Soundtrack: Mtume “You, Me, and He”
Cognitive Dissonance: This is the feeling of uncomfortable tension which comes from holding two conflicting thoughts in the mind at the same time.
Dissonance increases with:
- The importance of the subject to us.
- How strongly the dissonant thoughts conflict.
- Our inability to rationalize and explain away the conflict.
Dissonance is often strong when we believe something about ourselves and then do something against that belief. If I believe I am good but do something bad, then the discomfort I feel as a result is cognitive dissonance.
Cognitive dissonance is a very powerful motivator which will often lead us to change one or other of the conflicting belief or action. The discomfort often feels like a tension between the two opposing thoughts. To release the tension we can take one of three actions:
- Change our behavior.
- Justify our behavior by changing the conflicting cognition.
- Justify our behavior by adding new cognitions.
Monogamy is a major source of cognitive dissonance for most people. You are told from birth through various sources that you are supposed to grow up and fall in love and spend the rest of your life with one person, forsaking all others. Society spreads the idea that one man mating for life with one woman is the “natural” way. That our nature is designed to connect with this soul mate and if you can’t live up to this standard then you are less than a real man or woman and you are morally depraved. The vast majority of us either fail a little bit or we fail horribly at this. Is everybody morally bankrupt or is there something wrong with the standard? Maybe we need to grade our monogamous abilities on a curve.
As with all things, this belief has an origin. What is it? Agriculture. Around 12,000 years ago, human beings started practicing agriculture, planting crops and staying in that place long enough to harvest those crops. Prior to that time, all human beings were hunter-gatherers. They constantly moved as nomads, from place to place, foraging for whatever food they could find. Agriculture involves intensive cultivation of large tracts of land, often requiring ploughing, irrigation, fertilization and other soil improvements. As agriculture spread, arable land became more scarce – and more valuable. I’ll return to this in a second.
Scientists conservatively estimate that modern humans evolved around 200,000 years ago. Assuming that that number is true, those humans didn’t just pop up out of thin air at that time. Even those earliest humans inherited some cultural traits from their ancestors. So we can confidently say that human ancestors have been developing some kind of cultural habits for as long as we have used tools which is around 2.5 million years ago. That’s millions of years of hunter-gatherer life followed up by the past 10,000 years of agriculture.
In those early hunter-gatherer days, one of the habits that we developed was the habit of sharing everything. Human beings are not as physically strong as a lot of other animals in nature. If humans live in an environment where they don’t have the technology to bulldoze forests and kick all the animals out of their habitat, then the humans are in a vulnerable position. In that less technological state, it is also advantageous to take advantage of all the food that naturally sprouts up out of the earth. And when the food in your immediate vicinity is gone, you move onto another spot. Also, it is a natural tendency of all living beings to self-preserve, to keep yourself alive and to see to the survival of your offspring. Early humans determined that the best way for them to stay alive was to move in groups and share resources to make sure everyone had what they needed.
The way that our bodies and brains have evolved since the beginning of our history is a direct result of the environments we have had to adapt to. We have perfectly fashioned ourselves to handle the particular conditions that we have found ourselves in. This is how evolution works. It becomes very difficult to get any living being to live in a way that contradicts its millions of years of evolution. It’s possible, but it’s very difficult. It’s difficult to get lions and bears and elephants to perform tricks in the circus. That behavior is not what they have been evolved to do. And even if you successfully circus train a lion, you never know when its nature is going to come out and the circus gets a rude awakening.
Our early human habit of sharing, which I like to call fierce egalitarianism, included sharing sex. Sexual pleasure was a resource to be shared among the people just like food, clothing, and shelter. There weren’t yet any rules about who sex should happen with and for what reason or how often. They were able to use it much like how modern western people use pills. Need to relax? Have sex. Need to perk up? Have sex. Need to mourn? Have sex. Need to celebrate? Have sex.
Human beings are evolutionarily accustomed to being polyamorous. Monogamy goes against our nature. Polyamory means “many loves”, it denotes the practice of forming sexual and romantic relationships with multiple people. This is how we have conducted ourselves for most of our existence. The practice of one woman and one man forsaking all others is a very recent development.
It is important to point out that our Ancestors weren’t going around sleeping with a bunch of people they didn’t know or didn’t love. It wasn’t like that at all. They lived in small, close-knit groups of 100-150 people. Their sexual partners couldn’t have possibly been strangers or one night stands. Everyone they came in contact with was someone who they were around all the time.
Our closest relatives in nature are chimpanzees and bonobos, even more close than gorillas, gibbons, and orangutans. The behavior of our cousins provides clues of what comes natural for us. Ovulating female chimps have sex with all males who are willing. Bonobos, our closest relative of all primates, enjoy group sex as a way to appease conflict between members of the clan and promote social bonding.
The human body itself shows us that we are evolved for polyamory and sexual promiscuity. Body-size dimorphism (the difference in body size between males and females) is about 10-20% for humans. That is a very small number when compared with many other members of the animal kingdom. Body-size dimorphism reflects male competition for females, so that if the males are significantly larger than the females, this indicates that the males of that species have evolved to have fierce competition for females. They need to be big in order to compete. The 10-20% body-size dimorphism of humans is the same figure as that of chimps and bonobos, who are promiscuous. Moderate body-size dimorphism is therefore an indicator that our ancestors weren’t fighting for attention. They were sharing
Small testes, which gorillas, orangutans and gibbons have, are a sign of limited sexual activity. Larger testes are associated with more promiscuous behavior, since species that copulate more will need larger testes in order to house more sperm for ejaculations. Chimps and bonobos have the largest testes, which is unsurprising considering how much they get it on, while humans have moderately sized testes, although not anywhere near as small as a gorilla’s. Our sperm volume is still far beyond what is needed for monogamous mating.
