Monogamy is for bungee jumpers

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The Independent Online

Have you committed adultery in your heart, to use former US president Jimmy Carter's touching phrase for amorous window-shopping? Around 90 per cent of women in committed cohabiting relationships have thought of playing away, while around a fifth have actually done the dirty, according to a team of medics from Guy's and St Thomas' hospitals. I don't know about you, but I found it reassuring to think that while a fail-safe cure for cancer may elude us, scientists have at least cracked the pressing conundrum concerning female fidelity. Mind you, why did the boffins think that women obsessed about Colin Firth's wet-shirt scene from Pride and Prejudice? Because they wished to become better acquainted with his mind? If Firth lived next door to every housewife in the land and was willing to shed his shirt on demand, I put it to you that 90 per cent of women would be actively unfaithful and the other 10 per cent would be kicking themselves.

Have you committed adultery in your heart, to use former US president Jimmy Carter's touching phrase for amorous window-shopping? Around 90 per cent of women in committed cohabiting relationships have thought of playing away, while around a fifth have actually done the dirty, according to a team of medics from Guy's and St Thomas' hospitals. I don't know about you, but I found it reassuring to think that while a fail-safe cure for cancer may elude us, scientists have at least cracked the pressing conundrum concerning female fidelity. Mind you, why did the boffins think that women obsessed about Colin Firth's wet-shirt scene from Pride and Prejudice? Because they wished to become better acquainted with his mind? If Firth lived next door to every housewife in the land and was willing to shed his shirt on demand, I put it to you that 90 per cent of women would be actively unfaithful and the other 10 per cent would be kicking themselves.

Common sense supports the medics' finding that, given half a chance, many women will behave every bit as licentiously as any philandering male. Otherwise, who are all those men frolicking with? That redhead from accounts? The fact that people of both sexes are frequently unfaithful is no longer an interesting issue, nor are the reasons that they or the scientists cite for such unruly behaviour: boredom, opportunity, lurve, lust, ambition, hormones, pheromones and "I can't help it, it's my genes playing up again". What is rather more interesting is whether the traditional notion of sexual fidelity is outmoded in such a wilfully errant world. And so the questing souls at Intelligence Squared, a forum established to thrash out the big questions, held a debate at the Royal Geographic Society in Kensington last week which examined the proposition "Monogamy is bad for the soul". Writer and love rat numero uno, Rod Liddle, proposed the motion and took us on a lightning tour of evolutionary theory; but as Howard Jacobson (in barnstorming mode for the opposition) said, when a monkey writes a great novel, we'll sit up and take sex lessons from it. In a move, which I suppose you would describe as counter-culture, I opposed the motion alongside Jacobson and ageing millionaire playboy and Spectator columnist Taki (who scandalised the RGS's hallowed halls by his use of the word "pussy"). Just as well I no longer edit the Erotic Review or my support for monogamy might well have proved to be my Gerald Ratner moment. My basic argument was as follows and I stand by it: monogamy need not be a religious or sociological tyranny; the notion can be seen as the happy duty of overwhelming passion. If you subscribe to the concept that there's another individual who is half your soul and uniquely completes you and that such love can last a lifetime, then a proper stab at fidelity is the natural tribute to your beloved. There are those who argue, in Sting's immortal words, "If you love someone, set them free." But nobody ever truly means they'd be happy to wait at home for years while their spouse dispenses sexual healing on a Routemaster.

I prefer to think of true love as two people bound together by a very flexible length of bungee rope. Over time, the rope becomes worn and occasionally one or other partner may knock themselves out. At which point their mate will say crossly, "Well, you shouldn't have jumped off that bloody cliff" - before assembling an icepack and bandages. Love can be scathing, but it's basically kind.

Monogamy is an ambitious system and many people fail at it, but there's no reason to abandon the principle. We don't disband charities because too few people give to good causes. And maybe we should look at the flip side of monogamy: is infidelity good for the soul? The knotted brows of those brothers in self-authored misfortune, Boris and Becks, would seem to suggest not.

Adultery is good for sexual novelty, your ego and viewing hotel ceilings. It is good for making you feel, in the words of author Diana Athill, "I am alive again" - until you have a heart attack or get knifed by your spouse. What

infidelity doesn't promote is a profound sense of inner calm. But that, of course, is the point. Illicit affairs are like illegal drugs and breaking the speed limit: by putting yourself on the edge of the precipice, you savour that moment above all others but know you may pay the ultimate penalty - and deserve it.

Ironically, those romantics who most believe in monogamy may prove its biggest traitors. Life is illogical and full of such contradictions and, as I said at the RGS (convincingly, it seems - the romantics won by a landslide): "Monogamy makes perfect sense within a chaotic universe."

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