Is Cheating the Rational Reaction to Monogamy?
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“Can men and women ever be just good friends?” This question has long been a staple of women’s magazines, self-help books, and day-time television shows. And as conservative morality lessens, inspiring a culture of ‘hooking up’ particularly among young people, the question has fresh relevance. As highlighted by the film Friends with Benefits, where Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis collide (passionately and repeatedly) in search of sexual satisfaction without commitment, contemporary culture is throwing up a host of scenarios where the question can be asked with renewed zeal.
Yet the question belies an aggravatingly simplistic understanding of men, women, sex and love. Ignoring the assumption that all men and women are heterosexual, it is problematic because it conflates emotional closeness with sexual passion. While a seemingly innocuous question about the tribulations of heterosexual friendship, its implicit beliefs are that sex has to be emotionally-charged and that romantic love is necessarily sexual. If you like her, you must want to fuck her. And while Hollywood, Disney, and almost all of popular culture continue to promote this view of sex and love, increasing numbers of people are dissatisfied by its tenets—including those in open relationships and the majority of those who cheat.
In the past, I resorted to just grumbling about the inanity of the question, bemoaning the simplistic understandings of sex, love, and the exclusion of sexual minorities from the mix. It was therefore with great joy that I read my friend’s new book that provides a brilliant analysis of sex, love and the human condition. The Monogamy Gap: Men, Love and the Reality of Cheating, by Professor Eric Anderson, offers a provocative exploration of sex and love, critiquing monogamy as a failed social institution that works to limit our sexual pleasure and restrict our ability to form long-lasting, loving relationships.
While Professor Anderson’s main target is monogamy, the book resonated with me so powerfully because it draws on sociology and psychology, alongside several branches of science, to demonstrate the problems of conflating sex and love. He provides an array of biological explanations as to why these men’s illicit desires are fundamentally natural, arguing that sexual desire is not biologically linked to emotional relationships, even if it can produce an emotional response.
Anderson’s argument is that monogamy is a social ideal, and not a biological one. He shows that it normally comes at considerable cost, either through suppressing sexual desire or risking being caught cheating. Drawing on a wide range of evidence, Anderson suggests that monogamy is an irrational ideal because it fails to provide a lifetime of sexual fulfilment. Cheating becomes the rational response to an irrational situation.
Of course, one of the main reasons for this conflation of sex and love is precisely to keep monogamy in its hallowed place. For without the idea that sex is necessarily an emotionally-imbued act, the reasons to stick with just one sexual partner fall away. Academic feminists have long highlighted the links between monogamy and misogyny (arguing that monogamy has historically been about the possession of women), and rather than rehearse the same arguments, Anderson highlights how monogamy also does not work for men. He argues that just as we would grow bored of the same food day after day, and just as we need more than one friend to keep us emotionally secure and intellectually stimulated, our mammalian bodies need multiple sexual partners to remain sexually satisfied. This is why couples have less and less sex the longer they are together, even though women’s sexual appetite peaks in their mid-30s. Anderson shows that sex dies as love grows and his argument matters because many couples view this decline in sex as evidence of a problem in a relationship, rather than a natural phenomenon of monogamous sexual relationships.