The risks of “monogamy”

Preface: I have nothing against monogamy. I often have wished I could be monogamous. My life would have been far simpler, for sure, and possibly happier. I believe there are many people for whom monogamy works, for whom it is right and good. Nothing I write herein is in any way intended to belie that. If you’re in a monogamous relationship, more power to you. Now, on to my thoughts….

Dumb Domme, whose blog I love, and with whom I’ve been having a spirited and fun discussion in the comments to my recent posts on my safer sex practices, raised an interesting question, and got me thinking, about the question of monogamy.

She was lumping monogamous sex and abstinence together as the two least risky forms of sexual behavior. I replied, channeling Owen Meany, “MONOGAMY IS A TERRIBLE STRATEGY, BECAUSE IT IS SHOCKINGLY UNRELIABLE. IT’S THE RHYTHM METHOD OF RELATIONSHIPS.”

Dumb Domme took issue, pointing out that she was referring to the dictionary definition of monogamy – an exclusive sexual relationship between two people – and not to cheating, lying, dishonest monogamy. And that as such, monogamous sex IS a very safe form of sex.

We’re both right, of course. She’s being argumentative (amusingly, entertainingly, skillfully so, but still….), so instead of having the interesting discussion about whether/how to understand – accurately – the risks associated with believing oneself to be practicing monogamy, we end up in a side (and not very interesting) discussion about the definition of the word. But I think that other discussion is really interesting….

Something we humans do really badly is assess risks. We systematically undervalue certain types of risks, and systematically overvalue others. The question of how, why, we under- or over-value which risks is interesting (to me). But I suspect DD will agree with me that, in the aggregate, people who believe themselves to be monogamous systematically undervalue the risk that their partners are not monogamous. (I’d even go a step further and guess that people who who believe themselves to be monogamous systematically undervalue the risk that they themselves are not monogamous – as I’ve written, I’ve encountered more than a few people, inside and out of twelve-step land, who rationalize all sorts of behavior and still believe themselves to be “faithful,” or monogamous.)

… you’ve been faithful, give or take a night or two….

So what do we do with that fact? The key question for me is, given the risks and benefits of various activities, how shall I behave? (As opposed to, what’s “safe”? And what’s “not safe.”)

And, if you’re a happily monogamous woman, or man, what do you do with the knowledge that YOUR ability to assess accurately the likelihood of YOUR being exposed to risks by a deceiving, non-monogamous partner is structurally, definitively, compromised? Well, now, that’s an interesting question.

I don’t mean to throw cold water on the idea of monogamy, or to say that I don’t believe it’s possible. It’s only to acknowledge that infidelity is shockingly common, and that much of the discussion DD and I have been having about safer sex practices includes in it a deceptive – and dangerous – use of the concept of monogamy as in some way a reassuring safer sex practice without recognizing the risks of that particular strategy.

On a related note, I recently read Dan Savage’s mention of a study concerning “pulling out” as a method of contraception. Turns out, Rachel K. Jones of the Guttmacher Institute conducted a study that suggests that, practiced correctly, withdrawal is extremely effective – on a par with other, more pharmaceutical or physical methods of prophylaxis (like condoms). But that’s irrelevant. Because it’s rarely practiced correctly…. How comfortable would you be relying on withdrawal to ensure you not get get impregnated, not impregnate?

Might monogamy’s effectiveness in combating sexually transmitted infections have some of the same limitations?

That’s all I’m saying….


  1. I understand that discussing the meaning of concepts is uninteresting to you, so I’ll keep this short.

    ”We’re both right, of course.”

    We aren’t both right. You’re incorrect because you’re being careless with language. I understand you feel I’m being argumentative, but since “monogamy” is a central focus of this post (and a central point of recent comments/responses), you might reconsider the importance of using the word correctly.

    “Cheating […] monogamy” isn’t monogamy. In the same way, failed virginity isn’t virginity – after you’ve failed to be a virgin, you’re no longer a virgin. (Yes, I understand that monogamy can be reclaimed, but virginity cannot, but I think the concept illustrates your problematic language well).

    You can frame it as “belief in monogamy,” or the “assumption of monogamy,” but suggesting that monogamy is ineffective at preventing STIs is flat out wrong.

    ”She’s being argumentative (amusingly, entertainingly, skillfully so, but still….)”

    Do you have any idea how condescending and dismissive this statement is?

    1. I’m sorry to have been condescending. I look up to you, not down on you. I respect you, and your writing, and your argumentation.

      But I’m frustrated. I feel as if we’re having two unrelated discussions. I continue to agree with the semantic points you make, but to disagree with the substantive ones (and to feel that the semantic ones are, yes, “less interesting” – because they feel argumentative, and with limited substantive applicability). I don’t mean to be dismissive: I mean to be focusing on the crucial questions to me, which are, what are effective safer practices, and where do risks lie. I believe – you may differ – that people who are relying on “monogamy” to be their primary defense against STIs are at risk of undervaluing the possibility that their monogamy is not, in fact, monogamy. I’m not saying they’re gonna die, or be infected, or whatever. I’m just saying that their assessment of the efficacy of monogamy as a bulwark against infection is structurally impaired.

      Yes, I agree that monogamy would be a pretty effective practice. I just think that a) data show it’s far less common than believed, and b) its supposed practitioners are structurally compromised in their ability to assess the risk that they are, in fact, not monogamous.

