The Inconvenient Truth About Monogamy
Do you think monogamy was put in practice to benefit women? Think again.
In 2017 I was shooting an episode of the Grapevine where the topic of discussion was gold diggers. I attempted to explain the subtle ways our romantic customs center male desire, often at the expense of female agency.
That’s when I said it, before a room of cheering women, and slack-jawed men.
“The truth about monogamy is — monogamy is the way that we can ensure that average Joes get to get married too!”
In my defense, I was neither praising polygamy nor slamming—well — broke men. I threw it in as an aside.
I thought this was common knowledge. In my mind, I was merely mentioning a historical fact; but in reality, I was stepping on a cultural land mine.
Not only did the clip, later dubbed “monogamy is for broke men,” instantly go viral, but it provoked a fusillade of attacks from men for which I was totally unprepared. The harassment was so intense, I feared for my safety, and for years, every time the video reemerged, sparking a small brush fire on my timeline, I cringed. Sure, I gained thousands of new followers practically overnight, but the minute-long clip, extracted from an hour-long conversation, had been mercilessly taken out of context. I became a poster child for polygamy, and a ballbuster for (broke) men — neither of which was entirely true.
Years later, I am still trying to make sense of the ordeal, contemplating why, for some men, the truth about monogamy strikes a nerve.
Polygyny, when one man marries multiples wives, has long been associated with wealth and power. Most ancient patriarchal societies were mildly polygynous, meaning that while some men, typically the wealthy elite, had multiple wives, most were generally monogamous. As these early agrarian societies, however, became increasingly more complex and socioeconomically stratified, the practice of polygyny expanded, creating a notable scarcity of brides among lower-ranking men.
The truth is, polygyny intensifies economic inequality among men. It also creates a reserve of young, sexually frustrated men who, when faced with genetic obsolescence, are willing to do just about anything to get access to sex and money — from kidnapping and cattle raids, to joining guerrilla armies. Hence polygynous couplings are not only intensely unequal, they are innately more violent. Even today, polygyny is a key feature in all of the 20 most unstable countries on the Fragile States Index.
Ancient Greco-Roman society avoided this social volatility, along with questions of inheritance, by outlawing polygyny altogether. The ruling elites, the very men who stood to sexually benefit the most from their power and wealth, strategically limited every man to one wife. That was an anomaly in the ancient world, but it was a concession that increased cohesion amongst men by reducing intra-sex competition for women. That concession helped the empire rapidly expand, and it was of little consequence to the wealthiest men who continued to enjoy sex with their concubines, and even slaves. Ancient Greco-Roman society provided the blueprint for the Western model of monogamy that would ultimately dominate globally, especially after it was adopted by Christianity.
In strictly economic terms, women benefit from polygyny when they are financially dependent on men, and faced with massive wealth inequality. In this scenario, a woman might be better off as the second or third wife of a wealthier man, than the exclusive wife of a poor one. Polygyny definitely commodifies women, but it also assures that virtually every woman can partner, even if at the expense of men.
Monogamy is one of the ways we’ve rigged our society to ensure the reproductive success of virtually all men, in spite of these gaping inequalities.
Sociologists say that the moment wealth distribution rises, and women are emancipated, female support for polygyny dwindles. At that point, the benefits of monogamy outweigh its costs, but polygyny never fully disappears. Socially imposed monogamy doesn’t override the fact that many heterosexual women still covet (and share) the wealthiest, most attractive partners and just like in ancient Rome, de facto polygyny persists, even today.
Which brings me to my original point. Why did my statement about monogamy inspire such a divisive response? I may never fully understand the fallout, but over the years I’ve developed an idea.
Candid discussions about monogamy lay bare the inherent inequalities of wealth and power, both hallmarks of masculinity in our deeply patriarchal culture. Monogamy is one of the ways we’ve rigged our society to ensure the reproductive success of virtually all men, in spite of these gaping inequalities. For a significant part of human history, a small number of men controlled the vast number of resources — and while there are cultural levers in place to reduce sexual competition among men, there are far more levers in place to limit their ability to acquire wealth, which leads me to believe that some of the hostility hurled at prospecting women is ultimately misdirected. We are tougher on women who dig for gold than we are on men who hoard wealth.
Furthermore, we have a real problem with women who are selective, women who actually want things in exchange for their time, their emotional labor — and their bodies. Monogamy’s origin story speaks to the age-old correlation between wealth and sex, a connection that our casual sex culture works hard to undo.
Sex has arguably never been “cheaper,” but this is yet another example of centering male desire at the expense of female agency. We vilify gold diggers, but normalize men who covet beauty. We guilt women for high standards and romanticize struggle love. Some of those same men who love to sext, loathe the idea of OnlyFans.
Female sexuality is great until you put it behind a paywall.
It’s so much easier to disavow monogamy, in defense of promiscuity, than it is to admit that monogamy is what allows so many men to be promiscuous in the first place. I finally realize, all these years later, why the inconvenient truth about monogamy may be a bitter pill to swallow, especially when dispensed by a woman.
But don’t tweet me. I’m just the messenger.