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.
- So, 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.
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.
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.