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Why Is Monogamy Idealized When Most People Aren't Monogamous?

Monogamy is exceedingly uncommon in the natural world -- and, as it turns out, the human world.

According to the animal kingdom, and research with creatures from insects and fish to birds, apes, lions, tigers and bears (oh my), monogamy is exceedingly uncommon in the natural world. In fact, with advances in the technology of genetic testing, many of the species previously lauded as being lifelong monogamous, are now known to actually have many sexual encounters outside their seemingly monogamous partnerships. While they may maintain long-term pair bonds with a single partner, they do not maintain sexual fidelity. Swans, geese, and eagles, species long romantically described as monogamous, have now been revealed to have engaged in nonmonogamous sexual activity in as many as one out of four births. In fact, according to some researchers, it’s more newsworthy when evidence of monogamy and sexual fidelity is actually supported in the animal kingdom.

Among mammals, only a very few species live in seemingly monogamous arrangements, and fewer still maintain sexual fidelity within those relationships. Man certainly does not seem to be one of them. There is increasing evidence that many men are not biologically or psychologically disposed to sexual monogamy.

When one considers the seeming universality of the expectation of monogamy in today’s world (or at least the world presented by Western media), it is perhaps surprising that monogamy has not always been the expected state for man. Despite the vehemence with which many Christians defend monogamy, many men in the Bible, including David and Solomon, were far from monogamous. In fact, whenever conservative marriage advocates espouse “traditional marriage,” I always have to laugh – even in Christianity, traditional marriage included polygyny (a marriage arrangement with one man and multiple wives), and was not explicitly limited to a monogamous arrangement between “one man and one woman.”

Throughout the history of man, most societies practiced a range of relationships, with monogamy and polygyny the most common, and only rare societies that mandated monogamy. Historically, polygyny has been one of the most common and prevalent forms of marriage, worldwide, with evidence that the acceptability of marriage of a single male to multiple females has been present in all human cultures through history. (Polyandry, a single woman with multiple male husbands has been very rare, and typically tied to unique economic circumstances.) Currently, less than 20 percent of world cultures require monogamy, the overwhelming majority allowing polygamous marriages. Less common were societies that practiced polyandry, where one woman has multiple husbands (which reportedly were found in less than 1 percent of worldwide societies).

Throughout history, many powerful men have eschewed monogamy for the privilege of having multiple female partners, typically through having multiple wives, concubines and mistresses. It was not all men who could support multiple wives, but usually only the wealthiest, most powerful men who could attract, protect, and provide for multiple wives and their children. But, in modern Western culture, men with multiple wives are seen as sinners and lawbreakers – in America, bigamy and polygyny is illegal, and was deemed a danger to society by the US Supreme court when it was outlawed in Utah in the 19 th century.

Monogamy is enforced by law in the United States with criminal adultery statutes, laws against bigamy and in child custody laws. Infidelity is punishable by law in twenty-five states, and is subject to civil lawsuit in eight. While violations of such laws are rarely prosecuted, statutory penalties against these crimes range from two years’ imprisonment to commitment for treatment of insanity.

Even when partners do not sexually violate marriage expectations, with divorce rates as high as 60 percent in some cases, monogamy has less meaning than it once did. Serial monogamy is now the truer term, where individuals are monogamous as long as they are in a given relationship, but move on to other relationships, sexual and otherwise, once that relationship ends. Why then is monogamy the expected, required, and enforced marital ideal? Marriage laws, according to most experts, have more to do with contract and property law. Monogamy offers important assurances regarding parentage that support and clarify inheritance laws and precedents. Some writers and historians suggest that monogamy represents a political and economic compromise, between the needs of the powerful and the need to have a self-sufficient, satisfied, and motivated workforce.

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