Thursday, February 4, 2010

People Are Probably Going To Sleep Around, Even If They’re In A Relationship

I apologize for my slacking off in January. But welcome to Super Legit February. Where I will at the very least put up two posts to make up for my lack of posting.


In one of my classes, I was assigned a paper on an element of Human Sexual Behavior that was personally challenging to me. This paper was part opinion and emotions based, so in translating it, you should know that I’ve only left in the factual information that I learned. So … this isn’t a direct translation from the paper.

The original title was: Sexual Monogamy

I call this paper translation: People Are Probably Going To Sleep Around, Even If They’re In A Relationship

In our current culture, there seems to be a common theme in terms of the way romantic relationships are portrayed. Whether the information is coming from teachers, television, movies, music, preachers, your mom, or pretty much any other mainstream source, you hear a common message:

A “good” relationship is one where you are with ONLY one other person and you both work to start a life together. Because this person is the person you’re going to share a life with, you should both be able to fulfill each other completely. This means that good relationships are ones where you never have sex with anyone else … ever. Nor would you want to.

If you, for whatever reason, find yourself desiring sex outside of your life partner … not only are you a failure, but your relationship is also a failure, based on how relationships are supposed to be.

Right? I mean … right? Because, I mean, it’s an age old story. You find your soulmate, you have/adopt hella babies, you buy/rent a home together and you wander off into the sunset completely fulfilled and having the best sex of your life forever. And if you can’t hang with that … obviously there is something wrong with you or your relationships.

And because this is what we hear all the time, and because it’s the message that we’re getting practically everywhere, science should totally back this up, right?

Wrong. Well … kinda wrong. All the ‘building a life together with one person' stuff (which we’ll call Social Monogamy from here on out)? Totally legit and backed up by history and science. All the “human beings are supposed to find one person to have sex with forever” stuff (which we’ll call Sexual Monogamy)? Science doesn’t seem to think it’s all that realistic to expect that if you're in a socially monogamous relationship.

Lemme take you kiddies on a journey through evolution.

So, human beings … we’re animals, right? We’re just super complex, emotion feeling, ENORMOUS pre-frontal cortex (i.e. brain!) kind of animals. So, just like all other animals, we’ve evolved … but because of our brains we evolve based on more than just our biological impulses. Just for a second, I want you to forget everything but our biology. Because if we looked at humans as if they were animals … biology says that we’d be (big word alert) polygynous.

So wtf is polygynous? Basically, it means that the dudes with the most resources (in our case, rich people) would have large groups of women who they would knock up and support. Now, because this rich guy can’t always keep up with all his ladies, other dudes would still get in on the action by getting women in these groups pregnant on the sly. The rich guy probably knows this is happening, but because he has so many ladies who have kids that are probably his … he still takes care of those ladies because he can. This system makes it so that we keep our gene pool diverse, AND so that lots of babies survive into adulthood. Which, by the way, is the ultimate goal of life.

But, Becca … we’ve evolved, and what if we really have become monogamous now?

Science also tells us that animals that look monogamous usually aren’t. Even though you might see these cutsie bird couples raising babies together … the reality is that dudebro bird takes time out of his day to try to mate with hella ladies, AND that while dudebro bird is away, his woman is getting it on with other guy birds too. (With the lady part, it’s especially true if she’s got a less desirable mate. Even though she loves him and wants to raise kids with him, she would rather have a studly dude bird impregnate her. Just sayin’.) Although the likelihood of getting pregnant outside of the monogamous unit is less … it still happens quite a bit in the animal kingdom.

But, humans are too complex to boil our actions down to just biology. Obviously. Because if we did, I’d be typing this blog post from a harem, while my 5 kids (some of whom who did not belong to my rich sugar daddy) swarmed around my bare feet. OR, I would be sitting at home watching my dude partner guard the door from other dudes so they didn’t come in and try to mate with me (even though as soon as he left I was gonna let the hottie from up the street in anyway. Holla!)

So … how did we go from having kids in harems to raising kids with one other person? Agrarian culture had a lot to do with it. We lived off the land, and it was WAY better if all our hard work on our farm didn’t go to benefit strangers. So? We married one person, had hella babies with them, and had those babies work the farm. Once the industrial revolution hit, we kept the system of marrying and having sex with one person in fashion. But instead of basing it off of survival, we started basing this system off of sex, emotions, and intimacy.

And we all lived happily ever after, getting all our sexual fulfillment from the person we were in relationship with.

Oh wait. Or some studies have shown that up to 80% of people in monogamous couples (married or not) have cheated on their partners.

So science … at this point, doesn’t back up the idea that if you’re socially monogamous … you should always be sexually monogamous. Biologically it’s not really how things are done … and even though lots of people say that relationships should be that way … it’s not actually what people are doing.

