Animal: The Autobiography of a Female Body - Sara Pascoe (2016)
What’s Mine Is You
For me, understanding love scientifically helps. It makes sense of something that is otherwise illogical. It doesn’t answer all my questions, but I find its objectivity soothing. For a long time, I kind of defined myself through my first relationship. I obsessed about it for years, running over memories for posthumous clues – what had gone wrong? What had I done? If you and I were drunk in a Wetherspoon’s I’d tell you the long version, but we’re sober in a book, so here’s a short account without me crying:
I was sixteen when I first loved someone. We met in a college production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. He played a small servant part and always made everyone laugh with his deep bow and flouncy exit. I played Puck, on a skateboard, which was incredibly ground-breaking. At the after-show party we kissed and then he told me he’d once seen a man shoot himself, so we went to talk all night in my mum’s garden. I lost my virginity a week later (same dude) and stopped going home unless he was with me. I only slept where he slept, I only went to class if he insisted on going to his. I’d get euphoric sitting in the passenger seat of his car or turning round to look at him after I’d switched the kettle on. I missed him when he insisted on going to the toilet alone. He was my Ted Hughes! My Sartre! My Prince Albert!* We were together for ten months and seven days. We only spent one night apart. Then at a karaoke night, while I was on stage singing ‘Never Ever’ by All Saints, I saw him kissing someone else. I ran out, he didn’t follow. He was already going out with the other girl. He quit college to avoid me. I slept in my mum’s bed for six months.
I’m too old to keep going on and on about it, it’s over half my lifetime ago, it should be hazy and irrelevant. It’s a year of memories I wish would fade but they became core bricks in the building of my being. Anyway, I have a preoccupation with cheating, fidelity, faithfulness. I don’t trust, and I am ruined. NO, not ruined, that’s too dramatic. I guess I blame all the failed relationships that followed on that first one. And I shouldn’t call them failures, but that’s how it feels.
During my grieving process I liked my mum. She never told me to be strong or stop crying and she occasionally offered to give me things, which is how we express love in my family. ‘Oh that is awful, bloody hell, do you want this dress?’ My mum was still angry with my dad and now I appreciated why; the betrayal, the broken promises, the breakdown of certainty. Mum had confronted Dad before the divorce, asked him, ‘Are you having an affair?’ and he had met her gaze and replied, ‘No. No I am not.’ And then later she found out that he had been with another woman and she was so upset:
WHY DID YOU LIE TO ME?
I didn’t lie, I wasn’t having an affair …
This story is recounted as a family joke, a witticism, a funny thing my dad once said rather than the remarkable behaviour of a sociopath:
… I was having seven.
Now you know my parents’ silly names, leaving us to wonder how on earth a man called Derek persuaded so many women to have an affair with him.
I was a child and when all this was happening I hadn’t understood the emotions. There’s a photograph taken when I was six: I’m in a pink leotard and my sister Cheryl’s dressed as a cat and Mum is wearing a silver dress, pregnant with Kristyna. I have my arms up, posing for the camera, but Mum is looking at the floor. She has Princess Diana face, pained but keeping it together. We were having a Christmas party at Aunty Sandra’s and my dad arrived with a lady called Janice and I told my mum I thought Janice was beautiful, then the photo was taken. I feel very guilty now. I wish I’d realised how sad she was – I’d have tried to give her something.
A decade later and my very first boyfriend, let’s call him Colin because that’s his name,‡ Colin had betrayed me. I wasn’t a child any more and I got it; Dad was a bastard, Colin was a bastard. They were selfish, they were liars, they were manipulative and – ‘Oh no,’ said my mother. She stopped me and corrected me. ‘It wasn’t their fault, they’re not bad people, they were simply being all men.’
In a series of informal lectures that I like to call ‘The End of Hope’ Mum told me how men§ couldn’t help being attracted to lots of women, that they were built this way, it was biological destiny.
