Is Monogamy "Normal?"

Despite repeated assurances that women aren’t particularly sexual creatures, throughout history in cultures around the world men have gone to extraordinary lengths to control female sexuality: female genital mutilation, medieval witch burnings, chastity belts, suffocating corsets, insults, paternalistic medical diagnoses of nymphomania or hysteria, the debilitating scorn heaped on any female who chooses to be generous with her sexuality – all parts of a worldwide campaign to keep supposedly low-key female libido under control. Why the high-security razor-wire fence to contain a kitty-cat?

For centuries, theorists have claimed that married, monogamous couples are the natural unit of human society, a claim that doesn’t explain why everyone — from politicians to preachers — has so much trouble staying faithful. The following excerpt, from the book Dan Savage called “the single most important book about human sexuality since Alfred Kinsey,”  makes a different argument, against monogamy.

Evolutionary psychology’s standard narrative contains several clanging contradictions, but one of the most discordant involves female libido. Females, we’re told again and again, are the choosy, reserved sex. Men spend their energies trying to impress women — flaunting expensive watches, packaging themselves in shiny new sports cars, clawing their way to positions of fame, status, and power — all to convince coy females to part with their closely guarded sexual favors. For women, the narrative holds that sex is about the security — emotional and material — of the relationship, not the physical pleasure. Darwin agreed with this view. The “coy” female who “requires to be courted” is deeply embedded in his theory of sexual selection.

If women were as libidinous as men, we’re told, society itself would collapse. Lord Acton was only repeating what everyone knew in 1875 when he declared, “The majority of women, happily for them and for society, are not very much troubled with sexual feeling of any kind.”

And yet, despite repeated assurances that women aren’t particularly sexual creatures, in cultures around the world men have gone to extraordinary lengths to control female libido: female genital mutilation, head-to-toe chadors, medieval witch burnings, chastity belts, suffocating corsets, muttered insults about “insatiable” whores, pathologizing, paternalistic medical diagnoses of nymphomania or hysteria, the debilitating scorn heaped on any female who chooses to be generous with her sexuality . . . all parts of a worldwide campaign to keep the supposedly low-key female libido under control. Why the electrified high-security razor-wire fence to contain a kitty-cat?

The Greek god Tiresias had a unique perspective on male and female sexual pleasure.

While still a young man, Tiresias came upon two snakes entwined in copulation. With his walking stick, he separated the amorous serpents and was suddenly transformed into a woman.

Seven years later, the female Tiresias was walking through the forest when she again interrupted two snakes in a private moment. Placing her staff between them, she completed the cycle and was transformed back into a man.

This unique breadth of experience led the first couple of the Greek pantheon, Zeus and Hera, to call upon Tiresias to resolve their longrunning marital dispute: who enjoys sex more, men or women? Zeus was sure that women did, but Hera would hear none of it. Tiresias replied that not only did females enjoy sex more than males, they enjoyed it nine times more!

His response incensed Hera so much that she struck Tiresias blind. Feeling responsible for having dragged poor Tiresias into this mess, Zeus tried to make amends by giving him the gift of prophesy. It was from this state of blinded vision that Tiresias saw the terrible destiny of Oedipus, who unknowingly killed his father and married his mother.

Peter of Spain, author of one of the most widely read medical books of the thirteenth century, the Thesaurus Pauperum, was more diplomatic when confronted with the same question. His answer (published in Quaestiones super Viaticum) was that although it was true women experienced greater quantity of pleasure, men’s sexual pleasure was of higher quality. Peter’s book included ingredients for thirty-four aphrodisiacs, fifty-six prescriptions to enhance male libido, and advice for women wanting to avoid pregnancy. Perhaps it was his diplomacy, the birth-control advice, or his open-mindedness that led to one of history’s strange and tragic turns. In 1276, Peter of Spain was elected Pope John XXI, but he died just nine months later when the ceiling of his library suspiciously collapsed on him as he slept.

Why does any of this history matter? Why is it important that we correct widely held misconceptions about human sexual evolution?

Well, ask yourself what might change if everyone knew that women do (or, at least, can, in the right circumstances) enjoy sex as much as men, not to mention nine times more, as Tiresias claimed? What if Darwin was wrong about the sexuality of the human female — led astray by his Victorian bias? What if Victoria’s biggest secret was that men and women are both victims of false propaganda about our true sexual natures and the war between the sexes — still waged today — is a false-flag operation, a diversion from our common enemy?

We’re being misled and misinformed by an unfounded yet constantly repeated mantra about the naturalness of wedded bliss, female sexual reticence, and happily-ever-after sexual monogamy — a narrative pitting man against woman in a tragic tango of unrealistic expectations, snowballing frustration, and crushing disappointment. Living under this tyranny of two, as author and media critic Laura Kipnis puts it, we carry the weight of “modern love’s central anxiety,” namely, “the expectation that romance and sexual attraction can last a lifetime of coupled togetherness despite much hard evidence to the contrary.”

We build our most sacred relationships on the battleground where evolved appetites clash with the romantic mythology of monogamous marriage. As Andrew J. Cherlin recounts in The Marriage-Go-Round, this unresolved conflict between what we are and what many wish we were results in “a great turbulence in American family life, a family flux, a coming and going of partners on a scale seen nowhere else.” Cherlin’s research shows that “[t]here are more partners in the personal lives of Americans than in the lives of people of any other Western country.”

