Poly Feminism: Monogamy’s One-Sided History

The supposed long and honorable tradition of monogamous marriage is often held up as an argument against everything from legal same-sex marriage to polyamorous relationships. But even aside from the fact that such arguments from tradition are inherently fallacious, this depiction of monogamy’s history is simply wrong. Throughout most of known history, in fact, monogamy has been a patriarchal double standard. In many times and places, sexual fidelity within marriage has been demanded of women, while men have been either implicitly or explicitly entitled to seek sex freely outside of marriage. In ancient Greece, often held up as a paragon of sexual liberty, it was only men who were given license to engage in free sexual relationships with women and boys outside of their marriages; Rome’s marital expectations were no different. In Marriage: A History, Stephanie Coontz writes: “The sexual double standard was so completely accepted by Romans that the educator Quintilian used the notion of a sexual single standard as the perfect illustration of an illogical proposition: ‘If a relationship between a mistress and a male slave is disgraceful, then one between a master and a female slave is disgraceful.’ This statement sounds reasonable to contemporary ears, along the lines of what’s sauce for the goose is also sauce for the gander. But to Quintilian the parallel was ridiculous, and he had no doubt his audience would agree. To suggest that men should be bound by the same moral conventions as women, he argued, was as illogical as to conclude that human morality should be the same as animal morality.”

Of course, it’s difficult to fully draw comparisons between ancient civilizations and the modern world, but the sexual double standard is one feature of these civilizations that has persisted. In Western cultures, male infidelity was often discussed quite lightly and openly until the eighteenth century, and in the nineteenth century, such conversations simply became more discreet. In times and places where the law has concerned itself with marital infidelity, punishments for sexually unfaithful wives have nearly always been far more severe than punishments for unfaithful husbands. When men have been legally punished for crimes of infidelity, it is usually when they have played the role of the “other man,” and in that case have “stolen” another man’s property. In fact, much of marriage law was written as a kind of property law. And marriage was not, historically, an egalitarian relationship that gave both partners a kind of “ownership” over each other. It was unapologetically one-sided, granting men ownership of women. Even rape of another man’s wife was not historically seen as a violation of the woman so much as an act of theft from the husband.

Barbaric as all of this might sound, we are hardly free from these double standards today. Society still largely condones the sexual infidelity of men with a dismissive “boys will be boys” response, or places the burden on women to keep a man interested—ie., if you don’t have sex at a certain frequency or maintain a certain beauty standard, he’ll cheat; it’s simply his nature to do so, and fighting that nature is an uphill battle on the woman’s part. Women, meanwhile, continue to face much harsher social condemnation for infidelity, as sexual desire is still not widely seen as a “natural” part of our characters. When women engage in infidelity, we are defying not only the bounds of monogamy, but the bounds of our (chaste and virtuous) gender roles as well. And while perhaps it happens, I’ve never once heard someone blame a man for his female partner’s unfaithfulness, and find it difficult to imagine folks saying things like “he shouldn’t have let himself gain those 30 pounds and she wouldn’t have found someone sexier” or “he should have gone down on her more often, then she wouldn’t have looked for it elsewhere.” Sexual double standards might no longer be codified in (Western) law, but they are no less engrained in society.

Many of the attempts to encourage more egalitarian marriage have centered on discouraging male sexual liberty. But polyamory can be seen as taking the opposite approach: not denying male desire for multiple partners, but claiming a right to that desire for women as well. By and large, men, as a group have never been monogamous (though obviously, plenty of individual men have been). And in that sense, polyamory certainly has the potential to exist as a new frontier for women in particular.

All of this is not to say, of course, that monogamy cannot be egalitarian. As human beings, we have the ability to constantly reshape and redefine our social institutions, and countless modern-day couples live happily in marriages that bear no resemblance to the historical woman-as-property model. But if we are going to have an open and honest dialogue about what monogamy means, I believe we need to have an honest awareness of its history. And we can’t possibly talk truthfully about the “tradition” of marriage without acknowledging that tradition as a patriarchal one.

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