Why vegetarians are monogamish.

Via Mathew Gerson
on Aug 15, 2011
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“Marriage requires a special talent, like acting. Monogamy requires genius.”
~ Warren Beatty

Working in the Safe Sex Industry (I co-founded a one-for-one condom company), I am constantly exposed to the colorful world of perceptions and attitudes around our big relational hot spots. No issue, it seems, is more seeped in cultural and historical lore more than Monogamy. For some, it is the foundation of our culture—and perhaps our very humanity. For others, it is merely a nice way to keep people in line with the status quo while denying our essential nature.

In the book “Sex at Dawn”, as veil after veil (i.e. preconceived notions of things) drops away, the more interesting and challenging questions are revealed; is Monogamy similar to Vegetarianism in that it is a choice made by a group of people to live their lives in a way that they deem to be better or perhaps more moral? Does it really matter if this choice has nothing to do with the way we as a species are biologically designed? Or does it? And where is the opportunity for individual freedom to be expressed within these notions?

The below is an excerpt from the highly thought-provoking dialogue between Salon.com and Christopher Ryan, the co-author of the recently released “Sex at Dawn”,  which looks at the underpinnings of many of our pre-conceived notions about the role of monogamy in human evolution.

Looking forward to the discussion here on Ele.

(originally posted over at Salon.com)

…Psychologist Christopher Ryan is out to defeat an archetypal figure in the mythology of monogamy. No, not Prince Charming; he’s after the widespread belief in a prehistoric hunter who would slay an antelope on the plains and heroically haul it back to his nuclear family.

You might wonder what this has to do with monogamy. Well, Ryan argues that in actuality, the meat would have been shared with the entire tribe, because pre-agricultural societies shared everything—including sex. This is a key point he and co-author/wife Cacilda Jethá make in “Sex at Dawn,”… Our hunting and gathering ancestors were nonmonogamous, they argue—the implication being that, biologically speaking, sexual exclusivity is unnatural.

The book challenges much of the previously accepted wisdom about the sex lives of our ancestors, although the authors admit they haven’t exactly proved their case. Regardless, they have gained praise and admiration from sexual radicals like sex columnist Dan Savage. That makes Ryan an ideal final interview in Salon’s monogamy series, which was originally sparked by Savage’s thoughts in a New York Times Magazine piece about “monogam-ish” marriage.

Salon spoke to Ryan by phone at his home in Barcelona, just as he prepared for a road trip with Jethá. They planned to set out without a destination in mind, enjoy the drive and figure it out as they went—which is awfully similar to their attitude toward monogamy in their marriage.

Why is it wrong, as you argue, to assume that women are the choosy sex and men just want to spread their seed indiscriminately?

Well, there’s a grain of truth there on a biological level. There’s no denying that women make a greater biological investment in pregnancy and gestation than men do. There’s no denying the fact that men produce millions of sperm cells in the amount of time that a woman releases one egg. But when you look at highly intelligent, highly social species—particularly primates, but also dolphins—what you find is that that’s not the way things happen. The assumption that women are choosing mates based on their access to resources is simply not the way it works in primates that are intelligent and social. In fact, there are no social, group-living primates that are monogamous.

What you find in highly social species is that resources tend to be shared, particularly in bonobos and to some extent in chimps. When you look at pre-agricultural human societies, there really is no private property. Even the best hunters gain their status by sharing what they catch. The worst thing you can do in those societies is hoard food. We’re not saying these are “noble savages,” we’re not slipping into that “oh, they’re so much better than us” mindset—in fact, they’re just like us. They’re just in a very different situation in which the best way to spread risk is too share. Today I might kill an antelope, but I’m probably not going to again for a week or two. You don’t just go out and shoot an antelope like you go to the grocery store. The way to make sure that everyone eats, especially in a situation where there is no refrigeration, is to share what we find.

They share their shelter, defense, childcare, food, access to the spirit world—why should we believe that sex is the one thing that they don’t share? What we argue is that’s an economic issue, it’s something that happens with the advent of agriculture when suddenly men became obsessed with paternity because they had this accumulated property that they wanted to pass to their children.

You mentioned love briefly—how does it figure into all of this?

Cacilda and I don’t dispute that love is a very important human emotion and is deeply embedded in our nature. In fact, one of the things that we do best is love other people. But what we do dispute is that it’s necessarily linked to sexual exclusivity. I think that’s something that’s very much culturally encouraged in our possessive, imperialistic society. Whereas in many of the societies we discuss in the book, there’s not a lot of accumulated property like in agricultural societies, and there are rituals that are expressly designed to discourage that possessiveness and jealousy. That might suggest that there is a natural inclination toward jealousy and that these societies are working intentionally to minimize that response, whereas we live in a society that works to maximize it.

How natural is sexual jealousy, then?

I think…

Head over to Salon.com to read more.


