We’ve all been raised under the assumption that marriage is a monogamous institution, but Love & Sex expert Dan Savage has recently suggested that this might be a surprisingly recent convention. This isn’t the first time we’ve heard men proclaim that monogamy is unnatural — “spreading the seed,” and all that. Anti-monogamy rhetoric has always rendered me a little skeptical, but Savage’s argument, at the very least, is worth some consideration.

From today’s NYT article, in which Savage is interviewed:

“The mistake that straight people made,” Savage told me, “was imposing the monogamous expectation on men. Men were never expected to be monogamous. Men had concubines, mistresses and access to prostitutes, until everybody decided marriage had to be egalitar­ian and fairsey.” In the feminist revolution, rather than extending to women “the same latitude and license and pressure-release valve that men had always enjoyed,” we extended to men the confines women had always endured. “And it’s been a disaster for marriage.”

It’s true that throughout history, monogamy wasn’t always as important to marriage as it seems to be now. (Neither was love, for that matter.) Edward VII of England had many mistresses: his wife, Queen Alexandra, was not only aware of them, but friendly towards them. Even in the Bible, important figures such as Gideon, David, and Solomon all had concubines. This is not to mention the many non-Western cultures based on polygamy.

It’s interesting to wonder what the dating playing field would look like if women were allowed to keep mistresses (masters?) the way their husband did. would we be okay with mistresses and concubines if we could have equal dalliances of our own?

An interesting example of a woman with an accepted extra-marital situation is the relationship between protagonist Mikael Blomkvist and Erika Berger in Stieg Larsson’s wildly popular “Girl With A Dragon Tattoo” series. In the books, Berger is happily married, but maintains a long-term “friends with benefits” type relationship with Bloomkvist — which her husband is fully aware and supportive of, though he himself doesn’t have a mistress.

In an ideal world, men and women would be free to stray — or not stray — based on whatever agreement works for them within a couple. But the problem with sex is that it’s not exactly an “eye for an eye” type situation: if your wife sleeps with someone else, you might feel hurt or jealous and betrayed. The knowledge that you yourself could go out and sleep with someone else might not make you feel better.

It also grossly de-romanticizes the idea of marriage. If both people within the relationship can sleep with whomever, then marriage signifies itself a more practical arrangement: someone to buy a house with, to raise your children with, to love in sickness and in health, but not exclusively. But maybe this isn’t a bad thing.

So here’s a question for the ladies: if it were socially acceptable for you to have an affair, would you?

If we could revert back to how monogamy was viewed 100 years ago, except this time you would be allowed to hook up with guys and have affairs, just like your husband or boyfriend, would you want that? Do you think it’s a perfect arrangement for long-term relationships, where the sex will fizzle out after a few decades anyway? Or do you crave the emotional intimacy and commitment of monogamy?

[via The Hairpin]

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