Even as a young child you are made aware of certain role models propagated to be the ideal form of life. Think of the Disney princesses waiting to be rescued and married off to charming young man. Happily ever after means mother, father and children, a close bond that has nothing to do with reality when for example every third British and about half of American first marriages are being divorced. As a teenager growing up especially in a small village with a close community where everyone knows everyone you are under close scrutiny whether you fit into what is accepted to be normal behaviour concerning what is essential a very intimate part of human existence – your sexual relationships. From the beginning of girl’s and boy’s interest in sex and partnership there is one sometimes frightening aspect: Far too often our love life is regulated by society’s expectations and not our own wishes.
My boyfriend and I have decided never to get married – unless something existential happens, like moving to the Middle East or to the US (beware the joke). It was never an easy decision. When I was a little girl – like most other girls do – I dreamed up my perfect wedding, thought about the dress to wear, the castle to celebrate in and how many people I would like to invite – 200 at least. At the age of 5 I married my best kindergarten friend in our backyard, I was happy, he was terrified. But when you find the right partner things like that suddenly are no longer relevant. It is you and him – and deciding to get married should only be about what makes you happy and not about what you have once told your family when you were barely a child.
When I first told my grandparents that we will not get married – ever – my grandmother’s question was: “Don’t you want to have children?” I was a bit perplexed, then laughed. “Yes, I think I do want to have children in due time.” “So, you will marry later.” “Actually no.” That only earned me a confused look and a shake with the head. My grandfather is a bit deaf, so he did not understand what we were talking about until later. His reaction was the same. “But what will you do when you are having a baby?” It is hard to explain to someone of that generation why it is not important for you to be married at all.
But what is even more shocking is how intolerant people of your own generation can be about something like that. My sister for example is getting married this year and I am quite happy for her. But it is nerve-wrecking that since she is engaged she is constantly nagging me and my boyfriend when we will enter matrimonial bliss – I am the older sister, so it is really time for me, right? Why has he not proposed yet? You know how beautiful weddings are, right? She is a lovely sister and some of her nagging is only meant to be a joke because she knows this is driving me up the wall. On the other hand I know that for her marriage is a safety thing, something essential and that deep down she really does not understand why I do not want what she needs. It is an intolerance found in every generation. Consider now someone chooses an even far more different lifestyle, like a woman living with two men or in an open relationship?
I do love the man I am living with, I am an independent woman, I earn my living and happily so – I do not need a marriage contract for safety reasons – I do not need any proof of his love and affection and if he ever wants to leave me: I think no marriage will ever stop him. The only reason to marry him would be romance. And I got that. Mid-March we packed up some friends and drove up to Denmark. Ten people for a week in a lovely holiday home, celebrating our tenth anniversary. I think I have never been drunk six evenings in a row before. The highlight was a roaring 1920s party, all dressed up with lots of food, music, whisky and wine till half past four the next morning. Since we had met at a 1920s party a wedding could never have been any more romantic.
So what is the key essence of that short episode of my life? A simple one: In our love lives it should only matter what makes the people involved happy and not what society, friends and family expect us to do.
But what if what we need is completely against normality? What if a woman loves two men, or a men three women and everyone involved is happy with that arrangement? Not possible, some might say. Not the rule, maybe. But is it because monogamy is the only right form of love or is it because this is a doctrine born in the western world and imposed upon every other culture as another form of colonisation? When deploring the world Europeans had shockingly to detect the far more open minded sexual behaviour of other cultures. With the start of colonisation they did not only transport men, women and technology but also their cultural moral virtues to places and cultures declared pagan and non-developed. During colonization Europeans never questioned their own social virtues and their faith in Europe’s superiority. That applied to questions of relationship, parenthood and sexuality as well.
Perhaps now it is the time to question our own cultural heritage and ask ourselves if we were ever right to judge (as we still do) other forms of bonding between the sexes than those known to us as normality.
It is part of societies to tell their members what is right and what is wrong, but as much as societies differ so do their cultural and social rules. That does not only include a political or moral system, food or art but sexuality as well. So what makes us think that our current cultural approach to sex and relationship is actually the right and only one? Evolutionary theorists today claim that monogamy was actually never part of our biology.
It is a rather biased society we are still living in in which women are still in a disadvantage when it comes to their sex lives. A man having lots of sex partners is in some circles held in high esteem no matter how many mating partners he has. Does this count for women as well? Actually not: A women having a fulfilled love live with various partners is still frowned at. Even scientists for a long time promoted the idea that monogamy developed out of recreational reasons where men looked after one female partner, protected her and her children. Women’s fidelity, so the conclusion, had to be essential in this concept because that was the only guarantee a man had that his partner’s children where his as well. It is a story about male domination over women told over thousands of years ignoring that this might actually not be how early human societies worked at all. On the contrary: These structures started to develop when humankind became farmers and needed to pass on their property to an heir.