My mum is really clever, she studied for a PhD about eight years ago and insists on being called ‘Dr Newmarch’ even in restaurants and at bus stops. She has always been interested in how the body works, genetics, nature versus nurture and all that. She is all at once the stupidest, most intelligent person I know. She’ll take a break from studying Chinese economics or the structure of the genome to ponder why it’s only European countries taking part in Eurovision, where the stars go in winter and how a character in Coronation Street is going to cope with an actor from Coronation Street’s sex scandal.
I think ‘Sally’ will be alright, Mum—
She’s already been through so much.
During ‘The End of Hope’ my mum excused Colin’s behaviour in evolutionary terms. While my ideal parent would have been round his house threatening him with a hockey stick until he agreed to go back out with me, my mum was elaborating about sexuality; how it was the most powerful instinct that humans had, it ensured the replication of genes, the survival of the species, it was responsible for the majority of human social behaviour. Sex was at the heart of everything.
Obviously no one wants to hear this kind of stuff from their mother, so gross, but this was not new information. I was halfway through Psychology A-level, I’d spent a year with Sigmund Freud lecturing me about sex.¶ The only preparation for your mother shouting ‘BECAUSE WE ALL WANT SEX’ is to hear it first from a long-dead Viennese man. I’d spent a lot of mental energy trying to disprove Freud. I was desperate to discover human behaviours that were not sexually related so that in class I’d be able to go, ‘What about ice skating?’ and everyone would applaud and Geoffrey, my teacher, would say, ‘Oh yes ice skating has nothing to do with sex, Sara is right – let’s give her ten certificates!’ Except that ice skating is a demonstration of talent and skill and body strength, all attractive qualities, and Freud believed that all artists were consciously or subconsciously trying to get people to fancy them – so that is not a good example.
Try it, see if you can find something in your life that cannot possibly be connected to sex. You think of huge things like death, and you go, ‘Yeah actually, death has nothing to do with sex … except, oh, I guess sex is how your genes escape death and continue after you have gone. It is our mortality that propels us to procreate and sex is a death antidote and – okay.’ So you try little things instead: ‘brushing my teeth’, ‘going to the cinema’, ‘celebrating Halloween’. None of those things has anything to do with reproduction … except that personal hygiene is important in attracting a mate and people go to the cinema on dates and films depict all kinds of amorousness and arousal, but Halloween, there you go, that’s a fiesta of fear and nothing more and OH GOD LOOK AT THE OUTFITS I’ve never seen anything sexier. You’ve lost another round in ‘Find a Thing That Has No Sex in It’TM.
So while I wasn’t surprised at Mum’s ‘sex is everything’ rationale, her new information, her revelation, was that men and women had separate and distinct sexual programming. Mum explained that the strategies that enabled our ancestors to successfully procreate were gender-specific; what we wanted from each other was different, more than different – contradictory.
We’ve considered parental investment already while we acknowledged the effort required to successfully raise a human child. What we have to recognise now is that becoming a parent is different for each of the sexes. Our physiology has given us very unbalanced roles and this is thought to influence our sexual behaviour. Mum put it in rather brutal terms: ‘Men shag around, women try and stop them,’ she told me, nostrils flaring, like an angry pony. And this wasn’t just a jaded divorcee’s personal opinion, this was a crude summary of the anthropological explanations she’d been reading. Let me try and explain it in a politer form, while attempting to control my inherited nostrils.
To be a father, a man needs to deliver some semen inside a woman. This can take less than a minute – we’ve all been there, am I right, ladies? But to be a mother, a woman must gestate a foetus inside her body for nine months; she will experience sickness, vulnerability and pain before the mortal danger of childbirth. She will require a high-protein, calorific diet despite being physically restricted from obtaining one. In a hunter-gatherer society she will need to breastfeed her child for three to four years.
Let’s have a quick look at the maths there: one minute versus nine months plus four years = a huge injustice of input and effort.