Alright Becca, back the fuck up. If humans aren’t supposed to be sexually monogamous with the person they’re socially monogamous with, why does it hurt so much when people cheat?

Excellent question, theoretical jealous person.

And you’ve actually answered your own question. People get hurt when cheating occurs because someone has CHEATED. This means that a rule that you and your partner have come up with for each other has been broken. Often, when people are hurt, it’s less about the actual sex than it is the LYING.

In (another big word alert) polyamorous relationships, shit is WAY different when people have sex with someone who isn’t their primary boo.

So first, polyamory … what is this? That’s a long crazy story (perhaps for another blog post). So I’m going to oversimplify to save time. Polyamory is an umbrella term for any type of relationship that has rules that allow either sex or love with someone who isn’t your life-partner. Basically, you have your main squeeze, but you’re allowed to fuck and/or love other people and its chill with your partner. (Note: This is only because you’ve explicitly set it up this way. If your partner thinks that you’re their one and only and you’re sleeping around … that doesn’t make you polyamourous.)

In polyamorous relationships the rules are different. If you sleep with someone else, you haven’t cheated. There may still be hurt, but it isn’t based on lying or not telling someone or anything like that. Some of the science about polyamory even reports that there are times when people are stoked about their partners getting it on with other people. It’s an emotion that’s the opposite of jealousy. (They call it compersion, if you’re interested in the big words.)

Okay … but uh, what about STIs?

So, I thought that when I looked into studies about HIV, the bottom line in the studies would be like, “In order to best prevent HIV, you should be sexually monogamous.”

But, in the studies that I did read, (which was, by no means all of them) the biggest advice that was given was to know your honey’s business. That’s right. Rather than saying “only do one person” the studies recommended just knowing when your partner is having sex with someone who isn’t you. People who thought they were in relationships that were sexually monogamous were less likely to protect themselves from HIV. People who either assumed or knew that their partners were messing around the side … were more likely to engage in protective habits.

True story.

So sure, only doing one person when you’ve both been tested is a surefire way to prevent stuff. But … based on what we’ve seen thus far, people aren’t very good at being sexually monogamous, AND because cheating hurts so much … we are less likely to be honest with the partners who do think they’re our one and only.

This, in turn, puts us at higher risk for getting STIs.

So, if biologically, science doesn’t support sexual monogamy for humans … and if being hurt isn’t the only way someone can respond to their partners not being sexually monogamous, and if even HIV prevention isn’t waiving the sexually monogamous flag … why do people still do monogamy?

Basically, because it’s all we see and all we’re told, we don’t take the time to really look at ourselves when we’re in monogamous relationships.

It’s like dudes wearing pants. In this culture, we take for granted that dudes wear pants, and that if a dude doesn’t want to wear pants, something is wrong with him as a dude. But, if we just took a second to really think about it, why do we have that rule? Because, as someone who has worn a skirt or two in her day, they are wicked comfortable. Why wouldn’t anyone want to wear a skirt? But because we just assume that dudes wear pants, we don’t find it weird that dudes only ever wear pants. We don’t even think about it, talk about it, or question it.

It’s kinda the same thing with sexual monogamy and social monogamy being linked together all the time. We’re told that once we find our soulmate, the whole sexual thing will magically fall into place. So when we get into a socially monogamous relationship with someone … we don’t even talk about sexual monogamy, because we figure it’ll all just work itself out. We just assume that’s the way it will be. Then, when cheating happens … everyone acts surprised. Not because cheating is rare, but because we’ve told ourselves as a culture that sexual monogamy and social monogamy are the same thing.

So wait … what are you really trying to say here, chica?

My conclusion is: Science does not support the idea that sexual monogamy and social monogamy are the same thing.

To rephrase that: If you pay attention to what academics are saying … it’s that the fairy tale of ‘happily ever after’ is simply that … a fairy tale. You may very well find someone who fulfills you in a way that no other human being can. But that doesn’t mean that you and that person are going to only ever have or want to have sex with each other forever.

End of Paper Translation

As you all know, I do like to give my two cents on the issue. The following is how I personally feel about saying that once you find someone to be socially monogamous with … you also have to be sexually monogamous with them.

So … Becca. Are you telling me that after all this time I should give up on love and happiness with one person?

Hell no, sucka!

I actually believe very much in the realistic nature of finding one person to start a life with. If you’re interested in buying a home or having kids or doing anything that requires a long-term commitment to someone … I think that having that one person that you can trust and love and count on … is beautiful thing. (I also believe that this is only one of the many ways to get this done … but for the sake of this post, I’ll keep it simple and stop there.)

