Saturday, April 10, 2021

16. Coerced Monogamy Does Not Work

If there is one idea that could put a lot of therapists and lawyers out of business tomorrow, it would be accepting the reality behind an irrational and proprietary concept called “monogamy.”  Most humans on earth are not monogamous, nor have ever been so.  Anthropological and historical investigations have consistently demonstrated that human beings are not inclined to practice sexual monogamy their entire lives, yet Western societies traditionally pressure and coerce their members to do so. It is in the tension between expectations and reality there exists so much pain and shame.  This need not be.  

Before I offer my take on this, I want to strongly emphasize that there is nothing I’ve seen problematic about consensual monogamy in practice.  This is done when two people make an informed, empowered, and equatable decision to not have sex with other people (which also begets a negotiation of what the word “sex” means).  When this arrangement is arrived at with respect, agency, and compromise, without coercion or threats, it can work out very well.  Unfortunately this rarely happens in the United States, by virtue of the fact that it so unusual for couples to discuss monogamy before someone has “cheated.”  It’s typically not until after someone has gotten hurt that there is any serious attention or consideration given to this topic. 

As I enter my fiftieth year of life, and twenty-fifth year of practicing as a therapist, I’m going to share my take on this very sensitive, and often incendiary, topic. 

The Western concept of marriage was originally invented to join powerful families for financial and political gain.  Women were perceived as a literal piece of property to be owned and traded by men.  Men had full permission to police and control women’s bodies anyway they saw fit to do so.  There was absolutely no pretense for men to limit their sexual activities with one partner, but women were expected to be virginal before marriage and then chaste [ie. 'virtuous'] throughout her life.  If a woman was being abused, harmed, or assaulted by her legal spouse, there was absolutely no social or legal recourse. 

It wasn’t until the 19th century that marrying someone for romantic reasons began to find it’s way into 

society.  The tension between marriage for business relations and marriage for romantic reasons was recently illustrated in the popular series Bridgerton.  The main character and her peers are displayed like cattle to male suitors, expected to spend a socially and sexually monogamous life with a suitable partner whose union would be mutually advantageous to both families.  If a woman wasn’t attracted or cared for by her husband, then too bad.  She had no social or legal standing to resist, and she was only expected to live to 40-years-old anyway, so it was pretty much about learning to grin-and-bear-it.  

As Feminism started changing the way women perceived their values and expectations, they changed marital relations as well.  Throughout the twentieth century women fought and began to win rights to vote, to work, to own property, and later to access to safe birth control and reproductive rights.  At this point monogamy could have gone a different way:   The movement could have said, “We want sexual equality with men, we want to right to screw around whenever we want with whomever we want just the way men have been doing for eons.”  Instead the movement chose to go a more reactionary route by saying, “We have been expected to be sexually chaste, now men should be too.”  This expectation did not change men’s sexual practices, it simply changed the ways they practiced deceit and deception.  Men generally kept doing what they were already doing, women generally kept suffering.  Hence my own Marriage and Family Therapy profession was born! 

Throughout the 1970s men continued to dominate and police women’s bodies.  Despite some political and medical victories, women could still legally be denied access to a credit card without a husband’s signature, equitable credit from a financial lender, service on a jury, work while pregnant, birth control if unmarried, or to be able to prosecute her husband for rape or assault.   The underlying message was that men could still assert financial, physical, sexual, professional dominance over women’s bodies.  How could two people enter into an equatable and meaningful discussion about sexual monogamy under these circumstances?  The systemic power differentials made this nearly impossible against a cultural backdrop of shame and stigma for enjoying sexual pleasure with multiple partners. 

Around this same time, gay men were starting to incrementally gain political power, social acceptance, and the fight for legal protections.  Following the Stonewall Riots in 1969, gay men began the process of coming out, feeling proud, moving to major cities, and often creating communities and relationships liberated from heteronormative coerced monogamy.  

Then the AIDS crisis hit hard.  Death was prevalent in every gay neighborhood.  Trauma was salient in every home.  Gay men often responded to this medical crisis largely by entering relationships that were considered monogamous.  The incentive for pairing up throughout the 1980s had less to do with societal expectations and more to do with survival.  Human touch is necessary, and the only relatively safe way for a gay man to survive and still have touch in the 80s was to practice a form of monogamy.  That, of course, was not a failsafe prevention strategy, as many men acquired HIV/AIDS in the context of their “monogamous” relationships during this era, once again proving that monogamy is not the ideal standard people wish it to be. 

