Let’s Talk About…Monogamy?

Screenshot of Greta Garbo and John Barrymore from the trailer for the film Grand Hotel. MGM: 1932

In the spirit of St. Valentine’s Day, we turn to the subject of romance. But the outlook for monogamy seems to be bleak. In a study conducted by researchers at Oregon State University, soon to be published in the Journal of Sex Research, 40% of a sample of 434 young heterosexual couples, married and unmarried, gave conflicting answers when partners were asked individually whether they had agreed to be monogamous. Furthermore, of those who were in agreement about monogamy at least in principle, 30% reported that at least one partner had not kept to it. Commenting on the findings, research associate Jocelyn Warren said:

“Other studies have looked at perceptions related to monogamy, but this is really the first one that explores the discussions that heterosexual couples are, or aren’t, having about monogamy.”

It will come as a surprise to few to discover that, according a 2004 study published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health in, men are happier with a life of unmarried, ‘serial monogamy’ whereas women are reportedly happier within a (functioning) marriage.

What do philosophers have to say about monogamy? Kant’s thoughts on sex, monogamy and marriage, are, for a man who went to his grave a virginal bachelor, surprisingly enlightening. (Bachelorhood, in fairness, not historically being a totally alien phenomenon to male philosophers – Heraclitus, Plato, Descartes, Spinoza and Schopenhauer were all unmarried, as Nietzsche once gleeful pointed out while conveniently neglecting to include himself). Unsurprisingly, however, Kant viewed sexual desire as something problematic, at least when outside of the context of a monogamous marriage. Contained within the ethical code that he devised is an imperative never to treat people merely as means, as instruments used to attain our wants and desires, and always as ends in themselves. To treat people in this way is to effectively deny their rational and autonomous agency, which for Kant is to undermine the defining aspect of personhood; the philosophical articulation of what in colloquial terms is the intensely hurtful experience of “being used”. Unadulterated sexual expression is an obvious case in which this can be manifested to greater or lesser extents, Kant explains in his Lectures on Ethics, and his solution to this is legally enforced monogamy. In a moment of profound sensitivity, he remarks that, in contradistinction to non-marital-monogamous forms of sexual love, ‘I have given myself up as the property of another, but in turn I take that other as my property, and so win myself back again in winning the person whose property I have become. In this way, the two persons become a unity of will.’ Unfortunately for Kant, amongst the collected data it was found that the married couples were no more likely to have an explicit monogamy agreement than the unmarried couples. We might add in his defence, however, that the monogamy clause is usually taken to be implicit in a marriage (as long as, for the time being, we are not including societies in which marital polygamy is an accepted cultural norm). At the very least ‘A monogamy agreement was not made explicit to me’ would be a very bold defence for any guilty husband or wife to present…

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