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Sunday, October 17, 2010

Our Cheatin' Hearts

I have often suspected that the push for fidelity originally started in patriarchal cultures to ensure that the children of a marriage were in fact the husbands'.  A matriarchal society wouldn't bother:  a woman knows that a baby is hers.  Later on, as relationships between the genders shifted and marriage came to be seen as a romantic institution rather than one about property, the need for fidelity was extended to men as well.  Yet, throughout history, people have said "it's different for men", when fidelity is discussed.  A man straying from the marriage bed has been tut-tutted but a woman has been reviled.  When in previous centuries the super-religious have made adulterers wear a scarlet A it usually been the woman who has had to do it.  Men have escaped more or less scot-free.

Polygamy has been culturally widespread, polyandry not -- not that women I've spoken to have been against it, in theory anyway.   Look at Laurell K Hamilton and her mostly female readership.  Even genes have been brought into the discussion: it is in the interest of men (so the geneticists say) to have lots of offspring, that  illegitimate children are assurances that your genes will survive if your legitimate children don't.  That's an option not open to women, so (the theory goes) men have a genetic drive to spread their seed widely, while women have a drive to find a strong mate and keep him.  Think of the very words illegitimate and legitimate, and what they imply about society's view of children born outside what is ultimately a legal framework.  I know a woman my age who has been with her guy for 45 years.  They still haven't married, yet apart from the legal imprimatur, they are clearly and indisputably a couple.  And they adore each other.

Before I receive snarling emails, let me say (a) that I am myself faithful to my lady, not because I think it per se a great moral issue but because it would hurt her deeply if I were not, which is a great moral issue (to me); (b) that if you love each other and wish to remain faithful to each other, I have no wish at all to denigrate such love, but that doesn't mean everybody else ought to behave like that too; and (c) if you have an explicit triad relationship, where for example your wife allows you to have a relationship with a man, this isn't "infidelity" in my definition of the concept (though the thin-lipped might think differently.)  The key wrong is perhaps not the infidelity itself but the deceit.  Deceit has the capacity to destroy relationships.  If you do not trust each other, if you routinely lie to each other.....

When you approve or not, infidelity seems to be widespread, according to this interesting (but perhaps a little shallow) article.  This is a quote from it:

The hypocrisy pot has been stirred anew by research suggesting life-long monogamy is not the status quo for human beings. In Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality, psychologist Christopher Ryan and psychiatrist Cacilda Jetha (who are married to each other) argue we aren't as far removed from those randy apes as we like to think. For 2 million years, casual sexuality was the norm for our ancestors, who also shared food, shelter and protection. The advent of agriculture 10,000 years ago meant sexuality became associated with property, turning our natural sexual inclinations on their head.
According to Ryan and Jetha, "deep conflicts rage at the heart of modern sexuality". Using evidence from archaeology, anthropology and biology, they argue that sex has been thoroughly mixed up with concepts of love and marriage, resulting in sky-high divorce rates, passionless unions and an overreliance on porn, relationship counselling and Viagra to prop up the whole thing. Ryan notes that since the book was released in July, he has received 15 to 20 emails a day from relieved individuals who always thought there was "something wrong" with them because their eyes (or hands) wandered elsewhere.
 And this is the blurb from the back of the book mentioned above:

Since Darwin's day, we've been told that sexual monogamy comes naturally to our species. Mainstream science--as well as religious and cultural institutions--has maintained that men and women evolved in families in which a man's possessions and protection were exchanged for a woman's fertility and fidelity. But this narrative is collapsing. Fewer and fewer couples are getting married, and divorce rates keep climbing as adultery and flagging libido drag down even seemingly solid marriages.

How can reality be reconciled with the accepted narrative? It can't be, according to renegade thinkers Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá. While debunking almost everything we "know" about sex, they offer a bold alternative explanation in this provocative and brilliant book.

Ryan and Jethá's central contention is that human beings evolved in egalitarian groups that shared food, child care, and, often, sexual partners. Weaving together convergent, frequently overlooked evidence from anthropology, archaeology, primatology, anatomy, and psychosexuality, the authors show how far from human nature monogamy really is. Human beings everywhere and in every era have confronted the same familiar, intimate situations in surprisingly different ways. The authors expose the ancient roots of human sexuality while pointing toward a more optimistic future illuminated by our innate capacities for love, cooperation, and generosity.
With intelligence, humor, and wonder, Ryan and Jethá show how our promiscuous past haunts our struggles over monogamy, sexual orientation, and family dynamics. They explore why long-term fidelity can be so difficult for so many; why sexual passion tends to fade even as love deepens; why many middle-aged men risk everything for transient affairs with younger women; why homosexuality persists in the face of standard evolutionary logic; and what the human body reveals about the prehistoric origins of modern sexuality.  
In the tradition of the best historical and scientific writing, Sex at Dawn unapologetically upends unwarranted assumptions and unfounded conclusions while offering a revolutionary understanding of why we live and love as we do.

Most interesting.  Note particularly this little phrase:  why homosexuality persists in the face of standard evolutionary logic.   Indeed.  As I have said before, here and here, I think it's to do with binding small groups of men together.

So much of what we take for granted is merely the accretion of time over the irritant grain of sand planted by some religious bigot.  Sex is powerful stuff, and I recommend that you be careful with it (don't do this at home without supervision, kids!) but it's also magical.  Sexual jealousy can break your heart, and your marriage.  Yet those are issues which have to be settled between the couple, and are nobody else's business.

I suspect that over the next century, even though man-woman marriage will remain the norm, there will be far more marriages of two men and one woman or two women and one man, not to mention two men or two women (hurray!) and that the whole concept of family will shift again, as it already has done several times over the millennia since Homer.

And note also that I am NOT saying that love or compassion or caring have changed.  They haven't.  What has shifted is the legally and socially accepted definitions of both marriage and family.  And I think they'll shift again during the lifetimes of my children and grandchildren.  The injunction,  love one another as I have loved you, remains.  Just the framework is shifting.

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