A recent Swedish study has linked long-term sexual and social monogamy and a gene variation in men that controls levels of vasopressin (see New Scientist article). This has quickly been turned into headlines pronouncing that there’s a ‘cheating gene’ or one that makes men devoted long-term husbands.
As with all gene studies and their social elucidations there are a few possible angles and criticisms. Not to mention a bucket load of prejudice and myth to deal with.
First of all ‘philandering’ and ‘faithfullness’ can now be linked to a gene, even if this link is tentative. This can be used to account for cheating and perhaps even explaining this, absolving cheating partners. Not a very good sounding solution as it takes away responsibility for an unethical behaviour, namely doing something behind someone’s back, lying and deceiving (even if this is a sanctioned behaviour type and the only ‘alternative’ to ‘faithful monogamy’ according to mainstream thinking). On the reverse side prospective wives could test for this gene variation and only marry ‘faithful’ ones. Interesting can of worms, especially considering that the so called ‘norm’, faithful monogamy is by far in the minority.. usually not a good indiation of ‘normal’.
On the other hand this ‘natural variation towards promiscuity’ could be accepted and further studies could explore if women similarly possess this variation. If we remain with the old monogamous paradigm and want to evade any serious threat to a relationship, there’s the age old tradition of swinging, bath houses and partner swapping, not to mention turning to sex workers or incorporating ‘forbidden’ desires into fantasy. Many already do this and it’s not particularly radical yet I’m yet to see it mentioned in any of these articles that comment on the research findings.
For a sociological angle first of all we need to look at actual real life behaviour. The sample was highly restrictive, heterosexual Swedish men in 5+ year of straight marriage. I think we can agree on this: this at best represents a minority of the population. On a deeper level the very interpretation of this scientific finding shows entrenched (and of course not problematised) traditional values and assumptions. According to these straight marriage is desirable, sexual and social fidelity are the cornerstones of a good relationship, sexual monotony, umm sorry monogamy produces stability, good husbands don’t ever go anywhere else and if they do it has to be cheating etc. Let’s just call these what they are: big myths.
I particularly like the poly angle on this which shows you how analysis from a different perspective imbued with different cultural assumptions may look like. Poly Weekly #170 ‘But cheating is in my genes!’ beautifully shows this. Let’s assume we accept the scientific correlation. According to alternative relationship values this gene variation could be called the ‘liberation gene’ that allows partners to be sexually experimental and to live a rich life involving relationships with other people. The big difference: poly people will envisage this ethically and openly and with the consent of all concerned. It’s beyond me how anyone can not consider this a vastly improved state of affairs from traditional cheating, lying, deception and frustration. Let’s remember, that’s the traditional non solution.
This openly honest, consensual and ethical way of going about non-monogamy means freedom in creating new relationships with more than one person and ethically acting on natural desires instead of cheating or living a bitter life. The detail is not in the genes, though it’d be very interesting to speculate on evolutionary processes and human development, the interesting detail is how human beings can choose to live out their desires and tendencies, how they can shape their lives to incorporate them while also living ethically, respectfully and with the highest level of faithfulness one can achieve: true honesty and mutual self-growth (as opposed to unattainable levels of restriction that lead to secrecy, resentment, lack of trust and divorce).
That’s the radical and interesting angle on the ‘mono gene’… what cultural trappings we choose to live by, what assumptions and details we care to challenge in our lives as independent mature adult human beings, and how intelligently we are able to integrate our insights, our desires, our practices, our values and the conditions around us.
Then again, maybe that gene was only coding for strength of pair bonding not monogamy… in which case poly people and other ethically non-monogamous folk may have the same gene, they usually form long-lasting strong relationships just like everyone else (perhaps less frustrated and more self-nurturing), except they are also beautiful sluts who have arrived at the logical conclusion of how to love several people in a constructive sustainable way In this case the lack of the gene variation may only be correlated with asexuality and lack of relationships… but then it’s not such a sexy story, is it?
Some of us are doing our best to find the truly progressive way forward on these issues that those with the ‘slut genes’ can choose to live in order to be ethical and happy. Some of us are proud to be sluts as we know it can be done with love, care and responsibility. Long-term lasting stable relationships can be achieved THROUGH ethical non-monogamy. Food for thought for that 60-70% of people who always fail at restrictive culturally dictated monogamy, for those in endless and overlapping serial monogamy, and for those who are unhappily monogamous by default not choice.
Monogamy can be great if it works for you, but statistics and now this gene connection strongly suggest that it’s not a realistic goal for a lot of people… isn’t it time to stop sweeping stuff under our big shared traditional social carpet, explore viable alternatives and break free?