The human form of reproduction makes it possible for a man to get lots and lots of women pregnant. Men make trillions of sperm, it’s a constantly replenishing|| resource, and they can (technically) have lots of sex with different people throughout the day and night. In evolutionary terms, the human males who had the most sex with the most partners would leave the most descendants. It’s a probability game and an evolutionary advantage. The male offspring of these philanderers would inherit genes that made them fancy a huge variety of sex partners and the cycle would continue. Generation upon generation, the sexiest men would be rewarded with more offspring, who would in turn produce more offspring, hakuna matata. If we put our modern morality on the windowsill for a moment we could applaud these virile men and their wonderful species-continuing abilities. WELL DONE, LADS, YOU ARE VERITABLE SPERM FOUNTAINS!
What of our female ancestors?
Well, a woman who mates with several men cannot produce more children than a woman who has only mated with one – they both gestate and raise offspring equally slowly. No amount of sex partners can significantly change the number of descendants a woman would leave, so desiring a variety of lovers is not an evolutionary advantage for her. Genes for female promiscuity are not passed to female offspring at a higher incidence. Further to this, anthropologists tell us that because pregnancy and childrearing are so expensive in terms of resources, the woman who is not pair-bonded may be less successful at childrearing. The primitive female who didn’t bond with those she slept with, who high-fived and yelled ‘Thanks for that’ before climbing back into her own tree, her children would have had lower parental investment and thus a decreased survival rate. She was a sex loser, so fewer of her genes were passed on to future generations. Instead the genes for deep attachment were inherited by the female children of women who knew how to successfully hang on to a man – their children’s survival rate increasing with parental investment.
Put your hands down, we’re not clapping this – it’s too depressing.
To reiterate: the ideal mating strategy for men is constant seduction, multiple partners and all round sexy sexing times and the ideal mating strategy for women is ‘For god’s sake don’t let that man go.’ I wanted to protest this, I wanted to march up and down with a sign covered in expletives and shout at – who? Whose fault is it? Oestrogen? Darwin? Evolution, I would like to speak with your manager. How will any heterosexual people ever be happy? Men have this vibrant, exciting sexuality and woman apparently have nothing but a desperation to curb it.
Remember, my mum was telling me this, I was seventeen – AND I HATED IT yet I couldn’t prove it wrong. It seemed to make perfect sense. If I scanned my surroundings, Essex circa 1998, it was a panorama of girls trying to get boys to like them; we bleached and browned and starved ourselves while the boys clustered outside Threshers or near funfairs waiting to accept or reject us. I was aware of male sexuality being, like, a proper necessity. They were open about their libidos, they’d exclaim the need for a wank or shag in the casual way I might express a yearning for an appetite-suppressing cigarette.
So, though distressed, I believed it. This was truth, men and women were doomed to disappoint each other. There were gender agendas, fidelity versus freedom. I’d been naive with Colin, but heartbreak was my education and I would not be fooled again. I began subsequent relationships with cynicism and Armageddon mutterings, slamming down cocktails and exclaiming, ‘Well, it’s not going to go anywhere so let’s just have fun,’ with the un-fun eyes of someone who died inside when the person opposite didn’t contradict my ‘not going anywhere’ statement. I had a few small boyfriends and then a bigger boyfriend but there was no excitement; as soon as a guy liked me back, I prepared myself for the ending. I thought I was being very clever and protecting myself, I thought I was a realist and could now have a great old time without getting hurt.
If this was a film there’d be a montage here: bright lights, loud music, me buying drinks for a succession of fresh-faced men. And then it would cut to me in my thirties, living alone in a flat that doesn’t have wi-fi, decoupaging a chest of drawers with the words ‘I’m so lonely’. Then a dinosaur would run in and eat me, because this is a really great film. From the dinosaur’s belly you’d hear a grumbling sound and then me:
SARA (O/S in belly)
MY CYNICISM DIDN’T SAVE ME!
Without hope and expectation things were not fun. My flings weren’t flippant and pleasure-fuelled, they were pessimistic and miserable, like spending your day at Alton Towers waiting by the exit because you know it’s gonna close eventually. There you stand, lying to yourself that you’re exactly where you want to be, packed and ready to get out before anyone’s asked you to leave.
