The possibility of completely rewriting the rules by which we organise our lives has always captured people’s imagination. However, at best such a reorganisation has materialised only in the pages of a philosophical book and has remained, for the most part, a utopia. But there are exceptions, of course.
Many attempts to reconstruct society in terms of values have been political (see the utopia of communism, which succeeded in breaking down the barrier between idea and reality, with catastrophic results). And there have also been some noteworthy social attempts, such as the sexual revolution in America in the 1970s, the effects of which are still being felt culturally. One of the echoes of this social paradigm shift has gained volume with the advent of the internet and, more recently, social media communication. This is the idea that monogamy no longer has any value in today’s society, and that refusing to see its inadequacy to people’s needs makes us unhappy.
“There is no solution”
A very popular proponent of this idea is the accommodationist philosopher Alain de Botton. In his novel The Course of Love, Botton suggests that there is a fundamental contradiction between love and monogamy, and that the imposition of monogamy as a social desideratum is an act of cruelty that society teaches us to inflict on the person we love most. “It may seem that what we are dealing with is not really love at all but rather a kind of small-minded and hypocritical possessiveness, a desire to make one’s partner happy if, but only if, that happiness involves oneself,” Botton wrote.
In a context where the value of monogamy has been imposed on society by religion, especially Christianity (in the West), and where contraception has already separated sexual relations from pregnancy, is it not equally “as absurd to suppose that one should only ever have sex with the person one loves as it would be to require that only those in committed couples ever be permitted to play table tennis or go jogging together?” Botton asks.
For the author, romantic life (for lack of a better word) is the front line in a war between two legitimate but irreconcilable needs: that of adventure and that of security. Humans are hopelessly caught between the two, subject to fatalism such that “neither the love rat nor the faithful spouse gets it right.”
Botton also has a female counterpart to this view, the psychoanalyst Esther Perel, who invites us to “rethink infidelity” in a highly acclaimed book, The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity. The cross-fertilisation of their ideas led Botton to praise Perel’s book as “a brilliantly intelligent plea for complexity, understanding, and—as always— kindness.”
Esther Perel notes that the proportion of married women who admit to cheating on their husbands has risen by about 40% over the past 30 years, while the proportion of men who say the same has remained unchanged. In fact, more women are cheating on their partners than at any time in history, said the author, who confessed that she began documenting the book in shock at the casualness with which several married friends told her they were having extramarital affairs. Some of the women described their infidelity as a subversive or creative act, a protest against an institution they found suffocating and oppressive, and a way of preserving, rather than destroying, their marriages.
In previous generations, Perel says, women in this situation would probably have divorced, but today fewer and fewer women are willing to abandon marriages and families that have taken years or even decades to build. Fewer are willing to bear the stigma of an “open” relationship, or to undertake the effort of negotiating a more complex arrangement.
The solution Perel sees is (like Botton’s) not clearly outlined. “What I work on is helping people navigate the complexities and the challenges of modern relationships at home and at work,” Perel said. “I think for the lives of women to change, men need to be given an opportunity to rethink what the identity of a man in this day and age is about. So that’s where I’m going.”
Adding a little science
Attempts to answer the question “Are humans monogamous or not?” have been made within the scientific world. Eliza Vlădescu takes a brief interdisciplinary tour to get an answer, bringing together evolutionary sociologists, anthropologists, biologists, and historians, who all say that monogamy is a recent human development and that humans are actually polygamous.
But there are other views, such as those derived from studies showing that the human brain is wired to maintain long-term intimate relationships, “and this is seen in the presence and effects of oxytocin, also known as the ‘monogamy hormone.’ Research has shown that increased levels of oxytocin lead to decreased sexual interactions and increased acts of affection, and when the hormone is blocked, the opposite occurs: sexual interactions without acts of affection.”
In 2014, a team of researchers at the University of Pennsylvania analysed a species of monkey that turned out to be genetically monogamous. (Genetic monogamy, or the lack of mating outside of a pair, is very rare in animals.) Study author Eduardo Fernandez-Duque says his attempt to assess genetic monogamy is the first of its kind for primates and the fourth to be carried out for mammalian species that live in pairs. The genetic analysis showed that the monkeys were completely faithful, with no offspring from outside the pair. Duque expressed surprise at the results, saying that “true genetic monogamy is very rare. We would not have been surprised if there had been at least one non-pair infant, but there were none.”
