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The Other Side of Everything

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Written on September 1, 2005, and categorized as Secret and Invisible.
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It is September, traditionally a good month for marital disasters in the Deekster household. Casting my mind back over the years, I associate the ending of summer with great sighs of longing and poetry arriving uncalled for in swathes of romantic rhyme, the scented silk of a love recently departed found in a bottom drawer, now resident somewhere in the land of Ex.

Examining my September conscience, I am looking at my own reasons for staying, or straying, in the past. Love or loyalty to a person, or a situation, self-expectations, the pressure of expectations by others, fear of loss, or of loneliness, all play a part in inhibiting or disinhibiting the moment when thoughts become action.

Looking at my various attempts at serial monogamy, I have come to realise that monogamy is widely misunderstood. We think it to be near-universal human behaviour, with parallels in the animal world, and it simply isn’t either. We pay monogamy lip service, maintain this relationship standard as a huge social pretence, and by doing this cause much confusion.

By comparison to birds, 90% of which form lifelong attachments, we are not very loyal creatures at all. Even in birds, 30% of the offspring reared come not from the doting father, but from an interloper. In humans, studies show that maybe as much 10% of offspring have fathers who are unrelated to them genetically.

If we compare ourselves to biological like, i.e other primates, we are practically alone in our attempt at monogamy, and considering our actual behaviour as opposed to our rosy view of it, perhaps we are wasting a lot of energy pretending to be other than we are.


Bonobo communities are peace-loving and generally egalitarian. The strongest social bonds are those among females, although females also bond with males. The status of a male depends on the position of his mother, to whom he remains closely bonded for her entire life.


In chimpanzee groups the strongest bonds are established between the males in order to hunt and to protect their shared territory. The females live in overlapping home ranges within this territory but are not strongly bonded to other females or to any one male.


Gibbons establish monogamous, egalitarian relations, and one couple will maintain a territory to the exclusion of other pairs.


Human society is the most diverse among the primates. Males unite for cooperative ventures, whereas females also bond with those of their own sex. Monogamy, polygamy and polyandry are all in evidence.


The social organization of gorillas provides a clear example of polygamy. Usually a single male maintains a range for his family unit, which contains several females. The strongest bonds are those between the male and his females.


Orangutans live solitary lives with little bonding in evidence. Male orangutans are intolerant of one another. In his prime, a single male establishes a large territory, within which live several females. Each female has her own, separate home range.

This fascinating essay by Shveta Shah, Mating for Life? compares (among many other things) the testicle size of primates and draws conclusions about their subsequent behaviour:

Scientists have now begun to address this question from a biological perspective. The results of this research startlingly contrast traditional views of monogamy advocated by culture and religion …. Researchers observe that these different strategies are revealed in the size of an animal’s testes. Chimpanzees and gorillas provide a nice example. Chimps are promiscuous, and gorillas are polygynous. Male gorilla bodies are about four times bigger that male chimp bodies, but the chimps’ testes are four times larger than gorillas’ – sixteen times larger, proportionally.

The chimps have larger testes because it is important for them to have sex with many females and spread their seed. They are not committed to any one female, and they have no assurance of the survival of their children because they are not obligated to care for any particular one. Gorillas, on the other hand, are committed to a group of females. They devote less energy to spreading their genes and more to protecting their territory and providing for their females and their children. Thus, they do not need larger testes.

These same ratios are noted in butterflies, frogs, and many others. Based upon this criterion of relative testes’ size, humans fall into the category of monogamous/polygynous

William James famously wrote (supposedly under the influence of Nitrous Oxide) “Hogamous, higamous; Men are polygamous. Higamous, Hogamous; Women monogamous.” Yet there are many grey areas, people are complex. I am a straight man very definitely inclined towards monogamy, and I am glad to have met several delightful women inclined exactly opposite. Like sexuality itself, our general behaviour is not easy to typify.

Science, something which sets us so clearly apart from other creatures, tells us that we humans are confused on the issue. Surveys of contemporary sexual behaviour indicate large contradictions between our perceptions and expectations of sex and human relationships, and its actuality.

