Multiple sex partners: Trendy but toxic

By Michael Medved

Nearly everyone – no matter how happily married or securely situated within a relationship – feels occasionally attracted to outsiders. There’s nothing novel about this timeless temptation or the eternal impulse to pursue sexual variety. Never before, however, have religious leaders and social scientists simultaneously suggested that the wandering ways of both women and men constitute an instinct that’s not only healthy, but downright virtuous.

This summer, a new group promoting “the philosophy and practice of loving more than one other person at a time” presented a groundbreaking workshop at the General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association. Addressing this liberal denomination with distinguished American roots reaching back all the way to the Colonial period, the “Unitarian Universalists for Polyamory Awareness” argued for endorsement of their unconventional arrangements as “a genuine philosophical alternative to monogamy.”

According to their manifesto: “Polyamory (or ‘poly’ for short) is a general term covering a wide variety of possible relationship styles including group marriage (sometimes called ‘polyfidelity’), open marriage, line marriage, expanded family, intimate network, tribe building and some kinds of intentional community.” The polyamorists also support more adventurous activities, declaring: “Swinging is one time-honored style of non-monogamy which focuses on extramarital sex primarily for socializing and recreation.”

These religious revolutionaries view their struggle as the inevitable next step following formal recognition by many denominations of gay clergy, congregations and commitment ceremonies. At the North American Unitarian gathering in Quebec, speakers urged that being “openly polyamorous” should be as accepted as being openly “gay” and not subjected to unpleasant “labels such as ‘adulterer.'”

Citing various experts, a report on those who need sexual variety left open the question of whether this pattern represented “a choice or a genetic predilection.” After all, if we assume that the presence of homosexual behavior in every society in every era of human history provides evidence of the existence of some “gay gene,” then we ought to acknowledge a biological basis for pursuing multiple sex partners since that orientation has been even more ancient and more universal.

As a matter of fact, cutting edge anthropologists have recently rushed forward to make precisely that case, suggesting that the monogamous restraints of the traditional nuclear family represent an unnatural and unhealthy development for humanity. “‘Slutty’ behavior is good for the species,” the San Francisco Chronicle proudly announced in an August article summarizing this work. “That’s the conclusion of a new wave of research on the evolutionary drives behind sexuality and parenting.”

William Crocker of the Smithsonian Institution has been studying the Canela people of Amazonian Brazil since 1957, and reports admiringly on their women who enjoy “the delights of as many as 40 men one after another in festive rituals.” Dr. Crocker concludes that “multiple lovers, that’s just part of the life. It’s recreation, just like races and running. It’s all done in the spirit of joy and fun.”

Anthropologist Kristen Hawkes, who has studied remote tribes in Paraguay and Tanzania declares that “this model of the death-do-us-part, missionary-position couple is just a tiny part of human history.” As Sally Lehrman in the San Francisco Chronicle concludes: “Fooling around appears to have helped our ancestral mothers equip their little ones for success – the sexual equivalent of reading to them every night or enrolling the after-school chess club.”

The most amazing aspect of all the glowing descriptions of those human societies that joyously indulge their sexual adventurism is the failure to note how primitive they all are. Experiencing 40 partners in a night may be the sexual equivalent of bedtime reading or after-school chess clubs, but cultures that engage in such practices don’t read or write, don’t organize schools and most certainly don’t play chess.

Building civilization requires mastering impulses rather than surrendering to them. For instance, it may seem far more natural for the young to spend their time in play and exploration rather than devoting childhood to long hours in oppressive classrooms. Without those hours, however, it is simply impossible for human beings to conquer the complicated cognitive processes of written language. And without written language, societies make scant progress – which is why Paraguayan and Tanzanian tribes admired by anthropologists experienced only minor changes over the last 5,000 years.

Deferred gratification remains the one indispensable element in establishing and sustaining civilization – focusing our efforts on future benefits rather than immediate pleasures. The often tedious, punishing work involved in shaping a skyscraper, designing an airplane or discovering a polio vaccine may provide scant satisfaction for our deep-seated, instinctive desires, but such effort characterizes the inescapable superiority – yes, superiority – of advanced cultures over tribal barbarism.

The politically correct point of view may insist that we have no right to suggest a preference for a society that performs Mozart and designs the Internet over a Neolithic culture of hunter-gatherers. Indeed, there’s a trendy infatuation with primitivism at the moment, particularly among the young – reflected in the fad for tattoos, body piercing, polytheistic mysticism, musical expression favoring chanting and banging over melody, and free-wheeling, no obligation sexual arrangements.

In a sense, the drive for religious recognition of “polyamory” indulgence and the academic endorsement of “slutty” behavior represent additional aspects of this fashionable primitivism and the general rejection of civilized restraints. After all, one of the “relationship styles” specifically endorsed by “polys” is intriguingly designated as “tribe building.” The challenge for any such arrangement, and for pre-civilized values in general, involves the welfare of the next generation. With the explosion of out-of-wedlock birth and serial divorces, contemporary America boasts plentiful examples of non-traditional childrearing – with a mountain of accumulating evidence suggesting that children most often suffer in such situations.

The basis for monogamous marriage remains the same as the foundation for all social advancement – placing a priority on the long-term well-being of society rather than personal and immediate gratification. “Polyamory” adventure may feel like fun and might arguably represent a natural inclination for the species, but it’s difficult to argue that it serves the interests of our offspring. For that reason, most parents will continue the attempt to control themselves – our children, and our civilization, depend on it.