Every so often I see a 2007 article called ‘Banishing the Green-Eyed Monster‘ reposted from Dawkins.net. (It seems originally to have been a column in the Washington Post‘s ‘on faith’ segment.) Most of the friends who share it say positive things about it, including that challenging compulsory monogamy shows Dawkins still has chops as a social critic.
Certainly there are a couple of good bits.
I want to raise [a] question that interests me. Why are we so obsessed with monogamous fidelity in the first place?
I admit that I have, at times in my life, been jealous, but it is one of the things I now regret. Assuming that such practical matters as sexually transmitted diseases and the paternity of children can be sorted out (and nowadays DNA testing will clinch that for you if you are sufficiently suspicious, which I am not), what, actually, is wrong with loving more than one person? Why should you deny your loved one the pleasure of sexual encounters with others, if he or she is that way inclined?
Even sticking to the higher plane of love, is it so very obvious that you can’t love more than one person? We seem to manage it with parental love (parents are reproached if they don’t at least pretend to love all their children equally), love of books, of food, of wine (love of Chateau Margaux does not preclude love of a fine Hock, and we don’t feel unfaithful to the red when we dally with the white), love of composers, poets, holiday beaches, friends . . . why is erotic love the one exception that everybody instantly acknowledges without even thinking about it? Why can a woman not love two men at the same time, in their different ways? And why should the two — or their wives — begrudge her this?
I’m not denying the power of sexual jealousy. It is ubiquitous if not universal. I’m just wondering aloud why we all accept it so readily, without even thinking about it.
I’m afraid, however, that much of the rest fills me and numerous nonmonogamous skeptics I know with extreme discomfort. While the topic’s on the table, I thought I’d lay the problems with the article out.
Here’s how it starts:
Is sex outside of marriage a sin? Is it a public matter? Is it forgivable?
No, of course sex outside marriage is not a public matter, and yes, of course it is forgivable. Only a person infected by the sort of sanctimonious self-righteousness that religion uniquely inspires would apply the meaningless word ‘sin’ to private sexual behaviour.
It is the mark of the religious mind that it cares more about private than public morality.
I wouldn’t apply the word ‘sin’ to cheating, which appears throughout the piece to be how Dawkins interprets ‘sex outside of marriage’, but I would call a breaking a promise of monogamy unethical where one’s been made; I think most poly people would. That’s what distinguishes polyamory from cheating: there’s no promise of monogamy in the first place. Deceiving your partner into a relationship they haven’t agreed to, often with added risk of venereal infection, humiliation or just unhappiness, is a matter of consequence, harm and consent, not an arbitrary religious taboo.
Continuing the ‘private behaviour’ theme in reference to the Lewinsky scandal:
Lying to Congress by saying, ‘I did not have sex with that woman’ should not be an impeachable offence, because where a man puts his penis is none of Congress’s damn business.
In point of substance, no complaint. But ‘where a man puts his penis’? Really? As if rather than an active partner, Lewinsky were just some high-heeled cock holster.
Generally speaking, references to penis-in-vagina sex as someone sticking it somewhere sound pretty rapey to me. If the sex you have is consensual, both people are doing something.
The revolting hue and cry that our religiously inspired society habitually raises over private sexual ‘morality’ serves as a dangerous distraction away from important matters of public morality such as the Blair/Bush lies about Iraq’s weapons.
Back to the public/private distinction we had earlier. The suggestion is that since sex isn’t world politics, it isn’t up for ethical debate. It can be: rape is usually, for instance, a private act. The requirement for sex to be ethical (or at least ethically immaterial) isn’t privacy, it’s that everyone involved agrees to what goes on. That’s not the case when one partner cheats on another.
Agony Aunt columns ring with the cries of those who have detected – or fear – that their man/woman (who may or may not be married to them) is ‘cheating on them’. ‘Cheating’ really is the word that occurs most readily to these people.
Indeed – because it means to participate while breaking the rules, and relationships can have rules.
Here’s one key point. Nonmonogamous people also cheat – it’s just that breaking the rules means something other than seeing an extra partner. (It might mean, for example, having a type of sex off-limits outside the primary partnership.)
The underlying presumption — that a human being has some kind of property rights over another human being’s body — is unspoken because it is assumed to be obvious.
That’s not why we shame people who cheat in monogamous relationships. We do it because their partners are entitled to say on what terms they form a relationship with someone else, and to expect that mutually agreed rules be upheld. (Lots of people require monogamy emotionally or aren’t comfortable without it. Asking prospective partners for that – who are free to say no and move on – is their right.)
In one of the most disgusting stories to hit the British newspapers last year, the wife of a well-known television personality, Chris Tarrant, hired a private detective to spy on him. The detective reported evidence of adultery and Tarrant’s wife divorced him, in unusually vicious style.
Here Dawkins’ attitude to women reveals itself again. How dare the former Mrs Tarrant end a relationship she hadn’t agreed to? How dare she divorce a man – angrily, no less! – who deceived her?
What shocked me was the way public opinion sided with Tarrant’s horrible wife. Far from despising, as I do, anybody who would stoop so low as to hire a detective for such a purpose, large numbers of people, including even Mr. Tarrant himself, seemed to think she was fully justified. Far from concluding, as I would, that he was well rid of her, he was covered with contrition[.]
The explanation of all these anomalous behaviour patterns is the ingrained assumption of the deep rightness and appropriateness of sexual jealousy.
Or the fact Tarrant’s wife didn’t want to remain married to a man seeing other woman without seeking her consent. One of the two, I’m sure.
Polyamorous people often still feel jealousy. Partners angry they’ve been cheated on often don’t. The point is the betrayal of trust.
From a Darwinian perspective, sexual jealousy is easily understood. Natural selection of our wild ancestors plausibly favoured males who guarded their mates for fear of squandering economic resources on other men’s children. On the female side, it is harder to make a Darwinian case for the sort of vindictive jealousy displayed by Mrs. Tarrant.
Evo-psych. Manbrains and ladybrains. Need I say more?
The British writer Julie Burchill is not somebody I usually quote (imagine a sort of intelligent Ann Coulter speaking with a British accent in a voice like Minnie Mouse) but I was struck by one of her remarks.
Women. Feminists. Whiny voices. Grr.