(Content Warning: Mentions sexual assault and rape in behaviour of monkeys.)
I hear this claim a lot in the consensually non-monogamous communities: “Non-monogamy is the natural state for humans.”
“Sex at Dawn” is a very popular resource book that people tend to reference when making that claim. In it, authors, Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá, posit that humans nearest relative in the primates, the bonobo monkey are an example of how our natural state, in our pre-argrarian and nomadic days. we would be more inclined to be non-monogamous. The bonobo monkeys have sex indiscriminately and often, solve issues with sex, have less aggressive behaviour, and experience less anxiety. Now being promiscuous and highly sex driven has been noted as the cause – the effect being less aggression and anxiety – by the authors, and having studied psych theory and statistics, I can tell you that is almost as equally like to be an assumption as it is an accurate conclusion.
Don’t get me wrong. It would be helpful to our community and allow people to feel a sense of validation being considered “natural” for a change. We often feel we have to fight to be seen as a valid relationship structure. I get it. I get the allure of having a book that tells us we’re the natural state and it’s appeal. Sure. I’m there for that. But also…there are other things to consider before we tout this as definitive.
In a recent paper exploring social preferences between primates and humans, Christoph Krupenye and Brian Hare discovered something surprising. Unlike humans and our other closest relations, the chimpanzee, who prefer to socialize with those who help others, bonobos prefer those who DON’T help others. Don’t help others? Why would this be? Perhaps the bonobo who doesn’t HAVE to help others and just takes what they want is the highest up on the bonobo social hierarchy. Hanging out with that bonobo is going to help them gain status. Further examination of the bonobos by Krupenye and Hare reveals a hierarchical structure born of dominance. And as we know, sexual aggression is form of dominance.
So, essentially, it IS possible we are witnessing bonobos submitting to frequent sexual assaults by the established hierarchy in the bonobo culture. Though the authors of “Sex At Dawn” claim that there isn’t single case of rape in bonobo culture, how can we be certain of consent or desire? As we know, submission is NOT consent. Using your own sexual availability, even grooming (which bonobo males do a lot of) to barter for food and services is NOT consent. And it’s not like we can ask them. Is it possible the bonobos have perhaps just replaced screaming, biting and killing each other with showing one another who’s boss by having sex with them? They are female dominated, so maybe they use sexual dominance as power rather that brute force. When you know your place in the hierarchy and it’s made clear to you on a regular basis many times a day, you accept it (especially if that’s all you know). Consistency creates predictability which results in less anxiety. However, the authors of “Sex at Dawn” have labeled that submissive sexual behaviour as a kind of sexual liberation and held it up as an example of our natural state as humans in our early days. It’s certainly not necessarily all peace, love and tie-dye.
I’m not here to write a paper debunking the theories of “Sex at Dawn”. There’s others who have done a much more thorough job of that than I. And some of what they theorize in the book makes sense to me in many ways but I see a lot of assumptions presented as conclusions. Theories are just that; theories. Sometimes they lead us to labeling them as facts, and sometimes facts are disproved after new information is acquired. And sometimes they remain theoretical. And that’s okay too.
When it comes to the claim, I am simply not on board with saying that “non-monogamy is the natural state of human beings”. To me, it’s ultimately is just as LIMITING as saying humans are “naturally monogamous”. Either way, these kinds of statements tend to be too black and white to apply to humanity which is filled with nuances and PLENTY of variety.
There are people who naturally gravitate toward dyadic (1:1) connections, and once found, are content to stay there as a monosexual (with one sexual partner), or mono-amorous (with one romantic partner) and/or a monogamous (with one spouse) being. And probably there have been examples of these since the dawn of time. Just as there have been people who are born polysexual/non-monogamous, polyamorous, demisexual and ambiamorous etc. And lets not forget the aromantics and asexuals. Rather than claiming this or that is the natural state of human sexuality, how about we recognize the rich tapestry of ALL that we are?
Generally speaking we can’t, I don’t believe, accurately ascribe a natural state of humans to any ONE place on the spectrums of sexual and romantic connections. Because by doing so, we declare the remaining identifiers as “unnatural”, which is a huge disservice to our growing awareness of “otherness” not equating to being “unnatural”, but rather different. Just like we wouldn’t say that “being straight is the natural state of humans” because it denies that homosexuality, bisexuality, pansexuality, etc. are also natural states which occur often and naturally, in, not only our species, but many others.
I do believe non-monogamy is just as natural a state as monogamy and I do actively work to dismantle mono-normative programming. But we should probably RESIST doing that by creating non-monogamous programming.
Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá, “Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality”, (2010).
C. Krupenye, B. Hare, “Bonobos prefer individuals that hinder others over those that help”, Current Biology, 28 (2018), pp. 280-286.