The Case for Polyamory
“The nuclear family is not natural. In the two million years hominids have walked the earth, families as we know them only appeared in the last, ten-thousand years.” Tweet
“It must be granted that polyamory is fraught within structures of monogamous society.”
“The freedom to enjoy love’s different dimensions with various people feels natural and right.”
“Ethical non-monogamy addresses predicaments of natural behavior in an unnatural world—a considerable body of literature has emerged...”
Editor’s Note: this piece is from a discussion on the Planned Man project with an old friend—a man who thinks pretty deeply. I was explaining how I had just finished George Gilder’s “Sexual Suicide” and that I was impressed with Gilder’s defense of the institution of marriage—its central role in human affairs. (Get a taste of Gilder’s mind here.) It turned out my old buddy’s thinking on marriage and civilization had evolved. He brought me into his world of polyamory. “You have to write this up for PM,” I said, after he gave me one hell of a philosophical, social report. I thought and still think polyamory’s an untenable approach at scale, but he made a sexy, enlightened case for an outlier way of life—it works for him—which deserves to be told first before being dismissed. He is also the first to use our AnyManAmoungUs, witness-protection pen name.
“Sexual Evolution: Natural Man and the Predicament of Monogamy”
The nuclear family is not natural.
At least that’s the claim of many primatologists. In the two million years hominids have walked Earth, families as we know them only appeared in the last, ten-thousand years. Yet this way of life is taken as axiomatic—as moral bedrock. The notion of “the couple” as the unit of love follows from this axiom. Erotic desires, which challenge this monogamous arrangement, trigger indignation and quick, moral judgment. Yet, many of us—most of us?—feel deep down this is somehow not right. There are, of course, arguments on all sides; but in the end, our understanding of these matters is a function of lived experience and honest reflection.
I’ve had quite a few monogamous relationships—some of which were healthy and happy—and I was even married for 10 years. In none of these relationships did I ever stop wanting to fuck other women—nor do I have the impression my inclinations are unusual. I would notice the waitress’s neck—the legs of the woman at the bar or the eyes of another woman at the next table—while sitting in a restaurant with my girlfriend. I would have imagined each of them bent over the arm of a couch or lying on the table—long before dessert—right in the restaurant while I licked her pussy. Never once during our dinner date did this incline me to suspect I didn’t love my partner or that there was something inadequate about her. It had nothing to do with my partner. Yet experience and custom would suggest such thoughts would be hurtful if known. Moral condemnation would be swift and fierce, if these thoughts were pursued.
More than half-way through my life, I met a woman—call her “S”—who showed me there was a viable world beyond this vexing, moral conundrum. We’d agreed to meet for lunch, after crossing paths, without labeling the meeting as a date. The chemistry was undeniable, but she had a boyfriend whom she liked very much—so she resisted my overtures. We went for a walk in a wooded, out-of-the-way path. Her shoulder touched my arm after a few minutes, and I turned slightly towards her—she turned all the way toward me—and I took hold of her and kissed her in a playing-for-keeps kind of way. She didn’t resist, so I reached under her sundress. She was quivering a few minutes later, leaning into me for support, as we stood at the edge of the woods.
I suggested we go to her house, but she refused. As we corresponded in the coming days, she reported having had a conversation with her boyfriend, telling him about me and gaining his assent to our carrying on.
That first real bout of fucking on my sofa was probably among the more satisfying experiences of my life. There was something like a scent (or was it a taste?), which made me a bit lightheaded, and she remarked on the same sort of experience. We pondered the properties of pheromones and later agreed the strength of attraction and intensity of sex was nature’s way of indicating a path toward strong progeny.
“I would argue, however, a greater awareness and acceptance of our nature can help us navigate these feelings with results that might be better than the effects of the strictures of monogamous moralism.”
I feel pretty certain the awesomeness of the sexual connection was significantly enhanced by the eyes-wide-open candor and the symmetry of our connection, naturalistic speculations aside. It was visceral, unambiguous and undeterred by customary boundaries. S had a boyfriend, but she didn’t want to deny herself this experience. She also didn’t want to lie to him. I admired this and recognized my own sensibilities in hers.
S shared with me a couple of books entailing names and structures to the various phenomena that come into play when one crosses established boundaries of a monogamous culture. Among them was Cacilda Jethá and Christopher Ryan’s Sex at Dawn, which argues that in terms of evolutionary biology, human beings are decidedly polyamorous.
I had become a “metamour”—the lover of a lover. It was a torrid affair (with a boyfriend in the background), minus the anxieties of secrecy and dishonesty that typically plague such arrangements. As it turned out, however, after a couple of months, S’s primary partner was not okay with this polyandrous affair after all. The strife generated between them led to their break-up. It was hard for S, but she was very sure about what she wanted.
She soon had another lover in addition to me—eventually a third. We, at that point, acknowledged we were primary partners, and new affairs were discussed openly. I felt not a twinge of jealousy in all of it because the power and authenticity of the connection between us was undeniable. It was an honest, self-evident, self-contained connection. When you click into someone so tightly—where sensations, physical pressures, grips and bites, sounds and scents, the inspiration to feats hitherto unattempted and even unimagined—it all becomes unambiguous and beyond pledge and promise. It is an unbreakable vow because it doesn’t point beyond itself. It carries its own value, irrespective of what might be going on between either of you with other people. Perhaps the sex she enjoyed with other lovers was just as intense as ours—perhaps even more so—but what did that have to do with this experience?