ALL MEN CHEAT was my mantra; I lectured in it, I warned my friends, I was not invited to any weddings. ‘It’s not failed morality but a reproductive necessity,’ I would explain to my boyfriends while they protested their innocence. ‘You can’t help yourself,’ I’d patronise, ‘but you must stop lying about it.’ You can imagine how great I was to go out with – punishing my partners with mistrust and shouting and no evidence of unfaithfulness bar their Y chromosome. I shook my head when friends insisted their lovers ‘weren’t like other men’. ‘Assume he’s cheating and see if you still want to be with him’ was my relationship advice. I felt very sorry for my dad’s new wife – and for Hillary Clinton. 1998 was a bad year for her too, probably worse because she had the press to contend with. There’s such personal shame in being cheated on, like you failed by not being enough for someone. I didn’t like the disrespectful way newspapers wrote about Hillary, or how they wrote about Monica Lewinsky like this was her fault. And people seemed so shocked that a PRESIDENT would do it: how could he risk the most powerful job in the world for some heavy petting? But I understood it. ‘Monkeys, mate, we’re all monkeys,’ I said it then, I say it now. How can the president of the United States be immune to his genetic programming when nobody else is?
If we fast-forward ten years of my life we’ll see a long on–off relationship interspersed with lots of short relationships speeding past blurrily. We stop briefly: it’s late 2007 and I start stand-up after a particularly hurtful break-up. We watch a bit of the gig and it’s terrible, I’m bitter and too drunk to be on stage. Fast-forward another five years, we see my work improve but not my romantic life, blur blur blur, now stop – it’s 2013 and I’m having a conversation with comedian John Gordillo outside a club in Hampstead. He’s smoking a roll-up and I’m watching jealously, trying not to ask for a puff on it. I’m telling him all about how I don’t believe in monogamy. He doesn’t believe in it either. He recommends a book called Sex at Dawn, says it will blow my mind, or something equally emphatic. Skip through a couple of weeks now as I order the book from an ethical tax-paying online bookshop and read it. Play in real time as CGI effects show my skull bursting open and brains and blood spurting all over the room while my eyes roll around on the carpet. Then a dinosaur runs in and from my mouth, which is hanging off, I say, ‘Please don’t eat me, I have so much to live for … I just found out that women have a sexuality.’ Then my headless body and the velociraptor do it.
It was a totally new idea to me. Despite all my talking and thinking about sex, I’d never considered that women had their own sexuality. I’d assumed it was an accompaniment to male sexuality, a tangent, an offshoot, or worse, something we pretended to have in order to turn men on. To begin understanding that women had our own desires that existed only for our own pleasure was – well you saw, my eyes fell out of my face and my mind was sprayed everywhere.
I’ve no idea how you’ll be responding to this information. Perhaps you’ve fallen off your bus seat being all like ‘WHAT? We have a – excuse me? I can’t see a sexuality anywhere upon my person, there’s certainly no room in my trousers. Where would this sexuality be? Surely this is all a silly rumour put about by More magazine?’ Or perhaps you’re the opposite, a sexually realised and satisfied woman, extinguishing your cigarillo in the man you’re straddling’s piña colada and exclaiming, ‘How can this idiot have taken thirty-two years to realise she was sexual?’ But in French.
I regret that I spent so many years fascinated and terrified by male sexuality while uncovering absolutely nothing about my own. For a decade and a half I believed that men wanted sex, and the most that women could want was to let them have it. Men had horny sex drives and women were the boring gatekeepers, deciding who we let in. I knew that being sexy was important for women, oh yes, it was completely paramount. You needed men to fancy you – that was your currency. I spent my twenties spouting all kinds of shit about a woman’s sexuality being powerful ‘because she can, like, use it to manipulate men’. I want to puke in old me’s face, I want to fight her and her docility in a car park. If men have stuff we need or want, we don’t pole-dance around them hoping they’ll start whacking off and drop it – we restructure society so that women are able to achieve everything they want and need for themselves. But you know that, sorry for shouting. What I’m trying to say is, for me ‘sexiness’ was a pretend thing that I did to make boys like me. I had no grasp of sexual desire, I’d never noticed its absence in my decisions, I never thought about it because I’d only ever wanted to be wanted. I was thirty-two and I had never successfully masturbated. I had no sexual fantasies. I enjoyed sex in a detached and reassuring way; ‘he still likes me’, ‘he’s into this’, ‘this means he won’t leave me’ and ‘this is what I should be doing’, like all the magazines had told me. Sex often felt like acting – always being super-aware of whether he was enjoying himself and never realising that I was supposed to.