But we rarely dare to confront the contradiction at the heart of our mistaken ideal of marriage head-on. And if we do? During a routine discussion of yet another long-married politician caught with his pants down, comedian/social critic Bill Maher asked the guests on his TV show to consider the unspoken reality underlying many of these situations: “When a man’s been married twenty years,” Maher said, “he doesn’t want to have sex, or his wife doesn’t want to have sex with him. Whatever it is. What is the right answer? I mean, I know he’s bad for cheating, but what’s the right answer? Is it — to just suck it up and live the rest of your life passionless, and imagine somebody else when you’re having sex with your wife the three days a year that you have sex?” After an extended, awkward silence, one of Maher’s panelists eventually suggested, “The right answer is to get out of the relationship. . . . Move on. I mean, you’re an adult.” Another agreed, noting, “Divorce is legal in this country.” The third, normally outspoken journalist P. J. O’Rourke, just looked down at his shoes and said nothing.

“Move on?” Really? Is abandonment of one’s family the “adult” option for dealing with the inherent conflict between socially sanctioned romantic ideals and the inconvenient truths of sexual passion?

From the book Sex at Dawn by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá. Copyright © 2010 by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá.


  1. This must be right. Every female is naturally sexual and is more likely to be promiscuous than a male and have a harem of males. It’s just like in the animal kingdom.

  2. Lord Acton evidently was an idiot who didn’t know how to please his women into wanting more & more! LOL

    I love that we as women have become more and more in tune with our sexuality. While I don’t think we necessarily have to be with only one mate our entire life, I think part of finding that mate that you WANT to be with for your entire life is experiencing the many others out there. I will say though that there is a difference between monogamy and finding the one person you want to be with exclusively & not cheating. I think we as humans NEED to experience at least more than one partner!

    Excellent article!

  3. Kudos to you for this great & informative article! Women need to have some sexual freedoms. It’s a woman’s prerogative to either choose monogamy or not! If you choose one way or the other it’s your choice, nobody elses!

  4. I think libido for women is different from one woman to the next. Today, the line of who has more libido in the battle of the sexes is a bit blurred. Society is at a point where it is more open.

    I know for myself I like a good romp every day and that is more than most of my gal pals.

  5. someone trying to argue that human beings (swimming in a pool, cutting there hair, maintaining there looks, and driving) how can someone argue that is not “natural” or is abnormal?

    Human beings are not as basic as animals right?
    We do not just eat,sleep,breed, die, we have built civilization further more are brains are way more advanced yes?

    what is “normal” for a human? can we really argue that a human in its ‘natural’ form would only eat sleep, die, & breed and that is it?

    even cavemen did things that are abnormal to say how animals opperate as animals go off instinct. Im sure cavemen had many practices that today we view as “Abnormal” this further leads me to believe there is not much of the human lifestyle that we do that is normal. exceptions is looking for sex changes or say eating other humans right? but swimming in pools, and the concept of marriage is not normal nor abnormal yes?

    did caveman really practice monogamy?

    Also the idea of “Love” did not start until the Renaissance i believe.

  6. I recently found out my bf wishes to dress/act feminine. Before any of this we were still very much into BDSM, though he was very dominant and I submissive. Now he says he wants to be my b*** for lack of a better word. He wants to be my owned girl. He wears a chastity device and enjoys pain. I go along with it but recently he told me the longer he is locked up the more he thinks about me forcing him to be with a man or watch me with another man. I don’t care who he has fantasies about or if he’s bisexual. I just want us devoted to one another. He says he enjoys being a man and does not want to have genital surgery but I’m afraid the longer we do this he will want that. I have been with another woman while he was there and I felt bad about myself after and didn’t want to do it again, but he says he really wants to try being forced to perform oral sex on a man.

    For him he says it’s not about being with a man it’s about feeling so submissive to me that he would do anything I wanted. He said if he didn’t like it after I tried he would still do it if I liked it. But I asked if he liked it and I didn’t would he still want to do it, since he’s still submissive? He keeps asking me if I want to go forward with this but I’m afraid if we try this once he will want it forever and I am not interested in losing monogamy in our relationship in the long run. I don’t want to be with him and have him do that all the time. He also says that it is not something he wants forever, to dress and be feminine, though he says he wants to take “temp hormones.” I still have reservations about it, because I don’t understand how if he went that far he would want to be a masculine man again, he tells me I should trust him and I do trust him. But I don’t want to have a family with him and then have him decide later he wants to be with men on the side or become a woman and live as a woman forever. He says there’s other things he wants in life and this is just something he wants the experience of, but it seems deeper than just cross dressing to me. I’m afraid that if he starts hormones he won’t be attracted to me anymore. Also, that the hormones won’t really be “temporary.”

    It does turn me on when he’s dressed which I didn’t think it would, but I do know I don’t want it forever. I want a husband and I want my boyfriend back at some point. I don’t want this for ten years and I’m afraid he just is still confused about his gender identity. He told me we can stop this and not talk about it again–but again, I feel as though it is deeper than that and it will only come out later in life and be even more detrimental to our relationship. I just don’t know what to do and would like advice from anyone who has had a similar experience.I want to be with him, but I want him happy most of all, I want him to feel like he is living an authentic life, for himself. I don’t want him to sacrifice who is if he feels like he needs to live full time as a woman, but I also want to believe that it will be a temporary thing and when the time comes we can have a “normal” male and female relationship again. I love and I trust him, but I also know sometimes no one can predict the future. I don’t want to hurt him, but I don’t want to hurt myself either.

    What do you think? I should note, I do talk to him about this. All the time, I was just looking for some outside opinions and words we could both think about, maybe if it was something I hadn’t thought of…Could it be possible for this to be a temporary desire? Will the hormones be irreversible?

    Please, no rude comments or derogatory words toward anyone under the umbrella of the “trans” community.