Nick Harding and Eric Anderson
Sexual taboos are falling in Western cultures. Largely due to the Internet, today’s youth take a much more sex-positive view to what comes naturally than the generations before them. They have shed the fear and misconception of masturbation. They enjoy a hook-up culture, where sex is easier to come by; and there is less of a double standard for women who are also enjoying these freedoms. Pornography is commonplace, with most boys seeking it out around age 11; and that pornography has withered at moralistic Victorian ideals of heterosexual, missionary ‘sex’.
Despite all this social-sexual progress, however, our pornified culture has yet to erode at the sexual taboo of engaging in or even admitting to desperately wanting, sex with someone other than one’s monogamous partner. Monogamy is so socially esteemed it remains virtually socially compelled in our relationships.
But despite its cultural esteem, there are faults with the practice; problems covered by a culture unwilling to ask critical questions about it. Monogamy’s regard is maintained through multiple, robust cultural myths: in the forms of both a carrot and a stick.
Young men entering romantic relationships are misled into thinking that monogamy can provide them with a lifetime of sexual fulfilment; that if they truly loved their partners, they would not strongly desire others. This, we are told, is because monogamy is healthy, proper, moral, and natural, and anyone deviating from or challenging this script is stigmatised.
One of us (Anderson) in his book, The Monogamy Gap: Men, Love, and the Reality of Cheating, holds monogamy, not cheating, to a critical light. He exposes the myths supporting monogamy as untrue, suggesting that this is even more so for young men who have grown up with easier access to sex, a panoply of pornography, and a greater number of sexual partners before finding love.
Anderson highlights how many young men navigate the following stages concerning monogamy.
- They enter into romantic relationships believing in the myths of monogamy. Many have come from families broken by cheating, and they don’t want to be ‘that guy.’ They believe that if they love their partners, they will be sexually satisfied with them in perpetuity.
- Despite this belief, sexual habituation sets in quickly. After a few weeks or months of having novel, frequent, and exciting sex with ease, men start losing sexual interest in their partner. They make attempts to spice up their sex life, but they find that the long-term effectiveness of this strategy is limited. In time – whether a few months or, if lucky, years – the frequency and quality of sex in the relationship declines to an unbearable degree.
- The relentless urge to have sex with someone else grows stronger as the emotional strength of the relationship develops. Young men who fail to love their girlfriends or boyfriends are not compelled to stay with their partners. Instead, they are culturally free to leave their partners. But men don’t leave their partners because of waning sexual desires alone; they love their partners and do not wish to leave They simply want sex with someone else to fulfil their sexual desires while keeping their emotional relationships intact.
- Men begin to resent their partners. When every cell in their body is craving sex with someone else, monogamy begins to feel like sexual incarceration. Men want to escape, and, to some extent, their inability to do so is taken out on their partner, who is viewed as keeping them sexually As feelings like oppression, frustration, and anger build, one thing becomes clear: they cannot simply ‘suck it up’ and deal with these feelings for potentially many years to come, at least not while maintaining a happy relationship.
- Men must decide. Do they break up with their partners so they can have sex elsewhere? Tell their partners that they desire a sexually-open relationship? Discuss their sexual desires with their partners but not ask for an open relationship. Or do they choose to cheat, even if not fully admitting this choice to themselves?
- The decision is normally made to cheat, and this normally occurs (the first time) when drunk. Men do not choose the first option because they are in love with their partners and do not wish to lose their emotional relationship. They do not choose the second or third options because they fear that if they do, their partners will not only deny them the ability to have extra-dyadic sex, but they will either subject them to extra surveillance and scrutiny or break up with them altogether. Thus, cheating becomes the only rational choice to have their emotional and sexual desires met. With the fuel of alcohol, cheating (the first time) ‘just happens.’ But because most of the time men are not caught, and because they view the crime as having already been committed, they begin to cheat more often. Feelings of guilt and anxieties about being caught lessen over time as they become desensitised to infidelity, see the benefits it provides for their relationship, and acquire skills for engaging in it discreetly. This cheating option has another advantage: they do not permit their partners to have sex with others and, therefore, do not have to confront their sexual jealousy.