What makes any of us feel (and even think) that our lover’s pleasure with another in a different time and place diminishes the raptures of another moment? Does my having sex with someone other than my partner imply that I don’t love my partner? Does it suggest something is wrong with my partner? For me, it certainly does not. Does it mean something is lacking in our relationship? My sense is it does not—at least, not necessarily. Extracurricular sex would be a symptom, not a cause, even if the above did.
Pregnancy and STDs are surely concerns, but ethical non-monogamy addresses these issues. There are also norms and principles of conduct within this ethic that are at least as forceful as traditional mores. Granted, if a promise of material support is abruptly withdrawn, then of course this is a real injury—obviously a great peril for wives in most of recorded history, which no doubt contributed to the normative force of monogamy. Other than such concerns, is there a natural basis for monogamy?
The science is mixed, unsurprisingly. Jethá and Ryan’s book provides an accessible overview of the scientific literature. Some researchers hold that pair-bonding is an evolved feature of Homo sapiens, but the growing consensus is human beings are by nature polyamorous, having drifted into marriage customs after the establishment of settlements and private property, which in turn were artifacts of agriculture—a crafty innovation that took hold roughly 10,000 years ago. For the previous 200,000 years, homo sapiens apparently copulated and raised their young in a manner similar to several of our contemporary, primate relatives—e.g., chimpanzees are quite promiscuous. Females are as randy as males; when a male obliges her, she lets her pleasure be known loud and clear, attracting other males to the party—to her delight. Human-female sexual vocalization is hypothesized to be a version of this mating trait. By intoning the pleasures of hard fucking, a stimulus to sexual activity ripples through the community, reminding other ladies of these pleasures and drawing sperm toward eggs.
Indeed, one of the mechanisms of natural selection is sperm competition. Male bonobos, for example, aren’t particularly competitive with each other over sex; pretty much every male has sex with every female in the group. Their sperm, on the other hand, compete fiercely inside the females’ bodies, and phenotypical traits can be linked to seminal virtues of particular males.
Similarly, balls—testicle size, relative to body mass, can be correlated with mating practices. Monogamous primates such as the gibbon have relatively tiny gonads, needing just enough sperm to get a female pregnant, while free-range fuckers like chimps and bonobos have enormous balls (relatively speaking). Researchers have traced a clear gradient in this respect through all species of primates. Human beings, it turns out, are only slightly less huge than chimps in this department.
The penis itself presents a different-though-related evolutionary aspect. While nature was selecting for big brains in our ancestors, the mechanics of sperm competition was molding our genitals to keep up with our big, fat heads. A wider, vaginal canal was an advantage for birthing babies with large craniums—this had implications for sperm warfare. Flared glans atop a longer shaft turned out to be an advantage in a multi-partner situation, enabling the cock to effectively pump out previously deposited semen prior to sending in its own—increasing its chances for reproductive success. These selection pressures over the millennia sculpted the human penis into its current, sporty design.
All of these anatomical features tightly correlate with particular sexual behaviors in modern primates. Ten-thousand years of civilized life is a very short period in evolutionary terms—not long enough to produce significant changes in these respects. We can therefore infer with reasonable confidence our true, sexual nature from these features of our bodies.
Something changed once the hunter-gatherers settled down with their crops and their property. Coupling and the nuclear family became an advantageous way of life. Religious and political customs baked them in soon after—and here we are. But if this account of our sexual nature is correct, we are born to fuck most of the oppositely sexed members of our immediate community—despite the imperatives that impinge upon us from the outside, which is one of the reasons we’re neurotic and miserable.
Over the past, few decades there is a growing awareness and acceptance of these proclivities. Various forms of polyamory have taken hold and seem to be spreading. It must be granted that polyamory is fraught within structures of monogamous society. Jealousy and feelings of betrayal are typical responses to sex outside the circle of two. It would be simply willful to ignore this. I would argue, however, a greater awareness and acceptance of our nature can help us navigate these feelings with results that might be better than the effects of the strictures of monogamous moralism. Ethical non-monogamy addresses predicaments of natural behavior in an unnatural world—a considerable body of literature has emerged, offering thoughtful guidance. This ethic, based on honesty and respect, can support a life-affirming vitality and a psychological repose free from the turmoil of illicit desire and anxieties of secret affairs.
I have found this to be true in my own life. When my affair with S began, I had recently broken up with a woman I’ll call “T,”—whom I greatly admired and loved—but who was just not a good, sexual match. It was heartbreaking, but I didn’t see a way forward without cheating, which I was beginning to do. I had an on-again-off-again fuckbuddy in a different city—I found myself drifting back into that secret delight. I would also flirt with girls at bars and music venues. I broke up with T and made my way through an emotional wilderness. Things were different once S came along—I had liberty to be myself, in addition to love. My out-of-town fuckbuddy was content with our limited relationship, and there was no “sin” in my antics in bars. Most satisfying of all, I was able to re-approach T with this new ethic—she was receptive. I was soon back in a loving relationship with her, and she ended up hanging out with me and S. (No, we didn’t have a three-way.) Other women came and went during this time—I had a renewed vitality and new levels of sexual attention to offer. Sex became more interesting and satisfying.
All things end, one way or another. S moved to a commune several hours away, after a few years. We had hoped to continue our relationship, but it didn’t work. This was very painful, but I cannot say it was a mistake. The pain of that breakup did not diminish the power of the experience of being with her and what it meant for my life.
Another primary partner graced my life eventually, and we continue to negotiate these waters in ways that work for our own, idiosyncratic needs and proclivities—with honesty and respect—both for each other and for ourselves. It’s a blessing for a relationship to settle into a polyamorous mode. The freedom to enjoy love’s different dimensions with various people feels natural and right. It stands in vivid contrast to the dark, self-negating feelings of secret desire.