A recent study, “The Social Organization of Sexuality (University of Chicago Press, 1994) [finds] that straight women report having had five sex partners since they turned eighteen. Straight men report having had seventeen… Similar margins show up in other studies on both sides of the Atlantic.

I don’t think the difference in sexual experience reported is entirely due to prostitution or lying as the writer of Cascadia Scorecard Weblog suggests. I read somewhere that 15% of women are more highly promiscuous than the other 85% – which if true, explains the discrepancy somewhat.

On a chemical, micro-biological level, we are still scratching at the surface.

Dr. Thomas Insel of Emory University (see related interview) has identified two closely related neuropeptides, oxytocin and vassopressin, implicated in the central mediation of attachment behaviors.

These neuropeptides appear to be important for the initiation of pair bonds, which is an essential component of monogamy. Oxytocin, vassopressin, and their receptors have been positively identified in voles, and the existence of oxytocin and vassopressin has been verified for humans. They have also been associated with sexual intercourse in men and with giving birth in women.

However, the exact mechanism of their employment is not yet understood. It is important to note that sexual intercourse is neither necessary nor sufficient for human pair bonding; thus, it is certain that these two peptides are not the only chemical processes affecting monogamy. It may be that differing concentrations of these and other neuropeptides determine a tendency towards or away from fidelity.

Do these biological explanations justify infidelity? Should one accept his/her spouse’s cheating? The consensus among scientists thus far is a resounding, “No!” They caution against drawing simplistic conclusions about human biology from animal studies.

I sense that we are part chimp, part bonobo. Personally, although I understand promiscuity, the desire to have sex freely, often and with multiple partners, in large bathtubs filled with baby oil, believe that sex is great and we should all be happy and free in our choices, I choose to behave otherwise. Making love makes love, love inspires devotion, devotion means not screwing around is my personal equation, and I do experience territorial feelings if someone is making for “my” partner.

But humans universally seem to aspire to more than simply a blissful physical fix, and it’s love that’s the big hairy thing that we cannot fathom, that union which brings the greatest ecstasy, inspires the greatest sacrifices, which opens the heart to the deepest wounds.

If it was just about our lustful monkey bodies, it would be so easy. If a lover strays, people experience jealousy, rage, even hatred. Betrayal in love is often accompanied by an appalling feeling of loss, not of innocence, a crude, Hollywood state which scarcely exists, but of the shared, now shattered intimacy and trust that real relationships provide. It is an absoutely foul emotional place to be, the green-eyed monster to be avoided. Yet, surely avoiding emotional pain is not a good reason to keep going in a relationship which is out of balance, or harmful, ad infinitum?

We humans might make the journey from chimp to bonobo, use our clever minds to create a culture that will activate the gentler elements of our biology. Perhaps, free from hypocrisy and blindness, our behaviour might become more frequently kind, caring, compassionate and comforting.

I still keep holy my highest hope – that romantic ideal, to love one special someone, and to be loved by them, to desire them and be desired, to understand and to be understood by them, and to keep safe that intimate space which lovers share between themselves, is something I not only understand, but still hold sacred, in my profane, distracted, funky world.


Bonobo: Amicable, Amorous and Run by Females by Natalie Angier

Mating for Life? by Shveta Shah

“The Social Organization of Sexuality (University of Chicago Press, 1994)

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This thing has 2 Comments

  1. I.:.S.:.
    Posted 4 September, 2005 at 9:26 pm | Permalink

    But no no no, you missed the point with Bonobos, look into Bonobos more – Bonobo society is one continuous orgy, they are all polymorphously perverse and very affectionate, they stroke and suck each other in greeting.

  2. transience
    Posted 5 September, 2005 at 6:44 am | Permalink

    i was going to say something really smart until mikey here decided to make that outrageous comment and now all i can think of is the stroke-suck greeting, which at the moment, is an obscenely provocative thought while i steal blog time at the office. this is not a run-on sentence.

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  1. Posted 10 April, 2009 at 11:00 pm | Permalink

    […] humans are both chimp and bonobo-like: […]

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