Kayt Sukel is a courageous woman. For a story, she once agreed to have her brain scanned while she was having an orgasm. I understood that, according to science, her orgasm was nothing short of amazing. You might even say it was mind blowing. (Sorry, couldn’t resist).
Kayt is also courageous for another reason. She’s a journalist who makes a living much in the same way I do. One day she got the bravery to write a proposal for a daring book about sex. She now finds herself in the absolutely terrifying place I was just one year ago. The book is out. She wants it to do well.
I can’t even begin to express how scary it is to publish a book. I want her book to sell.
I want it to sell because I like Kayt and I want her to be happy and sane. I want it to sell because it’s a good book, one that you will learn from. It will turn everything you thought you knew about sex and relationships upside down. Here’s just a small taste. Buy the book. You won’t be sorry.
5 Big Fat Myths about Monogamy by Kayt Sukel
You’ve heard it all before: every time a politician or professional athlete gets caught with his pants around his ankles (or with his naughty bits captured for posterity on some young ingénue’s cellular telephone), the debate about monogamy starts again. Is monogamy possible? Is it even natural?
There are some compelling arguments on both sides of this debate. Which may be why it keeps coming up time and time and again. But while some will tell you that the latest and greatest findings in science suggest monogamy—especially the lasting kind of monogamy—is not and never was an option, science is rarely that clear cut. Here are five big fat myths about the big ‘M’:
Myth 1: Humans aren’t cut out for monogamy—never were and never will be.
Celebrity divorces, political dalliances—they bring out those relationship experts who long to tell you all about why monogamy isn’t “natural.” But let’s face it, there’s not much that we, as evolved human beings do, that is all that “natural” anymore. Think about it: we live in houses with air conditioning and big-screen televisions. We get our food in cellophane-wrapped packages at the supermarket. We use drugs to speed up or slow down our fertility as required. From my perspective, “natural” has little to do with it.
But leaving that semantic quibble aside, is monogamy “possible?” Yes, indeed it is. While our genes, our hormones and our particular path of brain development may make us more or less randy than the average person, and give us suggestions to pursue non-monogamous behaviors, there is nothing to suggest that monogamy is impossible. The parts of our brains that differentiate us from our evolutionary ancestors (and have helped us to create this world where we live rather “unnaturally”) give us the power to exercise judgment and make our own decisions. Of course, whether or not it is always easy to remain monogamous an altogether different question…
Myth 2: Okay, so maybe then men aren’t cut out for it.
Have you ever noticed that when we talk cheating, we’re always looking at the guys? Never mind that quite a few women participate in extracurricular activities…
Some have argued that cheating is an evolutionary imperative for the guys. Since males have billions of billions of sperm to spread around and little biological commitment after depositing them, their best mating strategy is to get with as many females as humanly possible. But once again, there are a lot of steps between a gene, a developing brain and an executed behavior. There’s no all or nothing here: men, just like women, have those big old frontal lobes that give them the power to decide. As one researcher told me, “It’s easy to look at an individual human and say, ‘Aha! His genes made him do it. When you talk about powerful men who cheat on their wives, it’s all too easy to say that, evolutionarily, this is just what powerful men do and have always done. That’s just a parody of how evolution really works. No individual is held captive by his genes.” That goes for not-so-powerful men, too.
Myth 3: Romantic love always fades over time.
Look around you. Chances are you know at least one couple in your own life that has managed to not only stand the test of time but look darn happy while doing it. Neuroimaging studies have demonstrated that romantic love has a unique signature in the brain—with certain regions lighting up when one person looks at a photo or hears the name of their beloved. Most of those studies, however, have focused on those who are in the throes of new love. But, as it turns out, that brain signature can remain even after decades of togetherness. When researchers at Rutgers University scanned individuals who claimed to still be passionately in love, even after 20 years or more together, they found a very similar brain pattern of brain activation. Love and passion can be sustained over time. How and why is still under investigation.
Myth 4: A simple genetic test can tell you if your mate will cheat.
In the past few years, two genes, AVPR1A and DRD4, have been implicated in monogamous behaviors in animal models as well as in some human genome studies. AVPR1A codes for a certain type of receptor (the vasopressin receptor) which helps prairie voles form monogamous bonds. DRD4, a dopamine receptor, has been linked to risk-taking and addiction. Research done on both of these genes have resulted in headlines like, “Infidelity: It’s All in the Genes,” and “Why He Cheats.” As well as calls for quick and inexpensive genetic tests to help you see whether or not a partner will be faithful.
There’s just one problem. It’s not that simple. And, in the human studies that took a look at these two genes, fidelity wasn’t something the researchers actually looked at directly. Ooops.
Remember that human brains have big frontal lobes. And as Justin Garcia, the Binghamton University researcher who studies the DRD4 gene told me, “We’re cognitive creatures. We recognize there are consequences to our actions. No matter what our particular genetic make-up may be, we can use our frontal lobes and decide not to cheat.”
Myth 5: If one partner wants sex a lot more than the other, the only solution is to bring in a pinch-hitter.
Dan Savage tells couples that they need to be “good, giving and game” to even think about making monogamy work. He also advocates allowing your partner the occasional sexual indiscretion.
While Savage’s take is an interesting one, the neuroscientific evidence only supports his “good, giving and game” stance—but not just when it comes to sex. Work in the Cotton-top Tamarins, a monogamous species of monkey, suggests that giving your partner what they want—in terms of affection and sex—helps cement relationships. Charles Snowdon, a researcher at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, noticed that Cotton-top Tamarin couples, much like human couples, show a lot of variety in affiliation. Some are very lovey-dovey, while others seem connected by the most tenuous of threads. He and his team wondered why. They found that the more loving couples had high correlated levels of a chemical called oxytocin, sometimes called the “cuddle chemical.” But, what’s more, those oxytocin levels were driven by the partners giving their one and only what the other wanted and needed. Simply put, they found that when men snuggled and groomed their females more and the females gave their mates more sex, the relationship thrived.
No need for pinch-hitters.