But if you’re rocking life that way, it is acceptable to seek people outside of that unit for emotional fulfillment you can’t get at home. No one would ever think twice when a dude goes to a friend’s house to watch the icecapades because his wife is watching football with her obnoxious girlfriends again. She needs those football buddies, and he needs his ice skating crew. They can’t get that need fulfilled with each other … so they turn to other people. It’s called ‘friendship.’ The ‘happily ever after’ fairytale includes friends. Healthy relationships include friends and activities outside the partnership.

But if there is a sexual need that a partner can’t fulfill or that someone can’t get at home … we immediately flip out if someone tries to fulfill that need outside of the pair. We start to place blame and point fingers. “Your man is sleeping around because you’re not throwing down in the bedroom. Your woman ain’t getting what she needs and that’s your fault.” In many instances … those accusations may very well be true. However … in some circumstances, when people sleep around … it has little or nothing to do with their partners at home. They might be completely satisfied, but just want something a little different. Or, they may have a need or desire that their partner isn’t into. When it comes to nonsexual things, we as a culture think it’s a great idea to look outside a monogamous relationship to get those things. But when it's sex ... that's a huge (arbitrary) no no.

And I honestly think that’s because we live in a world where we just have no idea how to talk about sex in a way that’s as neutral as we can talk about football or ice skating. We’re so scared and ignorant about sex that the idea of having to talk about what we’re doing with other people is fucking scary.

Because of this, I don’t think that sexual nonmonogamy is realistic for everyone. In order to really take on being with someone while simultaneously being able to fuck someone else, there is a definite skill set, and level of trust and comfort, that I don’t think many people in this culture are capable of.

I also think that there are people who are truly happy in sexual monogamy. And above all, I am down with people seeking out relationships that work for them.

But I think that this happily ever after myth is harmful to some. Because it sets unrealistic expectations that are difficult to live up to. It’s like our culture is setting our couples up for failure. It makes good solid relationships that could easily withstand time dissolve just because people want to seek out new sexual experiences. Which, according to science, is just how people do.

If we learned how to talk about our desires and learn how to allow for people to fulfill their sexual needs while still remaining emotionally conscious and compassionate, the hurt that results from cheating could be lessened.

I would even go so far as to say that if we started telling a new, more realistic fairy tale about how relationships really work … the concept of cheating could literally be erased.

Crazy, right?

Think about it.



  1. i'm in love with my best friend! HA! loves it....thanks for the note-tagging ;-) keep rockin the foundation of our society love

  2. This is an amazing post. Thanks to Derek for sharing it with me!

    In thinking about monogamy, I've been led to think about the nuclear family structure which heavily depends on heterosexual monogamy as its cornerstone. When I think about nuclear families, it's impossible to not think about a Marxist division of labor and the rise of industrialization, which I was so happy to hear you mention! Heteronormative monogamy is so ingrained in all aspects of our culture because it supports the status quo... it reproduces more of the same, both socially and literally. Which is what governments and nations seek to do, reproduce more of the same.

    I've been in a polyamorous relationship for more than a year now and the non-monogamous aspect of our relatonship is really important to me. Not b/c I'm not getting what I need from my partner but b/c I cannot possibly imagine a life where being in love and being sexually attracted are conflated as if they are one and the same. I love people... I love looking at them, I love touching them, I love fantasizing about them, flirting with them, fucking them and so on. So does my partner. All kinds of people, in fact. :)

    I feel really fortunate to be in a relationship where we can gush to each other about a cute somebody that we've met or want to hook up with. I think it's such a silly and arbitrary taboo to expect that social monogamy is supposed to be this intimate space where you can share everything... except your desire for another person.

    And, like you alluded to, desire happens, whether people choose to pursue it or not. It doesn't always have to be a threat. Especially when you're honest and open. And it takes a lot of work. My partner and I have what we refer to as the 'buffer' zone - the time before and after one of us hooks up with another person.

    Buffering can be a long or short process in which we talk, pout, cuddle and/or fuck... whatever we need to do to feel ok about what's about to or what has just happened. Jealousies sometimes surface, of course, and hurt sometimes happens. But we are committed to each other, to making it work, to ensuring we each feel loved and taken care of and supported without feeling like we have to sacrifice our sexual desires for others in order to demonstrate our commitment to each other. It's not an either/or situation for us. We can, and do, have both. :)

  3. ps
    My significant other also pointed out that the kind of relationship we want (non-monogamous and all) is difficult to have and sustain b/c there is no easy script for these kinds of relationships. You can't look to your parents or ask your friends for advice... in fact, many of them may not understand or support you.

    There is no model to follow and much of the time, you feel like you are fumbling through something difficult and confusing. You BOTH have to really want it and confront the difficulties that come with it lovingly and respectfully for it to be worth it at all.

    As for me, I wouldn't have it any other way.