Love and Polygamy
Evolutionary psychology has taught us that our desire for sexual experience is sourced from our need to spread our genes. We want to ensure that our tribe is large, to ensure safety and survival, and so our sexual appetite is ingrained within our biology. This is the general understanding of human sexuality – ultimately procreation as a means for survival. This biological law appears to contradict the social law of being in a monogamous romantic relationship.
Social convention makes those who are in polygamous relationships appear as outliers and perverts. Their relationships with each other are seen as illegitimate, with the popular contention that the couple can’t possibly love each, otherwise they would have no desire to engage in sexual activates with others outside their relationship. While monogamy works for many, it equally provides issues for those who attempt it in practice but fail. Marriages end, and families are broken up due to infidelity. Social convention teaches that polyamory is evidence of the absence of love, while evolutionary psychology teaches us that promiscuity is written in our DNA. Could an alternative hypotheses be presented – one in which polyamory infuses society with love, and where our desire for multiple partners is not necessarily exclusively to do with our genetic drives for procreation, but for the construction of a loving community?
Ryan and Jetha (2010) propose a model of human sexuality that suggests humans resemble the behaviour of the empathetic bonobo as much as they do the aggressive chimpanzee. They discuss the mating habits of both (which we are biologically related to at an equal level), and suggest that the promiscuous bonobo more closely resembles the behaviour of humans (i.e. with a genetic desire for copulation with multiple partners). They support their argument by discussing the social habits of man pre-civilization, where communities shared resources rather than had individual ownership. If a group in a village had a cow (for example), the cow wouldn’t be considered the resource of the individuals of the group, but the collective resource of the community. This model of ‘de-personalization’ expands beyond the material and into the social, including romantic relationships.
Pre-civilization sexual behaviours differ greatly from our contemporary equivalent. Rather than go through the stages of engagement with symbolic jewellery, grand wedding ceremonies, and the signing of government orchestrated legal binding documents, the prenatal marriage would consist of setting up your hammock next to your hopeful partner. When one partner changed their mind, they were no longer married and sought out a new husband or wife. Nothing had to be signed, and nobody was made to feel stigmatized or resented, and marriage wasn’t symbolic of monogamy. If a child was born into a community, the responsibility was on the full community to help raise the child, particularly the male siblings of the mother. The love and commitment given to the raising of the child was not limited to the biological parents.
It was believed that the child was the product of accumulated semen of multiple partners, who possess positive attributes that could be passed onto the child (one male with good hunting abilities, one with good physical attributes, etc.) The female would have casual sexual encounters with all of those in the community who she believed to possess the strongest genetics, and wasn’t shamed by derogatory labels but celebrated as a strong member of the tribe. The males of the community in entirety hunted, while the females foraged and, the rest of the time was spent enjoying activates together with the children of the community as well as the adults.
While popular belief is that human behaviour resembles that of the chimpanzee, Ryan and Jetha demonstrate how the behaviours discussed fit equally with that of the bonobo. The primatologist Frans de Wall claimed that chimpanzee’s use violence to get sex, whereas bonobos use sex to avoid violence. This model of behaviour doesn’t assume that sex simply is used for procreation, but to initiate a greater sense of peace and community. To put this an alternative way – the behaviour of the bonobo maximises love, rather than restricts it to only one pair of the community.
The common notion which we are taught to subscribe to is that having multiple sexual partners suggests a lack of sincere love for any of them. This understanding assumes that there is a fundamental truth in nature that monogamy is the natural way, but as Ryan and Jetha outline, this is not necessarily the case. While monogamy may feel natural for some (though the truth of this may be difficult to obtain due to cultural impositions), it doesn’t make it fundamentally right – in the same way being left-handed or homosexual may not be culturally normative is equally not wrong (though even these examples are likely to be more concrete in the determination of their truth).
If love can surpass the impositions of culture and be possessed for multiple partners in open relationships, then we transcend cultural impositions, and potentially act more in tune with our own nature. Sexual output may be the tool to facilitate the communal sense of love, rather than simply the tool for procreation exclusively. If this viewpoint can be considered in terms of modern relationships, then it may shed light on what innately drives much infidelity in seemingly happy relationships. If it can be recognised that monogamy could potentially be a by-product of a culture of personification and ownership, then so much distress, divorce, and personal tragedies could be avoided – or at least viewed through a more understanding and compassionate lens.
Being a respectable participant in contemporary culture demands going against our fundamental nature to ensure survival. Very few people on an average wage can afford to survive independently without working the 40 hour week. Many of us are too drained by the soul-less tasks we perform while working full time to have the energy to fully enjoy the time we aren’t working. Our diet is based on convenience over nutrition, and our exercise patterns are difficult to keep as patterns, and if they are it is often at the cost of social activities in regards to time. With this in mind, the sexual behaviours of our ancestors may simply not suit the lifestyle that our culture demands. Living a polyamorous lifestyle would assumingly mean having more, and having more time means separating from the mainstream lifestyle convention. This separation may amplify the feeling of social exclusion caused through unconventional sexual behaviours, and make less of us more willing to consider it as a possibility despite all evidence.