Culture

Are Women Really Choosing To Be Non-Monogamous More Than Ever? Or Is That Just What Mainstream Media Is Pushing?

By Andrea Mew
·  11 min read
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We were always taught that sharing is caring, but I’m not convinced that’s the case when it comes to romantic relationships.

Whether it’s Too Hot To Handle or Love Island, there’s no shortage of romantic reality to keep you glued to your TV (or computer) screen, watching beautiful strangers fall in and out of love in luxury locations. The hookups appear dreamy and the resulting drama draws viewers in to keep watching. But while these shows are geared toward hopeful singles looking to find one partner, the participants aren’t necessarily partaking in healthy, monogamous relationship-building by moving from fling to fling.

We see this in scripted film and television too (though let’s be real, so many dating shows are scripted anyway), where instant gratification through romantic escapades appears to be the norm. Look no further than just how many character pairings exist for fans of Riverdale: there’s Betty and Jughead (Bughead), Veronica and Archie (Varchie), Betty and Archie (Barchie), Reggie and Veronica (Veggie)... the list goes on. Watch any mainstream entertainment and you’re confronted with people hooking up, cheating on one another, marrying, and divorcing at unrealistic rates. 

If life was true to the movies, perhaps we’d all be hyper-sexualized pleasure-seekers. After all, it appears to be en vogue to promote polyamory. But which one comes more naturally to us, polyamory or monogamy? Let’s chat.

The MSM Doesn’t Shy Away from Proudly “Demystifying” Polyamory

Vogue calls polyamory “love’s sharing economy.” Cosmopolitan is eager to recommend to its readers the best polyamorous dating apps. The writer, a non-monogamy educator, suggests that dating app usage, fueled by a surge of people coming out as LGBT and increased vaccination rates, has raised interest in “ethical non-monogamy.” 

Are you a married woman curious about non-ethical non-monogamy? There are still resources out there for you to fuel your polyamorous desires. Look no further than websites like Ashley Madison, whose slogan is lamentably “Life is short, have an affair.” Did I miss the moment in time when it suddenly became permissible, and dare I say, celebrated, to have way too much on your plate in the dating department?

Then you have publications like Elite Daily, which already glamorize the trials and tribulations of star-studded romances detailing the “11 Celebs Who Have Been In Open Or Poly Relationships,” calling these Hollywood elites “an inspiration to anyone who would like to experiment.” Shailene Woodley, Jada Pinkett-Smith (and what seems like the whole Smith family), Tana Mongeau, Bella Thorne, Jake Paul, and Brody Jenner are all examples of how “a healthy relationship isn’t always a monogamous relationship,” and to them, “these celebs are proof of that.”

When you click on The New Yorker’s coverage of “How Polyamorists and Polygamists Are Challenging Family Norms,” you’re first confronted with a powerful image of four, confident individuals: Joe Darger and his three wives, who collectively have 25 children and made waves decriminalizing bigamy. At the very least, the New York Times once reported that multiple partners can increase your pleasure but that it comes with its fair share of complications.

Sharing is not caring when it comes to romantic relationships.

“As a disabled woman, I’m determined to create my own freedom,” said one polyamorous woman in The Cut. “That’s what I’ve always done with my work, defined myself as I want to, not how others do. And it’s what I’m trying to do with love. I deserve to be whoever I want in my romantic life, too. So yes, I’m still polyamorous.”

This sentiment is echoed in Millennial-minded publications like Buzzfeed, which recently claimed that “monogamy is in its flop era” with women and “femmes” being at the forefront of “ethical nonmonogamy’s pop cultural imprint.” According to Buzzfeed, we should fundamentally reconsider how we exist in our relationships, and this begins with calling out how “gendered inequities sneak into the privacy of the home, family, and relationships, through everything from housework to the emotional labor of maintaining a healthy relationship.” Don’t cave to monogamy, proponents will say, break the pattern!

Nothing’s Trendier Than Being Part of a “Cultural Moment”

So, are we really having a cultural moment for polyamory, as NPR reported a few years back? If you crunch the numbers or read any mainstream publications, it would appear that we are. Polyamory has become more attractive to young men and women as our worldviews shift and the foundation that Western society was built upon is by and large looked down upon. Younger generations are leaving organized religion in the past, pooh-poohing traditional marital constructs, and rethinking the nuclear family. 

The tight-knit communities of yore are dwindling as civic life gets a full remodel, and a heightened focus on career over all other aspects of life leads people to chase work far away from their families or the communities they were raised in. As an added bonus, coming from a broken home – an unfortunate trend that is already more prevalent now than ever before – makes you more likely to continue the cycle. 

Ask yourself: What makes you feel the most fulfilled? Is it your career? Is it the prospect of a higher paycheck? Or is it the interpersonal relationships you build through community, friendship, romantic love, and family? What’s the chicken and what’s the egg when Millennials supposedly undervalue marriage nowadays and its overall benefits to society?

It’s hard not to feel completely jaded when you see how the mainstream media shills for hustle culture over the more fulfilling aspects of humanity. Corporations would rather empower women by providing them travel compensation to get an abortion and insurance companies would prefer to cover birth control pills instead of natural fertility treatments because if you take a woman out of the workplace, then you sacrifice the number of tireless worker-bees you can rely on.

Generally speaking, non-monogamy walks hand in hand with the dissolution of the family. Why be tied down to one person when you could instead pursue lust-driven open relationships that don’t result in a child and, if need be, can be forgotten as quickly as the FYP TikTok videos you flip through or the last fast-fashion haul you wore once and then and discarded? 

