Gender and Sexuality

Are humans meant to be monogamous?
Answered by Susan Sherwood
  • Susan Sherwood

    Susan Sherwood

  1. Are humans meant to be monogamous? Well, kind of -- maybe! The strength of the argument for monogamy depends upon the measure used. For example, what about monogamy in genetic terms? In 2010, researchers using genomic data studied several ancient populations and found that, while humans had been primarily monogamous, there were definite tendencies toward polygamy. (Asian ancestors were the most monogamous, followed by Europe and then Africa.)

    What about biology? Looking at ourselves in the larger context of mammals, humans are unusual. Among all mammals -- even primates -- humans are the only ones who are generally monogamous both genetically (producing offspring) and socially (non-sexual interactions).  There may be a physiological connection for this. In animal species, the larger the male/female ratio -- in terms of physical size -- the more likely the species is to be polygamous (or, more accurately, polygynous, meaning multiple female breeding partners rather than simply multiple partners). Among humans, the average male tends to be slightly larger than the female. This suggests a moderate level of polygyny.

    What about monogamy looked at through the lens of anthropology? Throughout world history, most societies allowed polygamy (primarily polygyny). The type and extent of polygamy that was allowed varied among the cultures and has not always been fully identified. For instance, it may have been only for the leaders of a society; it may have only been feasible for the wealthy; or it may have been allowed but rarely utilized. The earliest appearance of culturally induced monogamy appears to have been in ancient Greece and Rome.

    How about a contemporary approach: How faithful are husbands and wives in the 21st century? A 2006 National Science Foundation study reported on American behavior since 1972. Results were consistent: Approximately 10 percent of married people admitted to cheating each year. However, overall lifetime rates are rising for both sexes. When married people aged 60 or older were surveyed, 28 percent of men admitted to having been unfaithful at some point during their marriage; 15 years ago, it was 20 percent. The corresponding numbers for women are 15 percent currently and 5 percent 15 years ago.

    So there currently seems to be a slow decline in monogamy. Why? It doesn’t seem to be the result of societal acceptance; the majority of Americans still consider infidelity wrong. One contributing factor may be entrenched digital media: The availability of Internet porn has changed sexual attitudes, and there is instant access to other potential cheating partners through cell phones, e-mail, instant messages and on-line social media sites. Stepping out can be less than a step away.

    More answers from Susan Sherwood »

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