      I agree with you that “cheating monogamy isn’t monogamy.” But there’s one problem, as I see it, with that assertion: it doesn’t account for the vast legions of people who believe themselves to be protected my their monogamy from infection, when in fact, they aren’t.

      I’m not sure why we’re arguing here. I DO feel you’re being argumentative, and I also feel you’re being amusing, entertaining, and skillful. That surely wasn’t meant to be dismissive of you. It was meant to be dismissive of the basic argument, because I THINK YOUR ARGUMENT IS DANGEROUS, AND PUTS PEOPLE AT RISK. And, I think that it is implicitly dismissive and disrespectful of the basic point I’m making.

      I haven’t seen you engage with the substance of my argument; instead, I’ve seen you engage in lawyerly deconstructing and criticism. I’m “careless with language,” and I’m using “monogamy” to mean something other than what it means, according to you. Fine. Stipulated. Can we move on?

      To my mind, you’re engaging in sophistry. The definition of monogamy is irrelevant to this discussion because I’m talking about PEOPLE, not logical, philosophical debates. Yes, in LOGIC, monogamy means one person having sex with one other person. IT JUST DOESN’T GENERALLY MEAN THAT IN THE REAL WORLD. I’m not saying it never does, or that in your relationship it doesn’t. I’m saying that the majority of people who think they’re monogamous aren’t. Is all.

    1. I did think that, though just a little research suggests that if I’m not wrong, at least the data don’t support my view. I was definitely relying on (very) simplifying back-of-the-envelope math. And, it turns out, the data don’t support my assumptions. So I plead guilty to being WRONG – at least, wrong as far as the data go. But here’s what was in my head:

      If 50-60% of participants in monogamous couples are unfaithful, and… [this is incorrect, or unsupported by data, wildly]
      If 75% of those who are unfaithful are men, and… [this seems to be a little aggressive – it’s more like 2/3, according to the data]
      (if we’re only talking about heterosexual marriages, because that’s the universe from which all this historical data is pulled, then…)

      The range of couples characterized by infidelity is, at the low end, 75% (if ALL of the women who are unfaithful are married to men who are unfaithful), and at the high end, 100% (if none of them is, in the 50% scenario, and if one third of them aren’t, in the 60% scenario).

      SO: to recap where we are, if my assumptions are right, then 75-100% of couples are not, in fact, monogamous (by the dictionary definition).

      Then, the key question is, how many monogamous people believe themselves to be in monogamous couples? Let’s assume, for starters, that ALL of those who are in monogamous couples believe they are. Let’s also assume that ALL of those who are unfaithful believe they aren’t (and here, I think, we’re departing from reality a bit, or at least, from the salient reality for this discussion – which is, people believing that they’re protected from STIs by virtue of their partner’s monogamy). But let’s assume that.

      Then, we have 25% of men and women eligible for “accurate” monogamous belief.
      In order for my assertion to be true – that is, that a majority of those who believe themselves to be in monogamous relationships are, in fact, not – then at least 25% MORE – or, at least one-third of the women married to cheating men – have to believe their husbands don’t cheat. So that’s the question: do you think that at least one-third of women married to cheating men believe their husbands to be faithful?

      I guess I did.


      Here’s what the data actually showed, in 2006, according to a 2008 New York Times article summarizing the latest research:

      The “lifetime rate of infidelity” for men was 28% at the time (up 40% from 1991).
      The “lifetime rate of infidelity” for women was 15% at the time (up 200% from 1991).

      So this all implies new questions:

      Were rates of infidelity really increasing that fast? Or were we learning something else? Some other things?

      I don’t know.

      I do know, L, that, even after reviewing the data, my answer to your question is, yes, I do think I believe that. And here’s why:

      1) I think that whatever the data say, it vastly underreports. I don’t know how it could be otherwise.
      2) Male culture reveals a substantial current of hostility to monogamy, leading me to imagine that male infidelity is quite common.
      3) Sex workers cater both to single and married men.
      4) I’ve never known a man (or woman, for that matter) well enough to confess my infidelities to without learning that s/he either had been unfaithful or that her/his spouse had been. With, I think, exactly one exception. (Sure, there’s a selection bias here, but it’s my blog, so I get to imagine the world looks as I imagine it does.)

      I will say, at the end of all this, that I was surprised to read that the reported statistics on infidelity (28% for men, 15% for women) are as low as they are. I had the numbers 50-60% in my head, and I was way off. I wonder what this means…. Any ideas? (I’ll note, L, that you pointed me to an article that suggested rates are 30-60%.)

      1. How long does failed-monogamy last? Is it indefinite? I guess that’s the grey area in this discussion for me. If I’ve been monogamous, and he’s been monogamous, for fourteen years…than our risk was pretty fucking low during that time. Then we strayed, so now we’re lumped into the unfaithful statistic. Do we maintain that status for life? How does that bear on our sexual health risks? Does the meter re-set with a clean doctor’s report?
        I guess it’s all too hard to calculate.

        Some people stray once, with one new partner, some people with hundreds… So one person’s risk is inevitably different from another’s. Some people stray with higher risk people than others do. And everybody lies.

        In the end, I agree- monogamy, as practiced by *most* people *some* of the time, isn’t without risk, in spite of the definition of the word.

        1. Yup – good question. I think, in general, that the “all-or-nothing” definition that is in the dictionary is particularly irrelevant to risk calculation. And I regret having even started down this conversational road.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.