A few months ago, I was at a talk in Shoreditch (of course) on the topic of sex and gender (of course) held by the organisation Empirical Sex. The talk was entitled ‘Research on Consensual Non-monogamy’ and the premise was exploring whether or not it should be something we (as a society) should be considering.
What is consensual non-monogamy?
Put simply consensual non-monogamy (not to be confused with cheating) is the understanding between two people that they accept third parties into their relationship. The ways in which they choose to do this are up to them. The talk was held by Christine Campbell, a senior lecturer at St Mary’s University in Twickenham who has dedicated her academic life to researching this particular area. Her talk covered the human timeline from evolution, and whether or not humans are meant to be monogamous, to consensual non-monogamy in the modern world. She finally set out to answer, through her research, the question of whether or not monogamy is natural. Her findings, unsurprisingly, leant strongly towards the latter.
Monogamy as a social construct
A lot of Campbell’s talk worked on the basis of monogamy being a social construct and understandably, this is one of those topics that almost everyone has a different opinion on. Personally, I believe it is a social construct, and for arguments sake this is the trail of thought I’ll have throughout the rest of my post. The reason for my viewpoint are nestled in both economics and religion.
Economically, I believe that people got married in previous generations due to the need for economic and financial stability. Women didn’t have as much choice when it came to work and sourcing their own income to support their families, and socially (in the West anyway) a woman was expected to raise a family, while the man was expected to support them. However, I think these ‘norms’ are slowly changing and with that change comes a change in the ways men and women seek out economic stability. Less women are giving up their career when they have children, more men are taking paternity leave and less people are rushing to make it down the alter. Marina Adshade goes into great detail about the economics of sex in her Ted Talk (well worth a listen if you have 20mins or so).
In addition to this, religion plays a huge part in monogamy. Again this is changing bit by bit, but the whole traditional ‘to have and to hold till death do us part’ is on its way out (in my opinion at any rate). Historically, The Church had a lot of power and influence over marriage and monogamy, dictating that two people must stay together regardless of how good their marriage was. It wasn’t until quite recently that the church allowed divorcees to remarry (although some will still only give you a blessing), so back then if you got it wrong the first time then you were pretty fucked. Luckily, this has definitely changed, thus allowing people to realise that, despite what The Church says, there is likely more than one person out there for you.
However, economics and religion aside, there are a whole range of people who believe in monogamy, which is of course, also fine. It is and should be a personal preference.
Is consensual non-monogamy more natural than we think?
According to Campbell’s research, 70% of monogamous couples in the UK have had an element of cheating to them and over 1/3 of married couples have cheated. I’ll leave it up to you to decide what constitutes as cheating, but to be honest, I am not at all surprised by the figure. What these figures say to me though is that maybe we aren’t meant to be truly monogamous – because if we were meant to mate for life so to speak, then these statistics would surely be a lot lower. In France the concept of having a lover or mistress is widely accepted, ‘partner swapping’ has long been accepted in aristocratic circles in western society, and indeed polyamory is quickly becoming more widely accepted.
The narrative around consensual non-monogamy has definitely come a long way in recent years, and while I do think that it’s changing, I think there is still a really long way to go. Interestingly, the rise of dating apps have also played their part in the non-monogamy discussion. Whilst many people will say they are monogamous when it comes to relationships, equally a lot of them will say that it’s fair game to see more than one person unless the relationship is defined as being exclusive. In fact, according to Campbell, 21% of single people have had a non-monogamous relationship (from full on polyamory to simply having more than one ‘friend with benefits’). Interestingly, her research also suggested that women are twice more likely than men to open up discussions around attending swinging parties, polyamory or bringing a third person into the mix from time to time.
And yet, despite all these statistics, and despite the majority of people I’ve spoken to (admittedly this is probably a tiny amount) being open to the concept of consensual non-monogamy, in practice, the topic is still shrouded in taboo. Whilst this is most likely down to years of socialisation, it will take a long time to change and whilst I think that non-monogamy has it’s place in the world, I don’t think society is fully ready to accept it as normal yet.
What does the future hold?
Despite this research, and despite books such as I Love Dick and Future Sex becoming bestsellers (both characters openly discuss the concept of not being monogamous) I’m not sure that the narrative is shifting very quickly. There is still something that people like about being in a monogamous relationship and it is still very much considered the norm. I think, at the moment, it still comes down to personal preference and I think that it will change slowly and it will change alongside the small but significant changes that our society is going through. I don’t know exactly what the future holds, but if I were to warrant a guess it would be that we will find ourselves floating somewhere between the concepts of consensual non- monogamy and lifetime partners in years to come.
*images from Pexels.com