Is Sexual Infidelity Inevitable?
Personal sexual fidelity is certainly something many people truly espouse as a noble intention at certain points in their relationships – such as when first falling in love, or getting married, the woman getting pregnant, or possibly resolving their partner’s bouts of insecurity. Some people seem genuinely to espouse fidelity to each other for years and sometimes even lifetimes.
But these days actually sticking to one partner seems to be a real problem for an awful lot of people.
People – particularly in the professional/middle classes – tend to ‘settle down’ later (in their thirties, often with a number of ‘notches on the bedpost’). Fewer couples marry. (Marriage in itself cannot be a guarantee of permanence or fidelity; but, in theory, it is an action of intent.) People with money who do marry often make prenuptial agreements, effectively planning for the end of their relationship. Divorce rates continue to escalate – approximately 50% of British marriages now end in divorce. The number one reason cited for divorce remains adultery – although a number of marriages do manage to survive at least one and occasionally several infidelities.
Meanwhile promiscuity and infidelity fill our modern entertainment media – films, television, theatre, many forms of pop music. And we have become fascinated with celebrity sex lives. For example, celebrity-oriented magazines like Heat and Now are actually circulation-dependent on reporting the who’s-shagging-who *this week* syndrome.
In the early 1960s Liz Taylor adding yet another divorce and yet another husband to the list was seen as somehow sad or bizarre. Now our Noughties media glories in celebrity romance, infidelity and bust-up. In Summer 2004 England football team coach Sven Goran Eriksson was exposed as cheating on his long-time partner, Nancy Dell’Olio. Nancy wasn’t just long-time, she was long-suffering – since just over a year previous Sven had been caught having an affair with television presenter Ulrika Johnson. The fact that Sven’s sperm receptacle this time, Faria Alam,was also obliging Sven’s boss, Mark Palios, Chief Executive of the Football Association, doesn’t seem to have caused much of a stir other than adding a quite delightful frisson to the whole affair for the tabloids. The promiscuity that would have caused real outrage 40 years ago seems merely to add spice and voyeuristic excitement.
Of course, the fascination with sex is older than Homo Sapiens and a prurient fascination with famous or powerful people having sex – particularly with people they nominally aren’t meant to! – probably dates back to the earliest civilisations. However, there does seem to have been quite a cultural shift in Western society during the second half of the 20th Century.
Not only is our media glamourising celebrity promiscuity; but there seems to be a trend to normalise promiscuity as a way of life. For example, Channel 4, having successfully broadcast pseudo-documentaries on the ‘sex industry’ for several years, has more recently turned its attention to making television programmes about apparently ‘normal’ everyday people having group sex and indulging in wife swapping.
To understand this phenomenon, we have to explore the underlying motivations driving human interactions at several levels.
So the first question we have to work on is…
Is monogamy normal for humans or is promiscuity inevitable?
Let’s define our terms for mating systems here:-
○ Monogamy: one man one woman
○ Polygyny: one man, more than one woman
○ Polyandry: one woman, more than one man
○ Promiscuity: any man can go with one or more women; any woman can go with one or more men
Historically polygyny was by far the main pre-Western hegemony/non-Christian mating system. As enshrined in religious doctrines such as those of Shia Islam, one man, who can afford it, supports several women with whom he has sex and, as a consequence, children. This may not go down well with the advocates of one man/one woman romantic love as a basis for marriage; but it has provided a stable mating system for centuries in many cultures
From the point of view of Evolutionary Psychology – in which the genetic motif is seen as adaptation-to-survive-and-reproduce – this is a highly-successful adaptive strategy for procreation. The man gets to spread his genes through several women – rather than just one, as monogamy would demand. That gives greater chance of his genes being passed down to the next generation. For the women, they get the benefit of being taken care of by a male with good resources which will enable more effective nurturing for their offspring – thus increasing the woman’s chances of passing on her genes.
This is all down to the size of the individual sex’s gametes (sex cells). Since men produce sperm in millions, it makes sense as an adaptive behaviour to impregnate as many women as reasonably possible. Since women produce a limited number of eggs, each one impregnated needs to be given maximum care, to maximise its chances of survival and then reproducing its genes again as an adult man or woman.
In the Gravesian approach, this is a function of the BEIGE vMEME – working at the Survival level in Abraham Maslow’s (1943) Hierarchy of Needs. Pre- or non-cognitive survival behaviours – including behaviours to maximise the chances of reproducing one’s genes – are natural at this level. So males being promiscuous can be considered a natural behaviour at this level.
Charles Darwin (1871), in whose work Evolutionary Psychology is rooted, believed that male promiscuity was an inevitable (if not always desirable) adaptive trait while females were naturally monogamous as long as the male was protecting and providing for her and her offspring.
However, over the past 10-15 years, a newer train of thought has emerged in Evolutionary Psychology – that it is adaptive for the female also to be promiscuous in certain circumstances. This is to do with the woman’s hunt for the best genes with which to reproduce. Thus, a furtive one night stand with a ‘hunk’ with better genes than the woman’s husband (or committed partner) can be considered adaptive behaviour if the woman succeeds in getting pregnant by the hunk and hoodwinks the husband into believing the child is his and thus providing and caring for it.
