09 September 2013

Some Thoughts on Partnership and Extra-Marital Sex; Monogamy VS Sexual Exclusivity

First of all, I need to clarify a very important point, that many people seem to get wrong more often than not.

The suffix "-gamy" means "marriage".
It does NOT refer to sex.  It refers to romantic commitment - and more specifically, a religious and/or government sanctioned commitment (because two people can be entirely committed to each other without ever getting married).
The alternatives to monogamy are being single, or being polygamous, which means being married to more than one person.

The term for not having sex with anyone other than your spouse (or other committed romantic partner) is sexual exclusivity.

This is not just semantics.  It is in fact a crucial distinction, and without proper and consistent terminology, it is completely impossible to talk about the topic in any meaningful way.
So, for example, in a culture where polygamy is legal and culturally accepted, a man could have two or three wives.  If he never has sex with anyone other than those several wives, he is maintaining sexual exclusivity, even though he is not monogamous.  On the other hand, a married couple who are into swinging are monogamous, even though they are not practicing sexual exclusivity.
And both of them are practicing sexual fidelity - the word fidelity means "faithful" or "loyal", and none of the people in these examples are cheating.  It is only cheating if it is against the rules, and everyone involved in both the polygamous relationship and the swinger's relationship is agreeing to the same set of rules.
When people talk about "open" relationships, or polyamory, they can mean either having multiple committed romantic relationships (which might not, but probably will, involve sex), or they can be talking about having only one committed romantic relationship, but one or more other non-romantic sexual partners.

I am only going to be talking about the second option.

Human beings are complicated creatures.  We don't really have emotions and thoughts of our own, they are intrinsically entangled with the people and culture around us.  There may be many other social animals, but none else has communication detailed and complex enough to have a culture that modifies individual preference, opinion, and experience.  So, if we want to try to separate out which parts of those things we take for granted are fundamental to who we are, and which are handed to us externally, its often helpful to look at other species besides ourselves.  In some ways studying chimpanzee politics can tell us things about ourselves that studying human politics doesn't.
Lets try it!
Of course the vast majority of all animal life is not monogamous to begin with.  In mating season its either a free-for-all, or its winner-take-all for the strongest male around.  But 90% of all birds and a small but significant number of rodents and primates are monogamous.  And it turns out that with extremely few exceptions, all of these monogamous species are using the term literally  - once they have picked a mate, they tend to stay with that one partner for years, if not for a lifetime.    Yet among all of those creatures sharing a life with one partner, 90% of those species do not maintain strict sexual exclusivity.  DNA testing of bird families find anywhere from 20 to 70% of the chicks are not technically sired by the father that raises them.  But ultimately, DNA makes less of a difference than family, and the mother's partner is the baby bird's father by default, and invests parental resources in the chick.
Both sexes are observed to have extra-marital affairs, and this generally has little to no effect on the permanence of the primary partnership.  To say these animals are "cheating" is to anthropomorphize them. The idea of monogamy implying sexual exclusivity appears to be almost entirely a human cultural invention. 

Which, if you step back from the assumptions most of us have always taken for granted, sort of begs the question of why we do that.
There may be some part of it that is rooted in biological based jealousy - on some level a person fears that if their partner has children with another person, they may divert resources they would have spent on your shared off-spring on the affair partner's instead.  In an age of cheap, effective and readily available birth control this concern is far less valid, but of course our emotions evolved millions of years before modern technology, and evolution progresses far slower than science.  But the cultural demands of fidelity are much stronger and more consistent than any individual feeling of relationship insecurity.  Many cultures designate adultery to be an offense - in some even a capital offense - even if it is consensual by all parties involved.  When something is considered unethical even if no one is hurt in anyway, chances are there is a more insidious root to it.  Religious and political leaders have used controlling sexuality as a means to control the populous in general for as long as there has been such a thing as religion and politics.  Centralized power is the original reason for almost all sexual morays, from outlawing prostitution, banning non-reproductive sexual activity, to the concept of sanctioned marriage.  The moray against adultery is no exception.  Having someone else decide how, when, and with whom you may have sex train you to cede independence and be obedient in general.  It also allows much more certainty of paternity, which ensures that males can be forced to help raise their biological offspring, which is good for women and helps make society more stable.  At the same time, it allows keeping track of paternal lines, which is essential for patriarchy to function.  In particular, it facilitates the concept of inheritance, particularly of land, so it is a vital component of any caste, serfdom or capitalist system whose aim is to keep the genetic line of those who are already wealthy, wealthy in to the future.
As with many other concepts of "morality" which began as a means of top down control (like loyalty to country being a basic virtue), or "traditions" which were invented by marketers (like a diamond ring representing marriage) it was almost completely successful. It has been entirely internalized by the vast majority of people, in almost every culture, so that very few even question whether it is actually an automatic and natural feeling, and not something imposed externally. 

