F.Birchman / MSNBC.com
By msnbc.com contributor
updated 9/7/2005 12:06:17 AM ET 2005-09-07T04:06:17

At the recent World Congress of Sexology in Montreal, noted sociologist Pepper Schwartz, a professor at the University of Washington in Seattle, made a startling argument.

“There is every reason to believe,” she said, “that non-monogamy will become part of the American sexual cycle.”

You could say that it already has. Some people live a polyamorous lifestyle, whether they are old-school Mormons or simply couples who agree to “open relationships.” O.K., you say, but these people are a tiny minority, right?

Sure, but many of the rest of us are not monogamous though we say we are. According to Schwartz, 25 percent of married men, for example, have been non-monogamous as have about 15 percent of married women.

And yet Americans pay an awful lot of lip service to monogamy. Nearly 90 percent say that stepping out of a monogamous relationship for a touch of hanky panky is always wrong, she says.

A 'mistake' that doesn't count?
Schwartz has likened this attitude to overeating. We say we shouldn’t, but we do it anyway. And when we do, we still claim to be monogamous, chalking up our fling (flings?) as “a mistake” that doesn’t count. We take a mulligan.

You know who you are.

Schwartz made a compelling argument that even as we still say we want monogamy, we are becoming more tolerant of non-monogamy. Kobe Bryant cheated, but bought his wife a diamond the size of Gibraltar and all was forgiven. Bill Clinton cheated and, well, we know what happened there. French president Francois Mitterrand was buried with both his wife and mistress at his grave.

You could argue that bold face names, especially powerful or rich men, have always been non-monogamous, having much more opportunity to bed gorgeous women than the rest of us schlubs.

That’s true, of course, but now that pattern is trickling down. According to Schwartz, surveys show that fewer people say they would leave a marriage if cheating occurred and this is especially pronounced among younger people who have grown up sleeping with more than one person at a time.

More sex without strings
In the past, Schwartz argued, “women were the moral gatekeepers.” They insisted on monogamy, established it as an ideal, and tried to enforce it. Now, though, about one-quarter of women ages 18 to 24 are boinking more than one guy at any given time, according to a University of North Carolina study. About one-quarter of high school kids have what Schwartz politely termed “non-connected sex” but the rest of us have been calling “hooking up,” and these quickie sex exchanges are often initiated by the girls.

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We’ve also witnessed the Dr. Phil-ization of the country. “We have become a more psychological nation,” Schwartz said. We see “cheating” as occurring in some sort of mental context. Maybe she slept with him, we tell ourselves, because she was depressed. Or maybe he slept with her, we say, because he’s being walloped by middle age. To understand is to forgive.

Though Schwartz admitted that “it is hard to know what the numbers mean,” she thinks non-monogamy will continue to increase. Some theorists, she pointed out, think monogamy arose “so that unattractive men could get wives,” but with the increasing power of women — sexual, financial, cultural — this old system will break down.

Primates sleep around more than Hef
There is some science to suggest Schwartz is right. Human-style monogamy is rare in mammals. Our closest relatives, other primates, have more partners than Hugh Hefner has had women in his grotto. Genetic evidence suggests we ourselves weren’t so devoted either, until somewhat recently in our evolution. So whether or not it’s even “natural” for us to be monogamous, or it’s culturally imposed, is still a debate.

It’s true that people “aren’t quite as naturally monogamous as we might like to believe,” says Malcolm Potts, an expert on the biology of sex at the University of California, Berkeley. “Monogamy is relatively recent in our civilized history.”

Potts, an author of "Ever Since Adam and Eve: The Evolution of Human Sexuality," regards monogamy as “a struggle,” but one most people aspire to.

He doesn’t necessarily disagree with Schwartz that non-monogamy is growing in our culture, but says that monogamy will remain the ideal, something we’ll still try to accomplish, even if we only manage it later than we used to.

“I think the thing that is setting the scene in America [for more non-monogamy] is that the age of first marriage is rising but the age of puberty has fallen," Potts says. "In the 18th Century, girls menstruated at 18. Now it’s 12.”

That creates a very long interval during which our hormones are raging but we still have to get an education, mature, and figure out who we are and who we’d like to marry. As a result “people have sex before marriage and we, as a society, accept that.”

Under those conditions, there’s bound to be a lot of partner-switching and checking out who might be more fun in bed. So non-monogamy may indeed grow as Schwartz suggests. 

Better parents now?
But, Potts argues, once we do marry, we tend to try to make those marriages work and we are probably better parents than we used to be because we’re more mature. We’ve gotten a lot of play time out of our systems. As a result, he says, “I do not know that we have any firm evidence that there is more extramarital sex now than 50 years ago.”

Monogamy in marriage, he believes, is all about the kids. Both men and women have an interest in making sure children are protected and nurtured, and straying makes that task more difficult, so most of us don’t do it.

The idea that we’re becoming a nation of orgiastic libertines is, of course, one of the animating ideas of the Christian right. They’d like to take us back to a mythical time when there was no porn, no sex before marriage, no straying once you were in that marriage.

While they may see Schwartz’s argument as proof of their fears, and justification for repression of sexual liberties, maybe we should all be encouraged.

It’s possible that both Schwartz and Potts are correct, that there is more non-monogamy in our society, but that, in the end, most of us wind up in stable marriages and make better parents.

Wouldn’t that be something?

Brian Alexander is a California-based writer who covers sex, relationships and health. He is a contributing editor at Glamour and the author of "Rapture: How Biotech Became the New Religion" (Basic Books).

Sexploration appears every other Thursday.

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