Monogamy: cheating on what nature intended, or a simple choice?

Cheating on a partner is always a choice, not a biologically determined effect. flickr/dhammza

Biologists and psychologists like to tussle with human characteristics: what’s inherent? What’s learnt? What’s genetically coded? What’s malleable? Every so often an “expert” will reignite the nature vs nurture debate, again spotlighting the always juicy, always seductive topic of monogamy.

Predictably, we’ll be told that we’re simply not coded to do happily ever after forever.

We’ll be offered testimony through snapshots of bed-hopping politicians as “proof” that so many clearly can’t manage this anathema.

Humans, so the story goes, were just never built to have only two in the bed, that to even attempt it is an unwinnable fight with biology.

As a social scientist, my expertise doesn’t allow me to rebut such arguments with proof of a “faithful gene” kind. Fortunately I have very little interest in doing so. As a feminist, my faith in biological arguments is scanty at best: women’s bodies have too long been used to justify the most heinous oppression and exclusion.

I don’t care to establish a case countering hard-wired non-monogamy because whether reality or fallacy, in practice monogamy today is a choice. And a viable one. Just as I eschew eating meat despite my sharp canine teeth, just as I use contraception rather than allowing sex to lead me to pregnancy, just as I wax my legs because stockings keep me warm enough and just as I choose not to have multiple sexual partners concurrently, daily we each pick and choose which supposedly natural behaviours we dodge.

Whether or not monogamy is natural is in fact a much less interesting issue than whether individuals are actually capable of it. And here is where things get sticky. For some, coupling is easy. Two straws in the milkshake, his and her sides of the bed, cutesy pet names: some folks find it effortless. For others it’s hard, often gruelling and mandates trade-offs, sacrifices and resistance, but ultimately is deemed worth the work. Resisting fresh flesh for others however, is completely undoable, unpalatable.

When it comes to sex, I’m generally found residing in the live and let live camp. I’m all for polyamory, for open marriages, for hall passes and swinging. At least when everyone is suitably briefed. And here’s the rub. Polyamory, open marriages, hall passes and swinging only work when everyone agrees to the ground rules. When everyone consents without coercion. When nobody feels betrayed. When nobody wants more than what’s offered.

Sociologist Eric Anderson recently penned a piece for the Huffington Post proposing that cheating can sometimes prove a balm to flailing relationships. The often wonderful Dan Savage made the same claim in the New York Times magazine last year.

Such work, of course, provides superb justification for the cheating husband and the adulterous wife. And offers not a skerrick of solace for the betrayed.

For those who find monogamy difficult, if not thoroughly impossible, then choosing not to go through with the ruse is quite simple. Polyamory and open relationships exist as options; mandatory coupledom is unenforceable. No shoulds, no expectations, no guilt-trips: sex of the uncoupled kind without hurt feelings and heartbreak. If you abstain from monogamy then you’re not cheating on anyone.

There will always be people who claim that infidelity saved their relationship. Some might even believe it; I dare say quite a few feel an imperative simply to say so. Just as people stay in abusive relationships, in unsatisfying relationships, in betrayed relationships, they love their partner. And with love comes a very good motive to devise reasons to forgive.

For those seeking to spread their wilds oats and experience a procession of different arms and limbs and tastes and odours, non-monogamy is a fabulous option. A choice. Acting on non-monogamy however, while in a putatively exclusive relationship is not natural, is not sexual liberation, is not feminism.

It’s called cheating. And someone always gets hurt.