Popular but generalising discourses
Many people today resonate with pessimistic discourses like Botton’s and feminist discourses like Perel’s because they live under the impression that these are the only reliable portraits of the society in which we live. And because they have a considerable amount of insight (i.e. they seem to have discovered the most overlooked subtleties of how we experience our relationships), these discourses gain credibility among readers who are willing to resort to generalisation to compensate for areas that the discourses of the two intellectuals leave uncovered or unexamined.
For example, Botton’s image of love as a slave at the mercy of our need for adventure and security does not fit with the unrequited, sacrificial loves that actually exist and that we see all around us. It is also worth considering whether this love, enslaved to other needs, is not an instrumental love, a love that has no value in itself but is a temporary construct through which we produce satisfaction and which we discard when it no longer delivers as expected.
In the same way, it is worth asking whether Botton and Perel are not reinforcing a fundamental doubt that has come down to us as a legacy of the sexual revolution of half a century ago, a doubt about the solidity of the pillars on which romantic relationships had hitherto rested.
Through its many effects, the sexual revolution has produced exactly the opposite of what it sought to promote. And as a result, society has taken steps that are not yet reflected philosophically, but are clear in practice.
The “free love” movement did not succeed in creating a society in which love is free from constraints, but a society in which love is forced to be free. The culture of sexual promiscuity, and the devastation that followed, blatantly contradicted the utopian promises of a society rebuilt around pleasure, mistaken for love. However, to the surprise of sociologists, as if a pendulum had begun to swing back the other way, the new society (the millennial generation, to be precise) seems completely unimpressed by the libertine ethos that confused their parents’ generation.
According to an analysis by American sociologist Nicholas Wolfinger, published on the website of the Institute for Family Studies, of the generations alive today, millennials have emerged as most faithful to their partners.
Americans over the age of 55 had a higher incidence of adultery than people younger than 55. Specifically, people born between 1940 and 1959, who are now between 64 and 83 years old, reported the highest rates of extramarital sexual activity.
Shirley Zussman, a sex counsellor with more than 50 years’ experience in the field, said a few years ago that the current generation’s attitude to sex is changing: “I don’t think it’s as frantic as casual sex was in the sixties.”
A monumental study by a team of psychologists led by Dr Jean Twenge, a professor at the San Diego campus of California State University, has backed up Zussman’s claims by showing that the percentage of sexually inactive young people is higher today (though not a majority) than it was when the ’60s generation was young.
Among young millennials (born between 1990 and 1994) aged 20 to 24 at the time of the survey, about 15% said they had not had sex since they became adults (turned 18). This is more than double the 6% of 20-24-year olds born between 1965 and 1969. The percentage change is all the more significant because it was calculated on a sample of 26,707 US adults, comparing the current data with the General Social Survey.
Even more interesting, however, is a statistic published by Lindsay Labrecque and Mark A. Whisman of the University of Colorado Boulder, which found that while the percentage of Americans who think extramarital sex is always wrong declined between 2000 and 2016, the same respondents reported a decline in the number of extramarital affairs over the same period. In other words, while millennials are more philosophically open to adultery, they are less likely to resort to it.
The key is not to unleash desire, but to master it
Perhaps the millennial generation has grasped a fundamental truth that their parents questioned at the expense of their own happiness: despite impulses towards promiscuity, sexual promiscuity is not the key to true happiness. And this is where I think the old and new advocates of “free love” are wrong: they become slaves to their own impulses, which end up dictating their morality.
What would an updated marriage vow based on the “free love” model sound like? “I promise to love you as long as my own feelings help me. My love will last as long as my sex drive lasts. I solemnly swear to stay by your side until I meet someone else who will awaken my sense of adventure and make me willing to try another form of stability.”
Christianity proposes a much more dignified version, one in which both partners are safe from the intemperance of their emotions and neither is at the mercy of whims. It is not that feelings are excluded (history has seen this extreme), but that they are subordinated to a higher element: commitment.
The dignity of this vision is built upon a pattern that brings long-term satisfaction precisely because satisfaction is not the primary goal. (In the video above, Timothy Keller succinctly explains to Google employees what the primary goal is). When the vow of love “for better, for worse” is recited at the wedding service, and the couple vow to remain together even “for poorer” and “in sickness,” they place between themselves and all future uncertainties a certainty that they can fully control: come what may, we will remain together. As Hannah Arendt memorably said: “The remedy for unpredictability, for the chaotic uncertainty of the future, is contained in the faculty to make and keep promises.”