I have always known, from as young as I can remember (and probably earlier), that I wanted a life partner.  What that means to me is not universal, but I don't think it is particularly rare either.
In my mind, the point of having a life partner is not reproduction, it isn't for social cohesion or political strategy, it isn't about the convenience of division of labor.  Some or all of these things may be nice side benefits, but they all make for very poor reasons to commit your life to someone.  Furthermore, if any or all of those were the primary reason, then all people (of the opposite sex, for the first one), in the world would be equally eligible for the position.  If it it didn't matter who the person is, that makes it all pretty meaningless.
The point of having a life partner is to have a companion.  A person you share a special and intimate connection with, that goes beyond any other connection with any other human being.
A spouse, or life partner, should be your best friend, and your primary playmate.
One's partner should be their closest confidant. You should feel as comfortable around them as you are when you are alone, and more comfortable than around any other person.  You should trust them - and they should be able to trust you - more than any one else.
You would generally live with your partner, and if you choose raise children, you would do that together.  If one of you moves, both of you moves.  This is not always true of roommates, even if the roommates are best friends.
To me, a partner should be the person you spend the most discretionary time with.  Not only the most, but probably more than everyone else put together.

There are those who have a spouse or a partner or a boyfriend or girlfriend, and then they have a different person who is their "best friend".
I have never understood that.  If the BFF is a better friend than the spouse, then why wouldn't you be partners with BFF instead?
If the only difference between friend and partner is whether or not you have sex, then that means the relationship is based on sex. 
Which seems pretty superficial and meaningless.

If the sole defining feature of a romantic relationship is that you have sex together, then it shouldn't matter what her/his religion, politics, culture, values, hobbies, preferences, intelligence, humor, or education are; or even whether they speak the same language.  One's only criteria should be to find the most physically attractive partner that reciprocates your interest.

In fact, outside of humans, since there is no language, that is exactly how it is done (although, as noted above, that very rarely implies sexual exclusivity).  Non-human animals have no religion, no politics, no education, and no culture, values or hobbies (or so we assume!)

Almost all of us want at least a little more than that though.  Why then do most of us insist that sex is the single defining feature of a meaningful romantic relationship?

To me, having my partner consider someone other than me her best friend, choosing to spend more time around someone other than me, feeling they could trust or relax around someone else more than around me, or enjoying their time with someone else more than with me, all of these things would feel far more threatening to my relationship than her occasionally having casual sex with someone else.  Because those are the things that make a relationship special.  A person can have sex with anyone.
If "cheating" refers specifically and exclusively to sexual activity - then that is saying in no uncertain terms that sex is the one thing that defines the relationship.
To me, making the relationship about sex - by implying it is the only thing differentiating it from a good friendship - cheapens the relationship.  Certainly, if someone else was your primary sex partner, that might raise legitimate questions - just like if someone else was your primary play partner, or your primary secret sharing partner.  
Even if one specific person was a secondary sex partner, but it was both regular and frequent, that might be legitimate grounds for concern. 
That could be treading dangerously close to affair territory, especially since sex has the potential to stir up romantic feelings. 
But barring that situation, to prevent one's partner from straying need not automatically bar the occasional indulgence in a one time random circumstance with an (otherwise platonic) friend or coworker or new acquaintance. 

Perhaps you get invited on a trip to some natural hotsprings on a warm summer night, everyone jumps in naked, and the phyto-algae is making the cave walls glow, and some more people come along, so to try to make space your friend moves a little closer to you... and a little closer to you... and before you know it - well, you know... and its crazy and random and fun, and its not exactly meaningless since it was an actual friend and not a random stranger one-night-stand, but there is exactly zero romantic feeling or interest between you in either direction. 
If someone I cared about ended up in a situation like that, I would want them to go ahead with it, to enjoy the night to the fullest, because, if I care about them, I want them to be happy, and I want them to experience pleasure.  Would I feel a sharp twinge of jealousy if my partner came home and shared all the details with me?  Of course I would!  Its only human.  This is why I'd ask her not to tell me all the details (especially not anytime soon after it happened).  But overall, my desire for her to enjoy life would outweigh my own selfish desire to never have to experience sharp twinges of jealousy.  For it not to would be terribly selfish (not to mention possessive).  Frankly, as long as she avoids any pathogens that she could pass on to me, I don't really see how its even any of my business, any more than who her friends are or what she does with family when they visit.
There seems to be - in the part of the world I live in, at least - a growing number of people who get this, but even among those who haven't bought into the "sex and love are interchangeable" non-sense, a lot still get the ideas of monogamy vs polygamy and sexual exclusivity vs sexual freedom confused or at least muddled.
I feel like I was a much better writer when I did it more often.
I can't remember any more how to write a decent closing sentence.

1 comment:

  1. actually, I like your closing sentence :- ) (-DK)


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