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The myths of monogamy

By Eric Anderson


Sexual taboos are falling in Western cultures. Largely due to the Internet, today’s youth take a much more sex-positive view to what comes naturally. They have shed the fear and misconception of masturbation. They enjoy a hook-up culture, where sex is easier to come by; there is less of a double standard for women who also enjoying these freedoms. Pornography is commonplace, with most boys seeking it out around 11. It has withered from moralistic Victorian ideals of heterosexual, missionary ‘sex’ to LGBT pornography, which youth today view, demystifying what their parents so feared. This has even opened the development of heterosexual men receiving anal pleasuring.

Despite all of this social-sexual progress, our pornified culture has yet to erode the sexual taboo of engaging in — or even admitting to desperately wanting — sex with someone other than one’s monogamous partner. Monogamy is so esteemed it remains virtually compulsory in our relationships.

But despite its cultural esteem, there are faults with the practice; problems covered by a culture unwilling to ask critical questions about it. Monogamy’s regard is maintained through multiple, robust cultural myths in the forms of both a carrot and a stick.

Young men entering into romantic/sexual relationships are misled into thinking that monogamy is capable of providing them with a lifetime of sexual fulfilment and that if they truly loved their partners they would not desire others. This, we are told, is because monogamy is healthy, proper, moral, and natural. Anyone deviating from or challenging this script is stigmatized.

We must hold monogamy, not only cheating, to a critical light. We must expose the myths supporting monogamy, especially for young men who have grown up with easier access to sex, a panoply of pornography, and a greater number of sexual partners before finding love. Let us examine the stages of a monogamous relationship:

(1) Young men enter into romantic relationships believing in the myths of monogamy. Many men have come from families broken by cheating, and they don’t want to be ‘that guy.’ They believe that if they love their partners, they will be sexually satisfied with them in perpetuity.

(2) Despite this belief, sexual habituation sets in quickly. Attempts to spice-up one’s sex life normally occur about the time a couple enters into the emotional storming stage of a relationship: three months. But despite these attempts, the intensity and frequency of sex declines within a few months.

(3) The relentless urge to have sex with someone else grows stronger as the emotional strength of the relationship develops. Young men who fail to love their girlfriends or boyfriends aren’t compelled to stay with their partners. Instead, they are culturally free to leave their partners. But men don’t leave their partners because of waning sexual desires alone; they love their partners and do not wish to leave them. They simply want sex with someone else to fulfill their somatic desires while keeping their emotional relationships intact.

(4) Men begin to resent their partners. When every cell in their body is craving sex with someone else, monogamy begins to feel like sexual incarceration. Men want to escape, and, to some extent, their inability to do so is taken out on their partner, who is viewed as keeping them sexually incarcerated.

(5) Men must decide. Do they break up with their partners so they can have sex elsewhere? Tell their partners that they desire a sexually-open relationship? Discuss their sexual desires with their partners but not ask for an open-relationship? Or do they choose to cheat, even if not fully admitting this choice to themselves?

(6) The decision is normally made to cheat, and this normally occurs (the first time) when drunk. Men don’t choose the first option because they are in love with their partners and don’t wish to lose their emotional relationship. They don’t choose to explain their desires to their partners because they fear that if they do, their partners will not only deny them the ability to have extra-dyadic sex, but they will either subject them to extra surveillance and scrutiny, or break up with them altogether. Thus, the final option, cheating, becomes the only rational choice to have their emotional and sexual desires met. With the fuel of alcohol, cheating ‘just happens.’ But because most of the time men are not caught, and because they view the crime as having already been committed, they begin to cheat more often. This cheating option has the added value of permitting themselves to have extra sex, without giving their partners permission to do the same. Thus, cheating men don’t have to confront their own sexual jealousy.

After interviewing 120 young men and drawing on research from hundreds of other academics across the biological and social sciences, the central thesis to my research is that cheating is a rational response to the irrational expectation of monogamy. Cheating serves as a way for men to meet their desires, with as little disruption to their emotional lives as possible. This is why 78% of the men I interview report having cheated on their current partner.

I don’t condone cheating, but I do condemn monogamy for setting up this double jeopardy. I understand why men cheat and permitted them to tell their own stories without moral condemnation through my research.

This position is unpopular in a culture which so highly values fidelity. Thus, I rather feel like a boy pointing out the fact that the Emperor has no clothes. But I suggest that my thesis must resonate with most who read it at some level. This is because the evidence about monogamy suggests that while we value it, it is not working. Not only have 78% of those in my study cheated, but evidence is all around us that, as an institution, monogamy has failed. Previous research on married men and women in the United Kingdom, for example, shows that more than 70% of men and women have at one time cheated on their partner.

In light of my thesis, some choose a moralist stand, arguing that men should not act on their desires no matter how strong. Others seem to want men doomed to a life of loneliness, suggesting that they should never enter into relationships if that is their belief, or those are their sexual desires.

Both of these positions, however, are a return to matters as usual. They value a cultural script (monogamy for life) that is clearly not working. It is also these scripts that keep men lying about their desires and hiding their cheating. Few point out the obvious answer to the dilemma of monogamy and cheating — sexually open relationships. Here, in an egalitarian manner, a couple reserves emotional fidelity, while structuring in rules for extra-dyadic, recreational sex.

Thus, the way out of the monogamy gap is for us to begin equally valuing sexually open relationships, alongside monogamous ones. Feeling victimized by one’s cheating is a socially constructed emotion that ultimately leads to the decrement of otherwise healthy relationships. Open sexual relationships can, oddly enough, provide increased protection from sexually transmitted diseases/infections; and open relationships can wither jealousy scripts that lead to emotional distress in a relationship.

Finally, when there is no stigma to having an open sexual relationship, men and women will begin to be more honest about what they want sexually, and how they desire to achieve it. Only once sexually open relationships become a viable cultural choice — free of stigma or hierarchy — will men and women begin to talk honestly about what form of relationship would serve them best. Only then will they be permitted to change the rules of sex with others in their relationship, as they see fit.

Professor Eric Anderson is the author of The Monogamy Gap: Men, Love, and the Reality of Cheating and an American sociologist at the University of Winchester. He is known for his research on sex, gender, and sport. Anderson is also the author of eight books, many of which document the development of pro-gay attitudes in young, heterosexual men. His work examines how this changing culture enables heterosexual men to show love and affection more openly toward their male peers, and how openly gay male athletes are thriving in sport.

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Recent Comments

  1. Charles Areni

    Surely the male tendency to cheat is driven by the reproductive potential of males versus females? http://feministphallusies.blogspot.com/2011/03/are-men-naturally-promiscuous.html

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