawn, two psychologists (who happen to be married) argue that monogamy just doesn’t work.

Fifty percent of marriages end in divorce, adultery is rampant, and many married couples struggle to keep the passion alive. Is monogamy working?

In their best-selling book, Sex at Dawn—FOF Cacilda Jetha and her husband Christopher Ryan challenge the idea that we’re meant to be with one sexual partner for life. Ryan and Jetha—a psychologist and a psychiatrist–take a look back at the origins of human sexuality in an attempt to explain why we struggle with monogamy today. They argue that for hundreds-of-thousands of years, our ancestors had many sexual partners, and that monogamy is a relatively recent—and potentially destructive–social construct.

We spoke to Ryan about cheating, sex after fifty, and the future of marriage.

  • Why is monogamy challenging long term?
    • We differentiate between sexual and social monogamy. Many species are socially monogamous—meaning they have long-term mates—but almost none are sexually monogamous. Consider penguins, for example. Many people think penguins are monogamous, but in fact, while they do pair off into “couples” socially, they continue to have sex with multiple partners. Sexual monogamy runs counter to our biology. Human beings have the behavior, the habits, the minds, and the bodies of promiscuous primates. Any social structure that denies that essential nature is going to lead to problems.
  • Is Tiger Woods an example of what happens when we go against our biology?
    • Yes, of course. Cases like Tiger and Elliot Spitzer and Bill Clinton come to our attention because they are so high profile. The level of opportunity these men have is also much higher than the average man. Chris Rock said, “A man is only as faithful as his opportunities.”
  • Why don’t we see the same thing with high profile women? Do women cheat as much as men?
    • Women probably aren’t cheating as much as men because many women need narrative, intimacy—a complex package—to feel sexually relaxed and free. You’re not going to get that from a one-night stand. The other issue: Women have 10,000 years of accumulated sexual repression. Right now in Iran, they’re stoning women to death for adultery; clitorectomies are happening all over North Africa. As recently as 70 years ago, Western doctors were advocating applying acid to little girls’ clitorises if they masturbated. The third reason: Women are just smarter than men about stuff like this. They’re better at keeping a secret. They have a greater social intelligence than most men do.
  • ImageSo, if we didn’t have the 10,000 years of social pressure, would women be seeking out multiple partners?
    • Yes—no question. Because if you look at present-day societies that don’t have that repression—as we do in Sex at Dawn—you find women engaging in multiple simultaneous relationships with every bit as much eagerness as men. In fact, with more eagerness than men as they age. A researcher named Thomas Gregor studied the Mehinaku people of Brazil, a tribe of hunter-gatherers that is very similar to our prehistoric ancestors. He found 88 ongoing affairs among the 37 adults in the village. Above age 45 or so, it was all the women who were having the affairs.
  • Wow! Why do you think that is?
    • We would argue that as women get into and past midlife, a lot of the things that were holding them back sexually no longer apply. They’re more at peace with themselves, their bodies, their own sexual response and masturbation. Also, the relative level of testosterone in a woman’s blood gets higher as she ages, and testosterone is related to sexual satisfaction and libido.
  • You make it sound like a great time to be single in your 50s. There’s less pressure to get married, you don’t have to worry about raising a baby, you’re more sexually free.
    • Yes! My uncle is in his 60s, and he divorced my aunt 10 years ago and moved to Florida. He can’t say enough about how much fun he’s having down there. He says, “These women are just so free and willing to have fun and be happy. There are none of the hang-ups: ‘Do you love me? will you respect me in the morning?’
  • Could the younger generation take a lesson? Should they be dating like they’re in their 50s?
    • On one level that sounds great, but on another level, there are biological and economic realities that women have to face. You can’t minimize the difficulties of a woman in her late 20s who really wants to have kids and hasn’t found the man of her life. What women should be doing is agitating as much as possible for greater social support for motherhood, single-motherhood and for children.
  • Image

    So what’s the answer? Should we all just start sleeping around, even if we’re married?

