UW News

April 30, 2001

Authors yank infidelity out of closet: Monogamy appears to be unnatural in the natural world

Myths die hard.

And it’s even harder to dispel a myth when it concerns sexuality. But in a new book called “The Myth of Monogamy,” a husband-wife scientific team contends that monogamy among animals, and humans in particular, may be the exception rather than the rule.

David Barash, a University of Washington zoologist and professor of psychology, and Judith Lipton, a Seattle psychiatrist, said the book, published by W.H. Freeman and Co. this month, is intended to empower people, not to condone infidelity.

“A lot of people get upset if you talk about something like infidelity and say it is natural because then it seems good and proper,” said Barash. “There are lots of things that can be natural and are truly awful, like earthquakes and AIDS. We are not saying monogamy is good or bad. But people are more empowered when they understand something. We are not sympathetic with people who philander and say, ‘The devil made me do it,’ or claim their behavior is genetic. People can do all kinds of natural nasty things – lie, cheat, steal and kill – but it doesn’t mean those things are good.”

“The Myth of Monogamy” grew out of the authors’ experiences as a zoologist and a psychiatrist. Lipton said psychiatrists often get disaster calls from clients who have found that their partners have been cheating on them. Barash noted that animal behavior has been revolutionized in the past decade by DNA fingerprinting, which has revealed many species once viewed as paragons of virtue to be philanderers.

“The most frequent calls psychiatrists get in the middle of the night are from people who have discovered adultery,” said Lipton. “Infidelity crises in marriage is very common, almost like a bad case of the marital flu. People who discover it are outraged, grief-stricken and angry. People who have been cheated on can sometimes be extremely violent and much of the violence in the United States can be attributed to infidelity.

“I try to tell people I deal with as a psychiatrist that adultery does not necessarily mean your spouse does not love you, that it is a character flaw or that they never cared for you. There are a lot of reasons for adultery and it takes a hell of a lot of diligence to stay monogamous.”

Barash said numerous recent studies have shown that many animals and birds, such as eagles, geese, beavers and gibbons, previously believed to be faithfully monogamous aren’t.

“A lot of hanky-panky is going on,” he added. “There has been quite a revolution in scientific understanding of the lives of animals and we can learn a lot about ourselves by looking at other creatures.”

Obtaining accurate data about human infidelity is difficult because people lie about it, according to Lipton. But she said various studies indicate it is quite common, with 50 percent of men confessing to at least one affair and 30 percent to 50 percent of women admitting that behavior.

“Being monogamous is rare. If people want to do it they have to work at it,” Lipton said. “It’s similar to wanting to play the violin. People can love good music and aspire to play the violin. But most find it difficult and won’t practice. Monogamy, like the violin, takes practice and diligence because there are so many temptations.”

The authors contend that the sexes engage in infidelity for different reasons and that evidence for monogamy in human history is sketchy. Males tend to be opportunistic and have sex out of marriage because it is available and pleasurable. For women it is a way of obtaining something better than their mate, someone who may be richer, more handsome or more powerful, they said.

While there is no historic record showing how prehistoric humans behaved – at least, not when it comes to their sex lives – Barash and Lipton point to numerous 20th Century anthropological and sociological studies of hunter-gatherer societies where monogamy is the overwhelming exception, not the rule. In the western world, they said, monogamy only ascended in the late Middle Ages and the Industrial Age. The rich and powerful gained the cooperation of the masses by trading some of their wealth to low class men, enabling them to have wives and a stake in society.

“Monogamy was a cover story for society,” said Lipton. “Kings still had many wives and concubines. Powerful men did not practiced monogamy and women probably didn’t either.”

“What we are saying isn’t different from the 10 Commandments,” added Barash. “The commandments would not have said ‘do not covet thy neighbor’s wife,’ if people didn’t covet her.

“One thing we’d like to see is some of these new findings be included in a real sex-education curriculum,” he said. “Right now, monogamous marriage is presented as the goal and end-point of courtship and love. That’s fine, but just as it used to be taboo, to a certain extent, for people to talk about sex, it’s now taboo to confront the fact that monogamy is terribly difficult. If anything, we are hoping to make monogamy easier by taking infidelity out of the closet.”

For more information, contact Barash at (206) 543-8784 or dpbarash@u.washington.edu