Within the adult testicle, there is 700 feet of tubing, termed seminiferous tubules, within which sperm is made. Sperm is made from precursor cells termed germ cells that give rise to approximately 120 million sperm daily in a process termed spermatogenesis that takes approximately 64 days in humans. This is equivalent to making about 1200 sperm per heartbeat. That’s a lot.
Even the shape of the human penis has evolved in response to the fact that females will have multiple sexual partners. The glans of the penis (the head) are shaped as they are to remove any previously deposited sperm. It functions like a scoop. During ejaculation the man’s glans will then shrink to ensure that his own sperm are not removed by the same process. Sperm also contains chemicals that defend against and attack sperm from other males. Semen has built-in spermicide, the same stuff they put on condoms. Also, the large ejaculate that men have (the largest of all the Great Apes) is a sign of sperm competition. When we skeet skeet, we skeet a whole lot. All of this sperm competition evolved as a way for males to do the natural job of trying to keep themselves and their lineage alive. They were evolutionarily trying to increase their chances of paternity certainty (being the father of the child which is eventually born).
Another thing to consider is the fact that women are capable of having multiple orgasms with little to no refractory period (the recovery phase after orgasm before being able to go back at it) whereas men lose interest in sex after ejaculation. There is also the fact that men generally cum quicker than women unless they have some tantric training on how to make it last forever like Keith Sweat. Naturally, women who haven’t developed social taboos about having multiple partners aren’t gonna stay sexually frustrated after their partner rolls over and goes to sleep. She’s gonna kick that first dude out the bed and call another one over. Which leads to my next point.
What also runs counter to the standard narrative of human sexuality is the fact of female copulatory vocalization (FCV), which basically means that females vocalize (make loud noises) during sex. If humans were meant to be monogamous, then why would females draw attention to themselves by making these vocalizations? The answer is that the groans and moans are invitations for other males to come along. This is exactly the same evolutionary phenomenon as what female cats and dogs do when they are in heat. They make all kinds of noise so all the males in the area know that it’s time to come handle business. Our less promiscuous primate relatives don’t have any FCV going on. FCV is therefore associated with promiscuous mating, not monogamy.
It is helpful to observe societies that live today much like how our pre-agriculture ancestors lived. So-called primitive societies are the best example we have of how things used to be. There are societies all over the world who still have value systems based on fierce egalitarianism which includes the sharing of their sexual resources. Among the Siriono of the Amazon, jealousy tends to arise not because one’s spouse has lovers, but because he or she is spending so much time with other lovers that the home becomes neglected. Among the Canela people of Brazil, husbands encourage their wives to participate in rituals that involve having sex with twenty or more men in front of the whole community. Among the Mosuo people of China, children are raised by their mothers’ and the mothers’ family because no one can be sure who the fathers are. Women choose men for the night and those men go back home in the morning. Men take more responsibility for their nieces and nephews than any children they might have sired.
Agriculture changed all of this because it led to the development of the idea of private property. When no one individually owns anything, there is no motivation to develop ways to pass things on after you die. With the advent of people staying in one place, claiming ownership to tracts of land and homes and animals, the question of paternity became very important. Mama’s maybe-Daddy’s maybe is not something that can be tolerated when a man wants his possessions to somehow stay in his possession after he dies. That happens by him passing on his genetics to his offspring.
This interesting turn in the course of human history had a huge impact on our sexuality. A woman has no question about who her children are. A father can always question until and unless he gets a DNA test. It became advantageous for men to use their physical dominance to regulate female sexuality. If a man can ensure that his woman is having sex with no one but him then he can be sure that her children are his and he can confidently allow those children to inherit his cows and his crops. This was the origin of monogamy as well as slut shaming.
Women and men had to be told that women are not supposed to want sex, not supposed to think about sex, definitely not supposed to have sex with anyone other than her husband. The extreme power of female sexuality with her ability to choose any man she wants as a sexual partner and her ability to have sex all day long without stopping had to be shut down by the force of muscle and false teachings.
The language that we speak reflects the deep-seated negative attitudes about sex arising from this need to control female sexuality. Sexual jokes are “dirty” jokes. An older man who is interested in sex is a “dirty” old man. A woman or girl who has sex for the first time has “lost” her virginity, she is “deflowered”. We insult people by calling them a “pussy” or telling them to “fuck off”. Nearly always, where sex is concerned, the language used is the language of loss, dirtiness, pollution, or destruction.
The greatest thing that we can do to restore the equality of the sexes is to let go of our ridiculous demands for sexual fidelity. Women who are set free from the horrors of sexual taboos find themselves developing sexual cravings in ways that many of them never thought possible. It’s amazing what your body will ask for once your mind believes that it’s ok to ask.
Why polyamory? Because monogamy is in violation of our entire history as a species. Because sharing sexual pleasure bonds human beings on a level that not many other things can compare to. Because there are other ways to pass things on from generation to generation besides artificially shutting down female sexuality. Because countless lives and careers are ruined everyday by trying and failing to live up to the monogamous standard. We can choose to just stop it with the cognitive dissonance. We can choose to change the conflicting cognition. The truth is, that monogamy doesn’t work because monogamy doesn’t work. We can choose polyamory because monogamy is stupid.