According to whose statistics you believe, the named father on the birth certificate of between 10% and 30% of British children is not actually the biological father.
Lynn Cherkas et al caused something of a stink in November 2004 when they claimed proof of a genetic link to infidelity when found a concordance rate of 44% infidelity between monozygotic/identical female twins compared to an average risk of only 22% in the general adult female population. Although they did not identify any particular gene as such, the researchers claimed that variations on between 50 and 100 genes associated with chromosomes 3, 7 and 20 could be responsible for female promiscuity.
So are women programmed for multiple partners? A 44% concordance rate is high but far from conclusive. If it were to be argued that women have an automatic natural biological driver towards promiscuous sex, then statistically the concordance rate would have to be at least 50% and preferably more like 80%.
Perhaps the best way of making sense of Cherkas et al’s findings is to take the Diathesis-Stress view. Yes, it may be that there is a significant number of women with a genetic predisposition to multiple partners but it needs a stress or lifestyle trigger for it to be realised.
The second question we need to work on is…
Do we need to love and to be loved?
Where the Evolutionary approach starts to show holes, is that it doesn’t account for the idealisation of ‘romantic love’ even in pre-Western hegemony/non-Christian societies. So men with harems still fall in love with a stranger and cheat on their wives sometimes; and women who would stand much better chances of passing their genes on successfully with a rich man fall in love with beggars.
The notion of ‘romantic love’ is one of the most powerful memes ever to have materialised in human civilisation. As much as, if not more than, sex-for-sex’ sake, love is sold as a desirable commodity in our consumer society. For every hit single extolling the virtues of sex, there are ten dealing with the ups and downs of love. And while we slavver salaciously over the latest celebrity scandal, the magazine editors know that a celebrity love affair at its peak is even more popular. Happy Charles & Diana sold more than divorcing Charles & Diana. Glowing Posh & Becks got more coverage than scowling Posh & Becks.
And, whether it’s wide-eyed innocent teenagers plighting their troth at the altar or a middle-aged couple who’ve each been around the block a few times, most observers tend to nurture the hope that it will work for them.
Historically sex as a meme has been repressed at times – eg: in the Victorian era. Love rarely, if ever, has been repressed. Even in arranged marriages, it is usually hoped that the couple will find romantic love. Which of these two memes is the most powerful? While it might be close at times, it does appear that romantic love is the more powerful ‘mind virus’.
What we are talking about is an extreme manifestation of the need to affiliate – Maslow’s level of Belonging. In the Gravesian approach, the PURPLE level effectively collapses Maslows’s Safety and Belonging levels into one in which people find safety by belonging. And nobody belongs to each other more than a couple in the throes of romantic love! (Such feelings of belonging have been expressed at times as being so intense the couple want to meld into each other!)
Of course, where human beings are concerned, things are often more complex than many psychological theories allow. A complete disassociation between romantic love and sex as I have described it above is both impossible and potentially dangerous. (Although it has been tried by societies – as in the aforementioned Victorian era!)
Most couples, after a bout of mutually-satisfying sex, will find their feelings of affection and belonging with their partner considerably enhanced.
Sociobiology – so often claimed as a close ally by the Evolutionary camp – offers an explanation of this phenomenon. Humans in the throes of great sexual arousal and orgasm experience high levels of the hormones vasopressin and oxytocin. A study by Sue Carter & Lowell Getz (1993) into the unusually monogamous relationships of American prairie voles found high levels of vasopressin and oxytocin associated with the animals’ bonding patterns. While there is still much research to be done in this area, it does appear that we are programmed for sex to make us want to belong. So we have on one hand a driver to reproduce our genes and on the other hand a need to affiliate, with it seems a biological driver to affiliate intensely with the person with whom we seek to pass on our genes.
It’s perhaps worth considering here Susan Blackmore’s (1999) position that memes can – and often do – drive genetic adaptation.
In tune with the mind-blowing possibilities that hypothesis opens up, the third question we need to work on is…
Are Environmental factors important?
Looking at this from an Integrated SocioPsychology perspective, we can say that the Evolutionary concepts fit with the BEIGE need to reproduce and the Sociobilogical identification of the role of bond-producing hormones in sex gives us a BEIGE-PURPLE link into PURPLE’s need to belong to our lover.
So how does it so often go so wrong?
An important clue here is provided by a 1994 study by Georg Sasse et al. Their research indicated that only 1.5% of Swiss children were born to biological fathers not named on their birth certificates. A staggeringly low figure when set against the 10%-30% claimed for Britain.
Are the Swiss genetically different from Britain and much of the rest of the Western world? The answer is almost certainly a ‘yes’ – but a very qualified ‘yes’ and probably not in ways which would explain such a statistical difference.
So we have to look at environmental factors – the Stress side of the Diathesis-Stress equation.
Swiss society is notoriously BLUE – so much so that the polite manners, conformity to rules and general mechanical nature of much of what goes on in that country are mocked throughout much of Western Europe.
