Several years ago, I tried talking a world-traveling bachelor friend of ours into “settling down.” Part of him wanted to find a nice woman and start a big family. But the other part of him wanted to stay wild and free to meet new women on each of his adventures. It’s not that I wasn’t supportive of his gallivanting – my partner Brad and I didn’t offer him a more enticing example of how to live in our monogamous, parents-of-a-two-year-old, suburban boredom – it was just that I could tell he was lonely.
Since discovering polyamory, I’ve realized it wasn’t a fair choice he had to make. It isn’t a fair choice for any of us to have to make. And after reading Sex at Dawn, I know it hasn’t always been this way.
Before the dawn of agriculture, hunter-gatherers lived in interdependent tribes, enjoying sexual freedom and autonomy and economic and familial security at the same time. The book cites several examples of such tribes still in existence today.
Freedom vs. Security: The False Dichotomy
The theory is that prior to agriculture, all the members of nomadic, foraging tribes were reliant upon each other for their existence. Whatever was gathered or killed for the day – or week – was shared. As with bonobos, a network of sexual connections strengthened social ties and bonded tribe members together. Tribe members also occasionally sought sexual connections with other tribes to keep the peace and for sexual novelty and genetic variety. For these reasons, promiscuity was encouraged.
Until the advent of agriculture and private property… The patriarchs needed a system to ensure all of their accumulated wealth and property was passed on to their rightful heirs. In order to keep track of who inherited what, women’s wombs needed to become private property also, to be occupied only by the genes of one man.
Enter marriage and monogamy (with an occasional case of polygamy – one man owning the wombs of many women). From then (about 10,000 years ago) on, it was no longer the responsibility of an entire tribe to care for all its members, it was up to one man to provide for his woman (or women) and children. This placed the woman in total economic dependence upon one man – a very vulnerable position. If she wanted sexual freedom, she risked losing all of her security – food, clothing, shelter, community – and, in the Biblical days, death.
Things have gotten a little better for women since then, but because of our lack of a tribe, many of us, who are breastfeeding or caring for young children, are still in positions of utter financial dependence upon our husband or partner. This gives our (typically male) partners a lot of control over us, especially our sexuality. Not a lot men are excited about going to work for a woman whose having sex with other men.
Additionally, there are not many women stuck home alone raising kids, who would be excited about “their” man running around with other women, especially if it means he might impregnate one and have to divide up his resources among two families.
But, the emergence of the modern “poly” tribe is changing all of that. Triads, quads, and larger “polycules” are enabling people to be dependent on more than one person for meeting their physical and emotional needs. When one member of the tribe is pregnant, nursing or raising a small child, they have several other members to lend economic and social support, with each member – including mothers of young children – enjoying sexual autonomy.
Freedom AND Security
In addition to economic security, poly tribes provide emotional security. I imagine even the most philandering Cassanovas crave healthy attachments and a sense of belonging. With polyamory, they don’t have to give up their freedom to get it.
Psycho-sexual therapist Esther Perel has spent years studying these two universal, yet seemingly contradictory, human needs – freedom and security.
“At the heart of sustaining desire in a committed relationship is the reconciliation of two fundamental human needs – on the one hand, our need for security, predictability, safety, dependability, reliability, permanence – all of these anchoring, grounding experiences of our lives that that we call home – but we also have an equally strong need – men and women – for adventure, novelty, mystery, risk, danger, the unknown, the unexpected, surprise…” she said in a Ted Talks speech.
Up until the last century, “marriage was an economic institution, in which you were given a partnership for life in terms of children and social status and succession and companionship. Now we want our partners to still give us all these things, but in addition ‘I want you to be my best friend and my trusted confidant and my passionate lover to boot’ and we live twice as long,” Perel said.
“So we come to one person and we basically are asking them to give us what once an entire village used to provide – ‘give me belonging, give me identity, give me continuity, but give me transcendence and mystery and awe, all in one. Give me comfort, give me edge; give me novelty, give me familiarity; give me predictability, give me surprise’ – and we think it’s a given – and toys and lingerie are going to save us.”
While Perel does an excellent job of identifying the problem, she doesn’t talk much about the solution – other than “respect each other’s sexual privacy” and “foreplay begins at the end of the last orgasm.”
My question is how can a monogamous couple respect each other’s sexual privacy? Isn’t the whole point of monogamy to surrender your sexual privacy to you partner?
To me, the only way one could respect our partner’s sexual privacy is by setting them free, allowing them to do what they want with their own bodies and hearts.
A lot of people are afraid of the idea of “free love” – it sounds scary, unreliable, like it could disappear at any moment. But the truth is erotic love is scary, unreliable and can disappear at any moment, even in monogamous relationships. Erotic love comes and goes and comes again. The good news is familial is much more reliable and consistent.
The key, to me, is letting familial love remain intact even when erotic love fades.
This is why I love the idea of polyamory. It allows people to love lots of people, in all the ways love manifests itself, simultaneously. It allows me to keep the security of my family, my tribe – Brad, my daughter, and anyone else who teams up with us as long-term life partners – while giving me the freedom to explore new relationships wherever they may lead me.