But now I knew better. Thanks to Sex at Dawn I found a teacher, an educator, a substance to lead me through an exploration of the feminine side of the evolution story. My guru, my mentor, my informant, was sperm. YES, it turned out I’d been wasting it previously, mopping it up with my pyjamas or washing it straight out of my hair, when I should have been scooping the jellied off-whiteness up to my face and whispering, ‘What is it you have to tell me? What it is that you know?’
It starts with a man, I KNOW ALL SPERM STARTS WITH A MAN, but this man worked at Liverpool University, his name is Geoff Parker and Wikipedia says his birthday is 24 May so we know he’s a Gemini. Dr Parker made all kinds of discoveries about how sperm behave when you watch them under a microscope and those findings were developed by science writer Robin Baker into a theory called ‘sperm competition’. No it’s not Channel 5’s new gameshow but a claim that when the semen of different men are mixed together the sperm fight. They battle, they go to war and attempt to destroy each other.
According to Baker, men have two kinds of sperm: ‘egg-getters’ and ‘kamikaze’. The egg-getters try to get to an ovum and fertilise it, as the name would suggest. The second type, kamikaze, are slightly smaller, their heads are elongated, they cannot fertilise an egg. Instead their job is to stop any rival egg-getters, those that originated inside another man. Some kamikaze sperm work by blocking, curling up in mucus to stop enemy sperm travelling through, and others are fighters, recognising competitor egg-getters thanks to
telepathy coloured shirts hormonal signals, headbutting them and emitting poisons.
It is baffling to think about and so I can’t stop thinking about it. Sperm can live for up to five days inside a woman’s reproductive system, so if I had four male partners ejaculate inside me over the weekend a full-scale battle would be raging in my womb and tubes when I caught the train on Monday morning. And I wouldn’t be able to feel it and nobody could tell by looking at me unless I was wearing my ‘Banged Four & Feeling like Agincourt’ sweater. Yes of course I will make you one.
There is much debate on the subject of sperm competition and a huge amount of research still to be done on exactly how it works, if indeed it does occur in humans. Some very reputable scientists have argued against it, and it’s currently rather an unfashionable subject. Is that because of how it reflects on our species or because the original theorists were not very well respected? I don’t know. This is the difficulty with being an interested person with only secondary sources to rely upon; you can read one book and believe one thing and then read another that entirely contradicts the first. I need my own lab, a pipette and a gallon of fresh semen in order to find the truth – I’ll set up a Kickstarter page.
Lots of animals do demonstrate versions of sperm competition. Sometimes this involves speedy sperm or congealing fluid or even the volume of sperm produced. It does seem that human males ejaculate more sperm into partners they really like. (Sara fans her face and acts coy: ‘Oh my, with that extra 0.2 of a millilitre you’re spoiling me.’) Apparently men’s bodies do a subconscious calculation of how many sperm to ejaculate into their partner based on the likelihood of needing to compete with other sperm. Studies have found that men ejaculate more when their partner has been away, when they are with a new (non-virgin) partner, and when they’re having an affair and know their lover is sleeping with someone else. So if you’ve been with your boyfriend†† all weekend gardening and watching movies and haven’t so much as popped to the shops, when‡‡ you have sex he will ejaculate less than if you’ve just arrived back from three days at a conference called ‘How to Admire Male Models’.
