Might monogamy be the real sexual revolution?

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Many of us assumed free-love promiscuity was radical — but is it? Dr Mark Manolopoulos discusses.

In an age where one-night stands, swinging and polyamory have gained sway, it’s time to reclaim monogamous love as a/the truly revolutionary erotic experience. But surely this seems counter-intuitive: isn’t monogamy the most conservative position when it comes to love? And not only does it appear conservative, but it also seems to be a failure these days, given that around half of marriages in liberal societies end up in divorce.

So why should we even bother with monogamy? I’d like to point out a couple of subversive elements to monogamy.

1. Monogamy grows out of love, which is risky business.

There’s something safe in erotic arrangements that don’t involve the element of love: one-night stands, “booty calls”, and other “hook-ups” are safe because there is no risk (usually) of falling in love and, as I discussed in my article 'There’s a Reason They Call It ‘Falling’ In Love', the phrase “falling in love” is perfectly apt: falling in love is a scary thing, as our hearts are given over to an other who may break it. When we fall in love, we can’t eat, we can’t sleep — it’s positively harrowing.

The bold and brilliant philosopher, Slavoj Žižek, sums it up succinctly (even if somewhat hyperbolically):

'Everyone knows love is the greatest thing, but, at the same time, it is the most horrible thing. Can you imagine yourself living a nice life and meeting with friends and having one-night stands, but all of a sudden, you fall passionately in love? It’s horrible. It ruins your whole life. We are afraid of that. But – how can I put this? – we should return [to monogamous love], I claim!'

Given that falling in love is a precursor to monogamy (and, admittedly, to loving polyamorous and polygamous relationships), then we can already perceive its revolutionary dimension: we, today, want to play it safe, so we avoid the risk of falling in love, or else run away from it when it befalls us. There’s nothing safer than promiscuity — it’s the ultimate buffer to dangerous love.

2. Monogamy requires loyalty.

Loving monogamous relationships require faithfulness. But in today’s society, unfaithfulness is becoming acceptable, popular and profitable. Sites like Ashley Madison are allowed to advertise on TV, and the site’s email hacking scandal demonstrates, among other things, how highly popular such deplorable services have become and, by inference, how profitable they must be. The once-shunned business of cheating has now become big business. 

By adhering to loyalty, monogamy resists the ever-growing urge to be unfaithful. It requires a stoicism that is completely antithetical to today’s “anything goes” culture, where we are encouraged to be led astray by our genitals rather than following values like loyalty and reciprocity. 

Once again, the inimitable Žižek deserves citation:

'Today, passionate engagement is considered almost pathological. I think there is something subversive in saying: This is the man or woman with whom I want to stake everything.'

Of course, this lack of passionate engagement today pervades all aspects of society: we avoid “staking everything” with a lover, with our vocations, with political change. Among all this dispassionate disengagement, it is little wonder that Žižek calls for a return to monogamous love.

Lovers of the world, unite! — and try to stay united!

Dr Mark Manolopoulos is a philosopher and an adjunct research associate at Monash University.

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