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Are Humans Naturally Monogamous - and if not, what does that mean?

Jacqueline Hellyer - Sunday, December 02, 2018




There are some old sexual myths of men being “naturally promiscuous” to sow their seed, and women being “naturally monogamous” because it’s “natural” for a woman to be less sexual and on closer examination these myths have no basis in fact. The former because it is a misuse of evolutionary theory and the latter because it is based on historical suppression of women’s sexuality not their biological reality. (See A History of Sexual Misinformation for more on this.)

So what is real – are humans monogamous or not? Is monogamy a natural state that all humans gravitate to, or is it a social norm superimposed upon a different biological basis?

Well, it seems that monogamy is not biologically-based, it’s socially based. For an in-depth look at this issue I recommend you read the brilliant book “Sex At Dawn” by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha. It’s a thoroughly researched and very entertaining read. The authors look at our biology, at prehistoric remains, at our closest ape relatives, at existing and recent hunter-gatherer societies, and present a very plausible argument that we haven’t evolved to be monogamous, that the concept of “possessing” a partner exclusively is a social development, not a biological one.

This is certainly a view that I had come to based on my own research and observations, clinical and personal; so it's good to see it reinforced by academics who have done the proper analytical research. So, if we’re not “naturally” monogamous, what does that mean for us? Should we all start hanging out at swingers clubs and inviting the neighbors over for a “casual drink”? Of course not. I’m not talking about going from one extreme to another! What I am saying is that we need to take the issue seriously, not cover it up with fear or power-based morality and narrow-mindedness.

These days we do plenty of things that we didn’t evolve to do, things that aren’t “natural” in the sense that we usually mean it - such as sitting in front of a computer . But if we stray too far from who we really are, if we go too much against our innate selves, if we start fighting our selves, then we’re in for trouble. To use the computer example, our bodies have evolved to be active, so even if we can sit in front of a computer, we shouldn’t overdo it. Overly sedentary people risk obesity, heart disease, diabetes and a whole bunch of other problems.

So, if we aren’t naturally monogamous, forcing ourselves to be monogamous is not going to work. In the past it was avoided by repressing women’s sexuality so severely that it was barely possible to be non-monogamous. But now that women don’t get stoned, or burned at the stake or locked up in mental institutions for being sexual, and now that women aren’t forced to stay in relationships for the sake of economic necessity, what do we find – around 50% of relationships involve infidelity (of which women contribute as much as men). And certainly very many people aren't monogamous for life, these days serial monogamy tends to be the norm, so while they might not overlap their lovers they certainly do have more than one.

I have come to think that as with so many other aspects of sexuality, we’re all on a continuum of monogamy, with some people being completely monogamous and others being completely non-monogamous, and most of us somewhere in-between. And this varies over time.

A small number of people manage to have consensual non-monogamous relationships, and that’s fine because in these cases it’s done openly, honestly and with continual reflection. Nevertheless even for them it is challenging. All relationships are challenging.

If monogamy is your preference, the key point here is that we have to recognize that it’s not easy to be exclusive with the same person for years on end and have a satisfactory love life with that one person. You have to focus on it and work at it.

Some key points I believe we all need to take on board, whatever our preferred type of relationship is, are:

  • To be less judgmental of self and others around relationship preferences and inclinations;
  • To be more open-minded about relationship possibilities, if not for yourself, then at least with others, not everyone has to be the same as you;
  • To realise that becoming more aware of your own sexuality, and therefore more open, honest and real about yourself, is a very good thing for yourself and for your relationship(s);
  • To be more focused on creating an on-going good sex life that includes diversity and novelty.

I would love to see our society develop in a way that is more inclusive of different kinds of sexuality, including varieties of sexual relatedness. We’ve had a long struggle, which still exists, to open our minds to homosexuality. Now we need to open up to other aspects of sexuality, such as non-monogamy - as well as bisexuality, transexuality, pansexuality, asexuality, intersexuality, kinky orientations, or any other orientation that goes against rigid definitions of ‘acceptable’ sexuality. As I say so often, as long as it’s between consenting informed adults, it’s fine.

Essentially, as a society, we need to be authentic, honest and non-judgmental.

 Sounds reasonable, but it’s such a big ask in this society, especially when it’s to do with sexuality.

Still, I live and work in hope…




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