Sex & Relationships

Is Cheating the Rational Reaction to Monogamy?

A new book offers a provocative exploration of sex and love, critiquing monogamy as a failed social institution that works to limit our sexual pleasure.

“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 filmFriends 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.

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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.

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Anderson also charts how society is beginning to understand the problems with monogamy, arguing that the requirements of what it means to be monogamous changes over time: from not masturbating in the 1950s, to not thinking of another woman while masturbating, to not watching porn, to not kissing another woman, to some men today allowed to do no more than kissing another woman. From this historical perspective, the possibility of having multiple sexual partners while maintaining a committed emotional relationship looks closer than we might otherwise think. Indeed, it demonstrates the effects that a more expansive and open sexual morality has on socially-enforced institutions like monogamy. And it is at this stage that Anderson provides his most provocative argument: Men cheat because they love their partners.

It is the ‘because’ that makes the statement so challenging. Yet Anderson’s argument is convincing: Intentionally focusing on younger men unburdened by marriage and parenthood, he argues that if these men did not love their partners, they could break up with them. Existing in the open sexual marketplace of university culture, and fuelled by high consumption of both alcohol and porn, these men do not need to be with their partners for access to sex (unlike undergraduates of past generations). In other words, if the 78% of university-attending men he interviewed who had cheated on their current partners did not love them, they would have left them. The logic, then, is clear—these men are with their girlfriends because of the emotional bond they share. Having undergone a rapid process of sexual habituation in a culture that is highly sexualized, it is men’s sexual dissatisfaction rather than any emotional one which propels them to have sex with others.

Anderson’s argument is contrary to what we have been told by our parents, religion, and Disney, yet it is nonetheless compelling. And it also makes clear that yes, men and women can be ‘just friends.’ With the conflation between sex and love unpicked, the capacity for sexless friendship and emotion-free sex becomes apparent. I suggest that ‘friends with benefits’ is a further weakening of the dominant position of monogamy. While still removed from the anonymity of ‘hooking up,’ it is nonetheless a search for sexual satisfaction without emotional baggage. The next thing society has to learn is that emotional relationships can be stronger without the complications of sex, and certainly without the strictures of sexual fidelity. And it is for these reasons that Anderson’s book is a must-read for all those who feel strongly about sex, love, and monogamy.