Of course, there are endless benefits to our increasingly rapid-fire culture, from easier communication in emergencies to whichever region of cuisine you’d like delivered at whatever moment you’d want it. That said, we also risk losing track of the things that make us feel fulfilled on a deeper level. This trade-off of the gradual, yet rewarding conquest of true love for polyamorous affection is a symptom of culture being overwhelmed by a general disregard for its founding morals and values.

But Is It in Our Biology To Seek Multiple Partners?

Whatever the motivation may be, whether that’s some part of biology that’s being overlooked or under-researched or the mainstream media pushing for a new normal, there’s conflicting evidence on whether or not women feel more inclined toward non-monogamy than men. Quartz recently reported that more than one-fifth of single American adults have practiced some form of consensual non-monogamy at one point or another and called it “eye-opening” that another study found only half of adults under age 30 desire total monogamy.

One survey conducted by a website called OpenMinded of 64,000 couples found that, among two-thirds of the surveyed population, the woman was the one who initiated an open relationship. At the same time, a nationwide poll of 23,000 Americans found that one-quarter of the nation is interested in open relationships. Among that 25%, women were less likely to be interested in non-monogamy than men. These results were consistent for non-married and married couples alike. 

Why might the OpenMinded survey have found those results? Well, to begin with, they’re already a niche website for individuals looking to experiment with open relationships. A wider sample group, like the nationwide poll, would hypothetically do a better job representing the nation’s sentiment toward non-monogamy. More nationwide research suggests that up to 99% of Americans expect that their spouse is faithful. This leads me to feel that women aren’t necessarily choosing to be non-monogamous, rather their model for relationships is being restructured to reflect our increasingly progressive world.

Nationwide research suggests that up to 99% of Americans expect that their spouse is faithful. 

One common talking point I see across positive coverage and commentary of polyamory is that non-monogamy is rife within the animal kingdom – we’re just clutching on to monogamy as a cultural construct. There’s an ounce of truth to these statements. The idea that males (human or not) should have multiple, sexual partners isn’t unfounded in history. 

If you’ve taken any anthropology courses, you may have heard of the term polygyny, which is a mating system where the males have multiple partners and the females do not. Since only 9% of mammals are actually monogamous, and among those most closely related to humans, i.e. primates, only 29% practice monogamy, you might think that humans should be less monogamous if you look to nature. What’s more, before Western ideology was brought to indigenous cultures, as many as 83% of them practiced polygyny. On the flip side, polyandry, which is a mating system where the females have multiple male partners, is much rarer in nature. 

Across the full range of contexts, do we always have to look to other animals for an example of how we humans should behave? Last time I checked, other animals haven’t invented electricity, brewed pumpkin spice lattes, created intricate systems, or have a heightened sense of morality guiding their decisions. Yes, monogamy is a cultural construct, but it’s one that was cultivated by how humanity has matured and become more advanced as a civilization. There are plenty of examples of cultures that practice polygyny or polygamy to this day (like Syria), but those societies collectively feel less emotionally satisfied with marriage and life.

Actually, Polyamory Hurts Women More Than It Helps Us

Despite how many Buzzfeed articles boast the positive benefits of polyamory, casual sex doesn’t come without its fair share of unforeseen consequences. Anthropologists like Dr. Helen Fisher have hypothesized that casual sex doesn’t actually exist because sex is more than just the physical act. She warns that you shouldn’t have sex with someone unless you’re ready to commit to them because of your neurological inclination toward attachment after sex.

Her hypothesis is backed up by research from the Medical Institute for Sexual Health, which discovered that repeated, casual sex with multiple partners interrupts your brain’s production of oxytocin, the love hormone, and interferes with your natural inclination to pair bond. Perhaps this is why people who have sex with no strings attached are, on average, less satisfied with their love lives than those who are in committed, monogamous relationships. To make matters worse, further research reveals that casual sex can lower your self-esteem, make you feel lonelier, and increase your likelihood of anxiety and depression, particularly if you already had feelings of depression or loneliness to begin with.

Casual sex can lower your self-esteem, worsen loneliness, and increase the chance of depression.

That’s not to say that there aren’t individuals who feel great about their open relationships. Clearly, there’s a loud segment of the population who are more than happy to share how empowered casual sex makes them feel, but I wonder if that positive response will stand the test of time or if it’s just momentary bliss.

Speaking candidly, I think it’s a sign of privilege that women even have the choice to feel dissatisfied by casual sex and open relationships because some people don’t have the option to practice monogamy. For example, some Muslim cultures around the world practice polygamy, and some of the women subjected to their husbands taking multiple brides report unhappiness. Islamic scholars have pointed out how polygamous men mistreat their wives and parental roles are a constant source of conflict.

There’s data to back up the fact that systemic non-monogamy hurts women. A 2021 study reported women experiencing higher chances of depression than those in monogamous marriages. Beyond depression, the women in polygamous relationships reported higher levels of paranoia, hostility, psychoticism, and lower ratings of marital and life satisfaction.

Children with polyamorous parents are confirmed to feel emotionally affected due to neglect at the hands of their parents and may experience social problems, mental health problems, and struggle with academic success. If that’s not enough, aging populations of polyamorists have gone on the record saying that the ongoing drama and jealousy surrounding their lifestyle has gotten exhausting. Buzzfeed may have you thinking that polyamory is peaches and cream, but the romanticization of fewer strings attached just camouflages the multifaceted, negative effects of non-monogamy.

Closing Thoughts

No matter how hard the narrative gets pushed that non-monogamy is trendy and even empowering, it’s in our best interests to remain skeptical of the positive benefits that polyamorists and supporters alike tend to tout. We don’t have to accept open relationships that leave us unsatisfied at best and depressed at worst, no matter how many times the mainstream media tries to advise us otherwise.

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