Q&A with Dr. Pepper Schwartz: The rise of non-monogamy

Relationships, News

The landscape of how we relate to each other romantically has undergone quite a few shifts in recent years, with the rise of social media and online dating, rapidly evolving rights for the gay and lesbian community, and growing acceptance of non-monogamy as a dating strategy. Avvo and NakedLaw recently posed a series of questions to renowned relationship expert and sexologist Dr. Pepper Schwartz, asking her to weigh in on the current state of romance, marriage, divorce, and how we are connecting with each other in the midst of societal and technological change. This is the first excerpt from that interview, in which Dr. Schwartz discusses open relationships, and how men and women differ on prioritizing monogamy.

NakedLaw: What differences between men and women explain why the former are more approving of open relationships? Is it cultural or biological?

Dr. Pepper Schwartz: There are certainly competing explanations for male and female divergence on the topic of monogamy and having open, negotiated sexual relationships. First there is the biological and socio-biological approach: Women must invest more in their offspring since they entail both emotional and physical labor and even great personal risk (because of complications in childbirth).

In this theory, women are rational actors: they want a man who is devoted in this arduous and emotionally important relationship, and do not want to risk losing the man’s affections—or resources—to another competitor. Monogamy makes it more likely that she will not be left, and have her child be only her responsibility.

The cultural explanation does not contradict the biological one, but adds that women have been, for most of history, sexual property and that monogamy rules have applied only to them, not to their male partners. In order to know that a child is theirs (before paternity tests could easily establish parenthood), it was in men’s interests to keep women sexually sequestered and to deliver physical punishment, or community outrage and shunning, for any woman who believed she too deserved to follow her sexual attractions outside of marriage. Over time women absorbed the connection of monogamy and morality for themselves and invoked their own punishments on other women who ventured outside of monogamy.

NakedLaw: Is it fair to say that open relationships, and polyamory in general, are having “a moment”? If so, what’s driving that interest?

Dr. Pepper Schwartz: As women have been able to become more independent economically and emotionally, and freer from physical domination from husbands and other community sanctions, they have started to rethink all traditional roles, including the one of monogamous life. The sexual revolution of the late 60s and 70s made sexual independence and sexual exploration a key theme of re-thinking femininity and female sexuality, and started a rethinking of monogamous marriage.

While a minority of Americans renegotiate monogamy (at least in terms of being honest with one another) there has certainly been an increase in the number of women, especially young women, who want wider sexual experience than they have traditionally had—including having sex in a polyamorous or sexually untraditional manner.

More women now write or blog about their adventurous sexual lives (as a quick Google search will confirm), and because women are single longer (the age of marriage is now mid-to-late twenties for most women who eventually marry; for women with graduate and professional degrees, waiting until her early thirties is not unusual) they have more extensive sexual histories, are generally more sexually confident, and more interested in thinking about whether—or if—they want to confine their sexual lives to one person, forever.

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