About Mathew Gerson

Mathew is the Co-Founder of Sir Richard’s Condom Company. In much of the world there is a severe unmet demand for free contraceptives. In response, Sir Richard's developed a thoughtfully designed premium product, and for every condom purchased, one is contributed to help bridge the need gap. Be in touch: [email protected] Like to see more of the above. Fan us on the Facebook: Sir Richard’s on Facebook


10 Responses to “Why vegetarians are monogamish.”

  1. daria says:

    why do people who treat animals badly always seem to act like them?

  2. Jennifer says:

    It’s interesting because the people who always make this and similar arguments are always the ones in favor of non-monogamy as their personal choice.

    However to try to say that “This is just how it is” is rather limiting, isn’t it? “All Primates are non-monogamous.” K. However in species were we where we see this, we also see the exceptions. Birds don’t mate for life on the whole, but Swans do. And we’re comparing human beings to chimps. Even if we have common ancestry, the fact is we are much more complicated than any of our “cousins.”

    I feel rather than blanket statements on either end of opinion, wouldn’t it be nice to just say “To each their own.” And that frankly we just don’t know what our ancestors did sexually for sure. If you look at the small tribal groups around the world, who we assume live much closer to how our ancestors did than we do, you see both monogamy and non-monogamy. For us why not just live in the way you see fit and what feels right for you and allow others to do the same.

    Also one thing I didn’t see at least in the snippet of the article on here (link to Salon doesn’t work) was that not only are women more invested in monogamy due to pregnancy, but there’s also Oxytocin Bonding for women when they have sex. Though again for some women they can have multiple partners with no problem, for others once they sleep with someone they become more attached and exclusive with that person. It’s just how it works chemically in their bodies. So on the argument of Evolution, they are designed to be monogamous. Again perhaps not the whole… but biologically at least on a woman’s side, it’s there.

  3. anok81 says:

    typo in your link to Salon. missing the ":" after the "//"

  4. Mathew says:

    Hi Jennifer, your points are well taken and you might be surprised to hear that my take away from the book was that the authors (a husband and wife team) did not appear to take a position in an either or way format. One of the most powerful take aways for me personally was having to take a look at how deep seeded the notion of "monogamy is the natural and right way and if you happen to fail at it (are unfaithful) then you deserve everything being taken away from you" that is very common in our culture. By destabilizing some of the premises from a historical and scientific perspective they questioned whether it is in our best interest to put so much importance into one particular style of bonding that 10-20-30 years of relationship can be destroyed by one false move.

  5. dkc says:

    The more partners you have, the higher your risk for disease. A woman's risk for cervical cancer, for instance, increases with the number of partners she's had. Evolutionary, being monogomous advances the species.

  6. kind of a non sequitur, don't you think?

  7. in addition to mathew's comment below, the dominant paradigm informs a significant degree of inequity in our society; monogamy is not only treated as 'normal' but, more disturbingly, as 'right'

    ask yourself how many 'successful' people would be so if openly non-monogamous. ask yourself how much (inter)personal suffering results from the socialisation of sexuality

    i for one have found myself consistently conflicted between the seemingly opposing aspects of 'doing the right thing' and doing what feels natural; sex and love may well be inextricably linked, but our ideas about them have been conflated to such a degree that it seems nigh on impossible to accept that loving someone doesn't necessarily equate with remaining sexually exclusive

    socially there can be little doubt that being monogamous is easier; personally, resolving my ideas about ownership (of self and others) is a task that i frequently doubt i have the emotional maturity to deal with; so i'm monogamous (generally) because, more than anything else, i'm lazy

    to be frank, i don't consider i have even the right to an opinion about what my partner does with their body – as long as it doesn't impact upon the health of mine

    stimulating healthy debate about the socialised sexual status-quo might seem purposeless, but i suspect it's an issue that continues to arise because, to a certain extent, we are at war with our own humanity

    if we're so devoted to loving each other to the best of our ability, why are we still so generally Victorian in our attitudes towards sex?

  8. this isn't necessarily true – being monogamous might mean we are sticking to some sort of biological imperative to live longer (which is really socialised – biologically, the longer we live and the more we breed the more likely we are to wipe ourselves out in a blaze of stupid) but it's a tenuous link to evolution

    the risk factors associated with cervical cancer are many – and being an HPV carrier is considered to be almost a pre-cursor to getting it (more than 99% of invasive cervical cancers contain HPV); yet of the roughly 80% of sexually active women worldwide who carry HPV, only 10% go on to get cervical cancer; and of those who die from it, more than 80% are in developing countries where access to pap smears, adequate nutrition and other preventative measures are limited in availability

  9. still wake up most mornings expecting to wander down pearl street and bump into my friends ….
    anyway – not about requiring permission, simply that even though opinions may arise, i don't consider that i have the right to push that opinion onto someone else – in essence, it's the same sort of dysfunction that says 'you are responsible for my happiness'

    love to hear your response to the balance of my comments too

  10. warriorsaint says:

    Wonderful quote on this from Susie Bright::

    "Monogamy isn't a religion. It's not like you believe in it and all of a sudden all your problems are solved”
    Susie Bright in Salon