The story about how male domination overcame the old social structures is told even in famous myths, like the Greek Olympian Gods who overcame the Titans, for some mythologists a sign for the new Gods defeating the older moral system, a mother cult that had beforehand ruled society.
Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá wrote a bestselling book Sex at Dawn. How We Mate, Why We Stray, and What It Means for Modern Relationships. They examined the heritage of our modern sexuality and why monogamy might not be how nature has intended us to be, since “(…) for centuries it (human’s sexuality) has been silenced by religious authorities, pathologized by physicians, studiously ignored by scientists, and covered up by moralizing therapists.” The authors concluded: “The campaign to obscure the true nature of our species’ sexuality leaves half our marriages collapsing under an unstoppable tide of swirling sexual frustration, libido-killing boredom, impulsive betrayal, dysfunction, confusion, and shame.”
The assumption that men are sexually more active than women is a false one born in a long process throughout centuries. Especially in the prudish Victorian Era when scientists started to explore the origin of humankind they projected their ideal angelic version of women into the past. But as Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá write in Sex at Dawn: “And yet, despite repeated assurances that women aren’t particularly sexual creatures, in cultures around the world men have gone to extraordinary lengths to control female libido: female genital mutilation, head-to-toe chadors, medieval witch burnings, chastity belts, suffocating corsets, muttered insults about ‘insatiable’ whores, pathologizing, paternalistic medical diagnoses of nymphomania or hysteria, the delibating scorn heaped on any female who chooses to be generous with her sexuality… all parts of a worldwide campaign to keep the supposedly low-key female libido under control. Why the electrified high-security razor-wire fence to contain a kitty-cat?” The authors declare women’s sexual reticence to be more a cultural than a biological factor.
The authors argue that in early small group societies children’s chance of survival might have been better when women had more than one sex partner. Uncertain parenthood leads to every male caring for the child since it might have been his. Giving and taking sexual favours could release stress and create strong group bondages. This for example the authors write happens in groups of Bonobo apes, one of our closest relatives. It includes homosexual contacts between two females or two males to release sexual tension.
Considering that it is no surprise that even though our society proclaims monogamy as an ideal throughout the centuries men and women were searching sexual adventures outside their marriage life. Take for example the 16th, 17th or 18th century when men married out of political or financial reasons and found love in their socially accepted mistresses. While in America, England or Germany affairs have a bad reputation, in France for example flirtation with other men or women is looked upon with more forbearingness. At least a quarter of French men and women have casual affairs. In other western countries having more than one partner is today openly discussed, in Finland for example half of the men and at least one third of the women have a relationship next to their marriage or long time partnership. And perhaps that is really more natural to humans than traditional thinking might assume. Or as Michèle Binswanger writes in an article for the German newspaper ZEIT: “As lovers we think of ourselves as some noble protagonist in an adaptation of Romeo and Juliet. But considering human’s sexuality we are playing Planet of the Apes.” Be honest: Who has never fancied another man or woman while being in a relationship, who has never fantasised of having sex with someone else as the one who is lying next to you in bed every night? Having an affair today is not a man-thing: The new possibilities of internet dating for example attract more women than men searching for extramarital sexual contacts.
I for once think I am as interested in having sex as my boyfriend or any man I have ever spoken to about sex. I am quite outspoken when it comes to sex, not only with my partner but I also tend to make dirty jokes that often enough earn me shy giggle from some of my friends and some frown at family gatherings. Still today many women are far too embarrassed to speak openly about what they like or wish for because for a long time keeping the mouth shut about sex was what society believed to be an appropriate women’s behaviour – if that made women happy or not simply did not count.
Women do not want to be sex objects men lust after. They need their own approach to sexuality, apart from what Hollywood films propagate of an ideal partnership or the picture of sex the porn industry tries to fool us with. Relationship is not about dominance of one sex over the other. It is not about fulfilling outdated moral ideals born in the 19th century. It should simply be about what makes us happy. I do not proclaim a certain kind of lifestyle, whether one chooses a string of lovers, a long lasting chaste marriage or a ménage a trois. But I have one last and final question when dealing with societies expectations: Who are we to judge about other people’s lifestyles when being different is what makes them happy? No matter what: In your private lives do as you please and do not expect others to be like you imagine your own fairy tale world.