Yet that BLUE tends to suppress many of the me-me-me/no consequences excesses of RED while supporting the traditions of PURPLE. (Switzerland is in many ways proud of its traditions; and attitudes towards family life tend very much towards the traditional.)
In much else of the Western world, PURPLE and BLUE have been undermined through an unholy combination of ORANGE and GREEN.
The rise of libertarian GREEN thinking (particularly in the 1960s) promulgated a disdain for the rigid societal structures of BLUE and the ageist and sexist differentialism of PURPLE-dominated communities. With PURPLE taboos discarded and BLUE’s absolutism on the correct way of living in tatters, RED was allowed to indulge itself that much more freely. That also allowed the BEIGE reproductive drivers free reign. So a BEIGE/RED/GREEN vMEME harmonic gave us the ‘free love/free sex’ ethic that dominated so much of the late Sixties and has been with us, if rather less obviously, ever since.
It’s OK to have sex before marriage – even to live together without getting married. It’s even considered OK to have one-night stands and other forms of sex without love/attachment. (What was once considered surreptitiously OK by some for young men before marriage – ‘to sow their wild oats’ – is now often thrust on women per se as a way of life!) It’s OK to get divorced, remarried, divorced again, remarried again, divorced again, ad nauseam.
ORANGE caught onto the commercial value of all this sexual libertarianism around about the time James Bond first started bedding several women per adventure and naked hippies onscreen were packing out showings of the Woodstock movie.
Since then ORANGE has packaged and sold the sex-for-sex’-sake meme in countless different varieties and, in the name of GREEN freedom, eaten away more and more at the disciplines of PURPLE and BLUE – feeding RED and allowing it to indulge itself in a frenzy of Sex!Now! excitement.
Of course, this discarding of traditional values and structures has brought about a karmatic payback in many instances for the vMEME which has most benefited from it.
A key point of Maslowian theory is that the higher levels can be compromised and destabilised by lower levels collapsing. A prime example of this is the effect on self-esteem – a principal need of the RED vMEME – when long-term couples split up. The loss of second-level PURPLE belonging frequently causes third-level self-esteem to plummet. Isolation, anxiety, Depression and even suicide are associated with marital break-ups and the dissolution of long-term partnerships – particularly for men whose women have ended the relationship.
So, for many, there is greater freedom; but, for many, there is also greater unhappiness.
The environment ORANGE and GREEN have created in the Western world over the past half-century have done much to change the way we think about sex and relationships – and those changes have enabled whatever BEIGE genetic predispositions there may be to promiscuity.
So how do we foster personal sexual fidelity? The proverbial genie is out of the bottle. It will be difficult, if not impossible, to go back to a time when sex before marriage was frowned upon – at least publicly! – and divorce was a rarity.
ORANGE has led us into an age of technological innovation undreamed of in modern history while GREEN has decreed that all knowledge should be available to everyone (regardless of their ability to handle it!) using ORANGE mediums of communication like the Internet.
So, there really is no going back. But, perhaps, operating from a level beyond GREEN – 2nd Tier? (to use that somewhat controversial term) – it is possible to educate people and give them some tools to help them preserve their relationships.
One great advantage of the Gravesian map is that it allows us to explore and understand conflict and complexity.
So we know at the BEIGE level, the drive is to reproduce. We also know that a satisfying sex act will incline us to attach to our partner – thus feeding PURPLE. BLUE disciplines can provide support and structure to PURPLE’s need to belong. We also know that RED, if untrammelled, will indulge itself as it pleases. If BEIGE reproductive drives are strong in such circumstances, then sex without attachment or contravening an attachment is a potential outcome.
So, someone wishing to preserve their romantic love attachment – providing they understand what could happen – will seek to avoid being in a situation where RED could have free reign to indulge a BEIGE sex directive. A practical example of this could be ensuring you are not alone with an attractive colleague of the opposite sex when away from home for work obligations. Another example would be to avoid boys’ or girls’ nights out which involve lots of alcohol and venues with unaccompanied members of the opposite sex.
These are essentially examples of avoiding temptation. To avoid a temptation, we have to understand and acknowledge that temptation is there.
BLUE absolutism and GREEN idealism tend to promote the idea that, for someone in love and/or committed to their partner, there simply shouldn’t be any temptation. A variation of this is that, if temptation should manifest itself, then it should be resisted with ease. The ‘real world’ of adulterous affairs, betrayals and bust-ups populated by people who intended to ‘do right’ by their original partner shows us that many have great difficulty living up to such ideals.
The Gravesian approach demonstrates that we have several different modes for living operating within us and that the different modes will dominate according to the circumstances we find ourselves in. So we need to be clear on what’s really important to us and nurture that. We need to recognise what temptation can do to our vMEMES and take a more considered approach to avoiding certain circumstances and developing strategies for when we can’t.
As controversial as the advent of Evolutionary Psychology has been, one of its great benefits has been to emphasise how much, under the veneer of civilisation and at a biological level, we function as animals. The Evolutionary approach makes clear that the drive to reproduce may override higher-level cognitive intentions of loyalty to our partner if we let it. The Gravesian approach and Attachment Theory show us the consequences if we allow that to happen and enable us to develop means to control it.
If we so wish.