Thus, based on Anderson’s interviews with 120 young men, and our respective reviews of the research from hundreds of other academics across the biological and social sciences, we believe that cheating is a rational response to the irrational expectation of monogamy. Cheating serves as a way for men to meet their desires, with as little disruption to their emotional lives as possible. This is why 78% of the men Anderson interviewed report having cheated on their current partner. Just think how much more rational cheating is for men in a happy marriage with children.
We are not here condoning cheating, but we are condemning the cultural reverence for monogamy that repeatedly sets up this situation. Our position is unpopular in a culture that so highly values fidelity, yet we believe that our claims so far must resonate, at least at some level, with most who read it. This is because the evidence about monogamy suggests that while we value it, it is not working for a lot of men (and women). While rates of cheating are difficult to determine and vary across studies, it is undoubtedly common – indeed, many studies report rates of over 50% for married and unmarried men. Furthermore, research finds that whatever their age and marital status, men (most) often cheat for sexual gratification outside an otherwise (very) happy relationship – just like the young men Anderson interviewed.
Even when men do not cheat, this does not necessarily mean that monogamy is unproblematic. We have heard of cases where men decided to end their relationship rather than cheat, breaking their partner’s heart. Others have been dumped for being honest about their desires. There may also be many that struggle on with monogamy and the physiological and psychological strains it places on them, but their relationship consequently suffers (and is ended).
Despite all these issues, few point out one obvious solution—sexually-open relationships. Here, in an egalitarian manner, a couple reserves emotional fidelity, while allowing for extra-dyadic, recreational sex. A common misassumption is that sexually-open relationships involve few or no restrictions on when, where, how often, and with whom extra-dyadic sex can occur. While this is true for some, arguably most are governed by considerable rules and boundaries. For many partners, extra-dyadic sex is something they do together, perhaps by swinging or having a third person (e.g. a friend, someone they have met online, or a sex worker) join them. Others will prefer discretion and no ongoing friendship with extra-dyadic sexual partners; this might be achieved by only permitting their partner to pay for sex, engage in anonymous sex at a party, or have one-time hook-ups. These are some examples of the different ways in which couples can structure a sexually-open relationship.
Both of us in our respective research argue that if we wish to reduce cheating, we need to value sexually-open relationships alongside monogamous ones equally. We show how sexually-open relationships can provide better strategies than monogamy for managing challenges such as jealousy, the threat of extra-dyadic love, and the risk of sexually transmitted infections. People cheat when the rules are irrational, but if the rules are realistic for both, couples will have a better chance at making their relationship last.
Of course, sexually open relationships are not the only alternative for men (and women) who cannot handle monogamy. Others include polyamory, intentionally and openly having short-term (casual) relationships, or just enjoying the single life.
All this raises numerous empirical and ethical questions: Can sexually-open relationships work? If so, how? Is monogamy crucial for good parenting and a stable society? Should people commit to monogamy when it is a promise they (likely) cannot keep? Can cheating ever be morally justified? One of us (Harding) is exploring these questions and more in his PhD thesis currently titled ‘What’s wrong with sexual monogamy?’
Finally, we believe that only when there is no stigma surrounding sexually-open relationships and other consensually non-monogamous alternatives will men and women begin to be more honest about what they want sexually, and how they desire to achieve it. Only once all these alternatives become viable cultural choices (free of stigma or hierarchy) will men and women begin to talk honestly about what form of relationship would serve them best. Only then will they be permitted to structure their relationship, as they see fit.
Anderson, E. (2012). The monogamy gap: Men, love and the reality of cheating. New York: Oxford University Press
Nick Harding is a PhD candidate in the philosophy department at the University of Southampton, U.K. In his thesis currently titled ‘What’s wrong with sexual monogamy?’, he is exploring the science and ethics of sexual monogamy, consensual sexual non-monogamy, and sexual infidelity. Eric Anderson is Professor of Sport, Masculinities, and Sexualities at the University of Winchester, England. He holds degrees in health, psychology, and sociology and has published seventeen books and 70 peer-reviewed articles. His often controversial research is regularly featured in international television, print and digital media.
Image: Copyright Roman Samborskyi (purchased from shutterstock)