The origins of human sexuality are inherently fascinating. Of course we want to know how we got to be the way we are! What's surprising to me is that we've only recently begun questioning the popular assumption that humans, or at least human females, have a natural tendency toward monogamy. Some evolutionary psychologists and primatologists have been challenging these assumptions for many years. Suddenly these research findings, books, and articles from several decades ago are of interest to a wider public. Why now?
I originally wrote about the work of internationally respected anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy in my first book, Love Without Limits, in 1992. Dr. Hrdy was one of the first to point out the evolutionary advantages and survival value for female primates and their offspring of mating with several males. The myth that only males had an evolutionary imperative to mate with more than one female, was just that, Hrdy argued, a myth, not science. Rather male researchers were operating from a culturally biased self-fulfilling prophesy that dictated they would see what they expected to see.
Perhaps scientific research was less interesting to people reading about polyamory for the first time than the discovery that they were not alone in feeling the frustration of being judged and ostracized for loving more than one person at a time. Perhaps people who do not identify as polyamorous prefer reading about the non-monogamous past of human beings, rather than imagining what this might mean for their present day relationships. Perhaps the spot light on the decline and fall of the nuclear family has created a new openness to re-examining our social institutions.
Whatever the explanation, Christopher Ryan's book Sex at Dawn, and his Psychology Today blog by the same name are capturing the imagination of people who previously may never have questioned the legitimacy of our pervasive monogamous culture. Much of the discussion revolves around the evidence of genetic and cultural markers. These are certainly important considerations, especially for anthropologists and biologists. But we humans are more than our DNA and more than the sweeping cultural currents that carry us along from one momentous period of history or pre-history to another.
From a psychological and spiritual point of view, people want to know not just the genetic repercussions of mating, but also what are the emotional truths of polyamory. If our DNA fails to endorse monogamy, what are we going to do about that? What choices "should" we make about our sexual behavior, and more importantly, what choices do we want to make about our intimate relationships?
It's easy to construct logical arguments either for or against monogamy. I learned how to do these kinds of mental gymnastics as a small child sitting at the knees of my father, a successful collegiate debate coach, whose photo with John Kennedy after receiving an award for winning the Kennedy/Nixon debates in 1964 hung above his desk throughout my childhood.
But what seems practical to the mind may not be realistic emotionally. Our hearts and guts don't necessarily care what our minds have to say about appropriate sexual behavior and relationship strategies.
Many minds urge their bodies to secretly act on illicit sexual desires because to honestly address sexual or emotional deficits in their marriages would be to risk divorce, or worse. Many minds urge their bodies to have a little harmless fun on the side without risking a happy and secure marriage by telling their partners they want to open up their relationship.
These strategies may seem like good ideas in the short term, but in the long term the cost to the quality of intimacy between partners is huge. When a spouse has lost hope that the marriage can be improved but is nevertheless committed to staying together, cheating makes sense, but it still takes an emotional toll. And when a secret affair is discovered, or revealed, the damage is usually far worse than it would have been to openly announce one's intentions in the first place. Our minds don't like to acknowledge that our bodies have a wisdom of their own. Whether we shudder at the idea of telepathy or praise the idea of transparency, doesn't matter, very often we know what others don't want us to know.
Call it intuition, call it irrational, call it ESP. It doesn't matter what we call it, the fact is that my body can tell me if a lover is making love with someone else. My body can detect the blood type of a man I'm making love with and select a compatible match for conception. My body can refuse to respond if a potential lover is unhealthy in some way. If my body can do this, so can the bodies of others, but a closed mind will not listen when the body talks.
Many people's emotional resistance to sharing a partner revolves around the need to feel special. "If he or she loves someone else can I still be special? How do I know I'm the most special? How can we both be the most special?"
Or from the other side it looks more like this: "If this One is so special, how can that One also be so special?" Indeed, some people do seem to be naturally monogamous, at least for a period of time. They don't want the responsibility, confusion, or emotional demands of maintaining deep intimacy with more than one person at a time, especially when it may seem effortless with one person and difficult with another at a particular phase of the relationship. And if closeness with one partner feels suffocating at times, closeness with more than one may seem overwhelming.
For today's humans, sex almost always involves egoic considerations of one form or another. These considerations sometimes overpower the wisdom of the body and sometimes they don't. Individual identity and the ability to redirect sexual urges is a relatively new development according to scholars from Freud to Jung to Wilber. Tribal peoples, not to mention chimps and bonobos, are reputed to be less egocentric and more in tune with their bodies than post-modern humans. I'm not saying this is either a good thing or a bad thing, it's simply a factor to be taken into consideration when making decisions about intimate relating.
I've been saying for decades that polyamory is an excellent tool for spiritual and psychological growth. It forces us to confront the truths of our bodies, hearts, and minds and find means of self-expression that preserve the integrity of all three. Perhaps once our internal divisions are united into a coherent whole, polyamory will have served its purpose and a genuine monogamy will evolve. But we'll never know whether this is so until we traverse the territory with consciousness.