By the time I first moved to San Francisco in the early 1990s, there started to be a shift within queer communities back toward sexual freedom and negotiated agreements.  For a lot of younger single people there was an understanding that sexual expression could be abundant and safe through regular use of condoms.  When I started volunteering / interning as a therapist in 1996, there were many gay/bisexual couples looking for ways to openly communicate and negotiate ethically non-monogamous agreements with their partners.   However the idea of proactively negotiating sexual boundaries within heterosexual relationships still seemed culturally foreign and highly resisted.

I have never personally understood the concept of monogamy in my own relationships. Throughout the 1990s in San Francisco I came to discover sexuality as an emotionally powerful, spiritually meaningful, physically invigorating practice.  It was a wonderful way to make friends, connect, play, and enjoy life.  I knew how gratifying and joyful these encounters could be, and it just never made sense to me to want to deprive others from having them.  I dated plenty of people, but never under the guise of trying to diminish their joy or prevent their own sexual evolution.  It seemed to me that the human body and spirit were capable of sustaining meaningful and rewarding connections with more than just one person.  It was just a matter of learning how to do this with integrity and transparency. 

When I opened my psychotherapy practice in Manhattan in 2010 I was very pleased to see some signs of change.  Open Love New York City is a popular educational and social group that helps couples of all sexual orientations get pragmatic and communal support for connecting with others.  They help to normalize the sensitive and challenging discussions about ethical non-monogamy as an ongoing part of relationships in the New York City area.  In my office, men and women in their 20s and 30s considering marriage were able to sit down and basically say, “Let’s be real.  If we’re getting married now, we might be together another 60-70 years.  It is irrational to presume that we’re only going to have sex with one partner for the rest of our lives.  Instead of creating pain and drama around this, let’s have equatable and respectful conversations now that can save us time and energy in the future.  Our marriage is more likely to last if we talk about ethical non-monogamy sooner than later.”  I was thrilled to see a generation of women who had grown up under Feminism embrace their political, sexual, and financial power, and consequently experience agency and empowerment, while asserting their desires and boundaries with their male partners.  

With this intention established early on, I helped couples enhance and improve their levels of integrity, communication, compassion, and responsibility, in order to create compromises, and consistently maintain agreements.  Facilitating these conversations was not a complete buffer from conflict and strife, but they did provide a framework for couples to navigate fears, jealousies, and potential trust violations in the future.  I wrote a book about these conversations titled, “Rational Relating,” and also regularly used “The Ethical Slut” And “Opening Up” as guides for navigating conversation, encouraging negotiation, and increasing possibility for abundant sustainable connections between adults. 

Interesting enough I started to see a facet of the gay male community go in a different direction.  When the Supreme Court upheld legal Marriage Equality in 2015 I thought, “This is wonderful! Now we truly have an opportunity to actively create a model of a sustainable nurturing marriage!”  Instead many seemed to want to use this new legal protection to double down on a model of marriage that typically results in divorce.   I’m convinced that this template of marriage was part of the reason there was so much vehement resistance and opposition to biomedical advancements in HIV prevention.  PrEP and U=U offers people an opportunity to enjoy sexual pleasure and exchange with multiple partners without fear of getting or transmitting HIV.  This flies in the face of those who wish to revert to a 1950s standard of marriage in which sexual expression is limited, sexual desire is punished, monogamy in coerced.  My friend Mark S. King articulated this tension and hypocrisy brilliantly in his seminal work, “Your Mother Liked It Bareback.” 

As I turn fifty I am filled with more hope than ever for the future of marriage, relationships, and ethical non-monogamy.  In the last two years I have seen more respectful media articles, public coming out stories, and social comprehension that a human can appreciate multiple sources of love and pleasure in their life.  I perceive ethical non-monogamy on the cusp of larger cultural acceptance, much the way LGBT individuals were on the cusp of social acceptance thirty years ago.  We were stigmatized then, and still are now, but the more people who came out proudly and unapologetically, the more space they gave for others to do the same. 

What has been true in the past remains true today.  When people are forced, intimidated, shamed, coerced, or pressured to regulate their bodies in a way that operate against their desires and impulses, tensions will occur.  Humans will hurt each other.  Marriages will end.  It doesn’t have to go this way.  When we proactively create conversations from integrity, honestly, equitably, and respect, we see an entirely new blueprint available for creating and maintaining rewarding and sustainable connections throughout the lifespan.  I look forward to living, loving, and aging up with this abundant possibility.  

Damon L. Jacobs is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist helping individuals and couples enjoy life with peace, purpose, and pleasure. His books "Absolutely Should-less" and "Rational Relating" help people experience connection with joy, serenity, and meaning. His work has been featured on CNN Health, The New York Times, MSNBC, USA Today and more. He can be reached at or 347-227-7707



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