Debate: Are men physically incapable of monogamy, or is fidelity simply a state of mind?

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Will Carling's decision to leave his fiancee and their 10-month- old son following his latest infidelity has caused widespread outrage. Zak Jane Keir argues that Carling was only doing what comes naturally. But Peter Baker claims biology is irrelevant to mono-gamy, and that recent studies prove men are not only faithful, but happy to be so

THE FRENZIED condemnation of Will Carling's recent infidelities has been misdirected. Carling is only doing something that comes naturally after all: wanting a sexual partner other than the one he is officially permitted to have sex with.

There is a well-known theory to the effect that men want to have sex with as many women as they can in order to perpetuate their own genetic legacy. The corresponding theory is that women want to have sex only in the context of a relationship or marriage, in order to ensure a protector for any children they might bear.

If this was an abiding natural truth, there would hardly be the need for the kind of intensive cultural pressure to restrict and control female sexuality that actually exists. Monogamy, broadly speaking, is an invention of a patriarchal world view, and its purpose is to ensure that no man need doubt he is the father of his children, born by his women.

If male polygamy is a biological imperative to ensure the survival of the superior males genes - because the superior male fights off all the competition - the equivalent biological drive in the female would be to engage in sex with as many men as possible during the conception period, so that the 'superior' sperm would be the one that made it through to fertilise the egg. It is to prevent this happening that men have placed such emphasis on monogamy through the centuries.

While we, the Twentieth Century boys and girls, are not entirely at the mercy of our biological imperatives (we wear clothes even in warm weather, we eat because it is "meal-time" rather than according to appetite, most of the sexual activity we engage in is re- creational rather than procreational), we should ask ourselves why certain behaviour patterns are idealised above all others and why we are so quick to condemn those who break these particular rules.

The ideal of lifelong monogamy stems from an era of considerably lower life expectancy than we have at present (and some social studies appear to have noticed a radial decrease in the figures for spouse murder, coinciding with the liberalisation of divorce laws). And while it is possible and perfectly valid for people to choose one-to-one relationships as a preferred lifestyle, the fact that so many people find it a source of frustration and misery should encourage us to consider other options.

To regard a monogamy-based sexual model as an opposition between male "wickedness" and female "virtue" does neither sex any favours: the "good" woman, we might remember, has always been the one who voluntarily narrows the scope of her world. To the kitchen usually.

If we must condemn Will Carling (if it's actually any of our business) then we should criticise what appears to be unnecessary brutality in the manner of exchanging one sexual partner for another, not in his inability to follow an outdated and pointlessly narrow code of conduct.

In fact, it's his acceptance of monogamy as the ideal that caused this mess in the first place: the monogamous ideal would hold that your currently preferred sexual partner is the only valid one, and all others are dispensable. Very ethical.

It's time to divorce mono-gamy and morality: they've definitely grown apart, and shouldn't have got together in the first place.

SO WILL Carling has scored with more women than he has tries for England. That is a matter for his conscience and his partners. Neither his behaviour, nor that of Bill Clinton, Peter Stringfellow or any other latter-day Casanova, proves that men are naturally predisposed to reject monogamy. To suggest that men somehow feel genetically or hormonally compelled to have sex with as many partners as possible is as absurd as arguing that women are biologically destined to do the cooking and cleaning.

First, some facts. It might seem about as exciting as a cup of cocoa and an early night but, for most British blokes, mono-gamy is the norm. The National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles, the largest ever analysis of sexual behaviour, found that a whopping 85 per cent of men (both straight and gay) aged 16-59 had only monogamous relationships.

The same survey also found that most men have surprisingly few notches on their bed-posts. Two-thirds of straight men reported either no or just one sexual relationship during the last five years, and over one-third have accumulated no more than two partners in their entire lifetime. This hardly amounts to evidence of an uncontrollable male libido.

At the level of fantasy, of course, most men are probably rather different. But this is not surprising in a society that continues to teach boys to emulate "real man", the guy who spends his days killing terrorists and his nights making passionate - and distinctly non- monogamous - love to an endless number of supermodels.

What is truly astonishing is that, given this cultural framework, relatively few men actually convert their sexual fan- tasies about colleagues at work, next door neighbours or even Playmates of the Month into real-life sexual behaviour.

The currently high divorce and separation rates do not constitute evidence of men's natural disinclination for monogamy either. These are much more likely to be a reflection of financial pressures, stress resulting from the increasingly intense demands of working life and a decline in supportive family and neighbourhood networks.

Now that women are more financially independent, they are also much less willing to put up with what they often regard as men's emotional immaturity.

Although many men undoubtedly regard monogamy as an ideal arrangement, it would be absurd to deny that others do find it an uncomfortable constraint. For complex reasons psychotherapists can no doubt trace back to early infancy, men often grow up frightened of getting close to women. They may also fear rejection by women - and it does not take Freud to point out that the best way of avoiding rejection is to do the rejecting. Yet, as many women know only too well, men are quite capable of remaining emotionally detached within a relationship but simultaneously loyal and sexually faithful.

Although it is not yet clear whether male behaviour is determined more by nature or nurture, there can be no doubt that there is not one universal form of masculinity with one fixed set of behaviours. Being monogamous - or not - is neither "natural" nor "unnatural" for men; rather it is a way of being determined by each individual's particular brew of genes, hormones, experiences and preferences. In this sense, Will Carling is no more or less typical of men than the Pope.

Zak Jane Keir is a contributing writer for 'Forum' magazine

Peter Baker is the author of 'The MANual' (Thorsons, pounds 7.99)

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