    • It depends on you; your age, your relationship and your situation. First, recognize that desiring sexual variety is not a fatal flaw in your relationship or you. If your husband looks at another woman or if you fantasize about another man, that doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with your marriage. It means you’re homo sapiens.
    • Recently a female friend told me that she had an urge to be with other men, and she spoke to her husband about it. He completely surprised her by saying, ‘Look, as long as you love me and you’re not going to leave me, then, okay, that’s cool.’ It blew her mind and made her love him more than she ever imagined before. And she said it completely took the pressure off. This was five years ago, and she’s never actually acted on her desire or even wanted to. I think that by loosening the reigns, we often lose the desire to break free.
  • So, you’re saying, just address the elephant in the living room?
    • Exactly. I would only change that to the “elephant in the bedroom.”
  • Many FOF women have kids that are of “marrying age,” but aren’t as interested in marriage as previous generations. They’re more open to living together long term or having kids without getting married. How should FOFs react to this trend in their children?
    • The only tangible advantage to marriage—and this varies from state to state–is the financial commitment that the husband takes on, so if they do get divorced he’ll have to pay alimony. If the woman in question is financially secure, then I don’t think it matters one way or the other whether they’re married or not.
    • Women are becoming much more prominent in virtually all the important parts of American society, from politics to corporations to media. A recent article in The Atlantic—entitled, “The End of Men”—argues that modern society is simply better suited to women. They’re better at what’s required these days: social emotional intelligence. If you look at grad school and medical school it’s almost all lopsided towards women.
  • And FOFs are the women who started us on the course toward the trend.
    • Right, but those women were much more vulnerable financially when they were getting married. So it’s natural for a woman to worry about her daughter, whereas the daughter–given the new reality–will probably feel much more self-sufficient and protected. If this trend continues, which it seems it will, hopefully it will translate into greater social support for women and children so that will increase the freedom that women feel to have children without necessarily being dependent upon a particular man for that.
  • Somewhat ironically, you and Cacilda have been married for over 10 years. Do you practice what you preach?
    • Yes. Our relationship is informed by our research. That’s our stock answer.
Author
Christopher Ryan, Ph.D.Christopher Ryan, Ph.D., is the author of Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality.
Based in Barcelona since the mid-1990s, Christopher has lectured at the University of Barcelona Medical
School and worked as a consultant at various local hospitals. He’s given presentations around the world (in
both English and Spanish), and published peer commentaries, scientific and popular articles as well as book
chapters. Christopher contributes to both Psychology Today and Huffington Post.
  • peggyvan

    Sounds like the same old hippie dippie philosophy. Nothing new here…it didn’t work very well then, and probably not now either.

  • Barbann1964

    If we were animals it might be, but we aren’t, we are higher creations. You can not get sexually involved with someone and just involve your body, even if you build walls around your heart and mind, you still are giving away a precious part of your soul to just anyone, that is foolish. And like BlueBear said, too much drama. Also just because your over 50 doesn’t mean you can’t bring home something you can’t wash off. We are suppose to get wiser with age. Respect your self.

  • BlueBear

    If you are over fifty, you really don’t need this sort of drama in your life! Your sleeping around days were probably in your 20s and you look for a more settled existence in this turbulent word today. Nobody ever found happiness by simple falling into one bed after another!

  • sonsethues

    I read this article to my husband of thirty five years and my two sons twenty six and twenty one. They all agree this isn’t worth responding to because of them assuming we’re nothing more than animals. No wonder they came up with the conclusion they did. I thought that said enough. I wouldn’t buy the book much less read the book. Neither would my family.

  • Barbara-b

    I am a retired woman that spends 6 months in an RV Resort in Arizona. I have been married for 50 years. I still consider myself to be reasonably attractive. My friends are all beautiful woman of an advanced age. We still enjoy the company of our husbands/partners a great deal. Would we ever consider being “free and happy” with multiple partners in the way you describe…not on your life. In fact we all look around and think “Are you kidding me?”

    Maybe the need for a sustainable relationship is directly connected to our age. For some reason, I don’t think so!

    b

    http://www.retireinstyleblog.com

  • cygranger

    I’ve been married to my husband for over 30 years. Have we both been tempted to be with others? Of course, we are human. These two writers cheapen one of God’s greatest gifts to us—-sexuality within the boundaries of a loving and exclusive relationship. Once you give up believing in absolute truth, it’s easy to excuse all kinds of selfish behavior as being based on our “biology.” What about discipline, self-sacrifice, commitment? And I don’t care if these two have their doctorates; some of the most selfish and screwed-up people I have known have M.D., J.D. or Ph.D. degrees. Yet another example of how intelligence and education do not equate to true wisdom. And yet another example of the “new morality” being nothing more than the “old immorality”. What is this kind of stuff doing in FOF anyway? Sleeping around doesn’t make you anymore “fabulous” at any age. I’ve seen first-hand the destruction and devastation it can wreak on relationships, families, and especially on children.

  • Niheala

    I total agree. If people would accept that there is a difference between love, commitment and sex the divorce rate would be much lower…it is the lies that end marriages not sex outside of the commitment.

  • Anonymous

    It’s unfortunate that some in society glorifies, justifies and rationalizes this type of behavior. It’s quite disappointing to know that “adultery is rampant”–as if that’s some sort of sanction.

  • susie2kewt

    Thank you, Everyone for speaking up as you did! I will sleep better tonight knowing that I am not alone. :))

  • kathleens24

    oh
    yes, i agree 100% sleeping around is the answer being single is just a wonderful. Also, if you are a married woman i strongly recommend you having an affair on your husband. You will feel better about yourself.
    thank you for the article…

  • vje68

    I dfeel sorry for those who a) did not take the time to find gthe love of their life and b) did not make reaosnable attempts (& encourage their husband to do so as well) to maintain and grow that relationship. Why seek another if you made the right match AND nurture it just as you do your children, profession, garden or anything else you prize?

