The Dilemma of Polyamory

CONTENT WARNING: Violence, Allusion to Incels, Brief Mention of War

 

If you’ve ever watched a nature program on television, you may have noticed that primates often operate under polygamous or sexually promiscuous mating structures. Although this is by no means definitive evidence that humans, left without their social constructs, are a naturally non-monogamous species, perhaps it does point us in the right direction.

 

Most evidence suggests that the type of monogamy witnessed in human civilisations is largely a consequence of social pressures. Put simply, we have not biologically evolved past our natural desire to have multiple sexual partners, we simply use social tools to repress this desire.

 

Upwards of 80 per cent of early human societies were polygamous, with many previously isolated groups having been documented as practising polyamory. Eskimos used to share their wives with household guests as a gesture of hospitality and brotherhood, while tribes in the Himalayan regions had customs where women were impregnated by multiple men so that the child could be fostered by multiple fathers.

 

Though these customs may seem offensive to many of us now, they are undeniable facts of human history. Naturally, then, it would seem logical to ask: if polyamory is a traditional part of our existence, why did groups of humans use social codes to transform monogamy into the norm?  

 

Broadly speaking, polyamory breeds conflict and can even leave entire countries war-torn. The top 20 most fragile states in the world are all somewhat, or very, polygamous. As one article by The Economist put it, “If the richest and most powerful 10 per cent of men have, say, four wives each, the bottom 30 per cent cannot marry. Young men will take desperate measures to avoid this state”.

 

In response, advocates of polyamorous relationships typically suggest that polyamory is a broad term which encompasses many different types of relationships. It does not have to result exclusively in polygyny where it is only men who have multiple wives. Women can have multiple husbands as well. 

 

Polyamory also differs from polygamy in the lack of necessity for marriage or any form of commitment from both parties. Where a polygamous marriage would lock in the multiple women married to a single man, a polyamorous relationship would leave those women free to pursue other romantic interests, should they be so inclined. 

 

Theoretically, this might prevent the form of inequality witnessed in polygamous states and consequent violence. In practice, however, the unfortunate truth is that any society that is non-monogamous on a large enough scale will inevitably find itself having to deal with conflict. 

 

One of the main reasons for this is the fact that women are biologically inclined to be more selective of their sexual partners than men. This is an aspect of human sexuality that is almost universally acknowledged, as the burden of possible pregnancy is much higher for women. As a result, men with the most desirable traits will have access to many women, while men with fewer will be left without sexual choice. This creates and follows a Pareto distribution similar to the distribution of wealth.

 

It is understandably difficult to sympathise with groups of men who would turn to violence and misogyny in response to their inability to find a sexual partner. However, this does not take away from the fact that these people will continue to exist and be problematic as long as there is inequality of outcome, even with the elimination of the patriarchy. The human desire for a sexual partner is so deeply rooted that, as any respectable psychologist would tell you, large groups of men unable to find one will, unfortunately, cause violence. 

 

What is truly interesting is that evolutionary biology appears to suggest that polyamory is the optimal way for humans to improve upon their genes. Males with desirable traits are able to pass on their genes on a large scale, while the genes of males with undesirable traits are left behind. 

 

Conflict seems also to be a natural part of this equation: most species of male primates compete with other males to access mates, which often involves physical violence. Unfortunately, the consequences of conflict between primates are incomparable to the destructive possible consequences of modern human conflict. As a result, it is worth avoiding human conflict, even if it means going against our nature. But is it worth lying to ourselves? 

 

It is here that the dilemma arises. Throughout human history, monogamy has largely been enforced by social norms and moral guidelines. But there appears to be nothing immoral about polyamory in and of itself. Indeed, human nature dictates that we desire multiple sexual partners, the consequences associated with it just happen to be negative. Surely, we cannot continue to lie to ourselves by saying the reason we practice monogamy is that it is morally just.

 

The problem, however, is that without this method of moral enforcement, we risk allowing a culture of polyamory to take hold. As mentioned, in practicality this could be disastrous.

 

The alternatives to moral enforcement are mostly impossible to achieve. State enforcement of monogamy would be both tyrannical and impractical. On the other hand, it seems impossible for us to change human nature in a way that eliminates the inequality a polyamorous society would produce.

 

Although there is no clear answer to this dilemma, evidence does indicate that monogamy, for the large part, is here to stay in western society. The large majority of women in rich western countries eventually seek a monogamous relationship in order to start a family. In particular, monogamous relationships can be beneficial to women and children as a man with only one partner can focus his full attention on them, allowing for full bi-parental care. 

 

Women’s attitudes are also changing towards how they pick their partners. A new wave of feminism has begun to critique the post-sexual revolution culture. It suggests female sexual liberation has simply benefited a small select group of men while achieving little for women. 

 

As feminist author Ariel Levy opines in her book Female Chauvinist Pigs, a sex-positive feminist culture has, at its core, the aim to please men. But the way women’s attitudes are changing towards how they pick their partners is also a positive indication that monogamy is here to stay. In essence, a committed, meaningful relationship with someone with less traditionally suitable traits might be preferable to being used by a desirable male with no fundamental respect for women.