  • jana.koch@verizon.net

    Thank-you! Merci beaucoup! Muchos Gracias! I have been single 10 years; divorced from an abuser who didn’t want a wife who worked, tried to leave me to put 4 children through school with no career & “I didn’t deserve anything….Marry again,,Hell No!! Have alot of fun! Hell Yes! I won’t date anyone who wants to marry. Oddly enough< men want to remarry to have a maid; but they feel very free to sleep around without impedement from the ring (he's now the 4th husband of the Bimbo). I'm with You all: May I live as long as I want to..and want to as long as I live! Reggie (54 tomorrow)

  • jojo56

    In life there are temptaions. Lust, sex and love are completely different entities. I believe when two people love eachother and make the decision to marry, they are making a committment to one another for however long they stay married. If you want to sleep around, or have an open marriage, why be married?

  • msAnthrope

    I love how it’s assumed that sleeping around won’t ever result in strong feelings for the other person you’re having sex with who isn’t your partner. They use an example of a friend whose husband “okays” her sleeping around by clarifying, %u2018Look, as long as you love me and you%u2019re not going to leave me, then, okay, that%u2019s cool.%u2019 How can anybody possibly guarantee that? Suppose the sex in the beginning is incredible?

    And these stories never talk about what happens when one half of the spouse is feeling loving towards the other, but the other is all like, “nah, not really feeling it for you right now. Gotta go meet my hot new sex partner!”

    Plus, I agree with LucySosa and tbellew818: it can be hard to find a partner we’re sexually compatible with. The authors make it sound like every uncommitted sexual encounter is automatically incredible. It definitely isn’t.

    People are free to live however they want. All I know is, if this was how I felt, I’d have no desire to be married. Why bother? So I have a guarantee on half of the mortgage, or rent?

  • thereislightonthehorizon

    What a load of self serving garbage!
    “Grad school and Med school are lopsided towards women” ((What planet are you on?? ))
    “Women should be lobbying for greater social support for motherhood, single motherhood and children???” ((What about the males responsibility towards these children instead of societies responsibility???))
    What a boat load of Malarkey!!!!! And what a harmful theory to present as “scientific”

  • tbellew818

    My setaments exactly Lucy.

  • tbellew818

    I'[ve never herd a bigger load of B.S. in my life. I was never faithfull to any partner until I found my true love. We have such a close relationship I have never even thought about being with anyone else. Maybe those who cheat settled for what they can get insted of waiting for the right one. Pity.

  • LucySosa

    Yes, we are biological beings; I totally get it. Actually, I feel it! I have always said I would love, just love to have multiple partners for ever. I love men, variety and sex. But … I would not want to hurt my current boyfriend. Our sex life is awesome. He is also very kind and supportive of me. I don’t stray away. I hold back for him because he wants me to. I must confess that when I was not with him … sex was not always much fun and that was a disappointment. Most men are really bad in bed and don’t take instructions very well.One of the reasons that made me stay committed with my boyfriend besides his consistent kindness and emotional support is that he listens to what I want in the intimacy of our bedroom — that is a gift that has kept on giving.Multiple partners can be fun but I feel most fully satisfied now with a guy that is committed to me in every way. I don’t want anyone else.

  • iamme

    did i mention my mom and dad have been in a monogamous relationship since the day they said I DO? Their parents too on both sides, monogamous. And though i am divorced it was not because he was sleeping around.

    This is just another attempt at people making their own rules to suit their own needs. No thought for anyone else at all.

  • jeannielee55

    We are more than just biological beings!

  • bellacynw

    This same tired rationalization has been floating around for years and the only reason this is anything new is it is an attractive married couple suggesting it. Her uncle is having a high time in FL – what about the woman he walked away from? Commitment is not a dirty word and it is not wrong or passe to expect faithful, loyal and true from your spouse as well as your dog.

  • Felicia

    I agree with Clambdin, it is a decision. Sure, we will meet other people we are attracted to, does that mean that you have to have sex with them?
    I don’t agree that the ‘only’ tangible advantage to marriage is financial, what about a commitment to each other, a partner?
    I predict another book based on their messy divorce!

  • judybs55

    This book is nothing but garbage and validates anyone who wants to play around. If thats what you want to do, why get married. Multiple partners? STDS? duh? Love and commitment is nothing to discard and abuse. You make a mockery of marriage. FOF should be ashamed that they even put this book on their website. How do I unsubscribe?

  • Anonymous

    My husband says marriage should be a committment to each other. He agrees with you however that in our nature is this drive, but that man decides to act or not.