It’s worth reminding ourselves that such physiological responses are subconscious and uncontrollable. Strategic ejaculation is not affected by wearing a condom and it is not a reflection of conscious mistrust or suspicions about a partner’s infidelity. It’s clever old nature seizing control and taking precautions.
But why does it need to?
If we understand that some sort of sperm competition exists, we have to accept the ramifications. Evolution is a responsive process rather than an inventive one. Strategic ejaculations and kamikaze sperm do not exist as a back-up, a ‘just in case’ or designed idea, but because for thousands of generations sperm that could fight and block may have been a reproductive advantage. If Gerald and Bernie both had sex with Doreen,§§ Gerald would have a better chance of inseminating her if he had extra sperm. Bernie would have a decreased chance of insemination if he ejaculated less. This means our ancient female forebears may often have practised multi-partnering. If sperm evolved to fight it was because there were rival sperm to contend with.
So we need to re-evaluate what we’ve been told about female sexuality. Specifically, we need to forget what my mum told me, because she was wrong. And it’s not the first time – Mum’s been wrong several times before, like when she claimed the live EastEnders episode would be the best thing that ever happened to television or when she went out with that guy Paul¶¶ who stole our car, but at least in this instance it wasn’t her fault.
The scientists who discovered evolution were Victorian men. They wore monocles and top hats. Their opinions and ideas were shaped by their society, as is true for all of us. The platform for communicating natural selection was built by men such as Charles Darwin and it was lopsided with male bias. Women in the nineteenth century were restricted and oppressed, generally dismissed as coy, chattering nurturers. Victorian culture was dominated by ideas of ‘propriety’, repression and public prudery. The combination of these factors resulted in observations about animals, apes and humans being made solely from a masculine perspective. Males were understood as active, while females were seen to be passive and non-instrumental. Even with examples such as peacocks where female choice in sexual selection had clearly and visibly affected evolution (males have big beautiful tails because peahens fancy the guys with the prettiest feathers) the possibility of female desire as a species-shaping factor was denied and ignored.
The public construction of sex in Victorian times was that men enjoyed it while women derived their pleasure from conception and pregnancy (lucky us). With this weighted presumption, the results from animal studies met the new theory of evolution and created a model of human sexual behaviour that completely ignored female lust, desire and pleasure as forces that moulded our species. There was no ugly villain masterminding this, no dastardly plot to supress female sexuality, just some fallible and subjective scientists. If you believe without question that female animals derive no pleasure from mating, that intercourse is something they simply endure to beget children, then you’ll ignore a jungle full of female animals displaying desire and initiating sex. They’ll be invisible, obscured by foliage and preconception. And poor old western civilisation will spend decades entrenched in misunderstanding. We’ll accept that sex is something that happens to women, something which is performed upon us rather than by us. Despite being fifty per cent of the cast we’ll be props rather than actors. And we have been.
I try not to shout, as I don’t think it’s useful. People stop listening, they feel lectured. But this is the first point in the book where I have really wanted to open the window and BELLOW. I found the previous paragraph very difficult to write as I kept welling with fury. I wanted to underline things thirty times in red pen, I wanted to hammer it all out in capitals and misspelled swear words. I don’t want to be reasonable, I want to insult those Victorian imbeciles and smack them on the bottom with what they’ve cost us. Modern women have been betrayed by science. We have been lied to and about; they stole our autonomy, they vanished our pleasure and the effects are so embedded, the words of experts so respected that the revolution of reclamation will be slow and difficult. But hey, at least it’s started, and you’re part of it, so pack some sandwiches and try to think positively.
I am sure Charles Darwin was a nice man. I’m sure if I’d bumped into him on the Galapagos Islands I’d have thought, ‘What a decent fellow – and he sure did know a lot about worms!’ At university we were always asked if artists could be considered separately from the age they lived in – should a two-hundred-year-old novel with racist language be removed from the canon, or could the author be forgiven as she didn’t know any better? There’s no answer to this question, by the way, just opinions. Some people say it’s detrimental to keep racist ideas floating about by respecting their vessels; others say historical racism mustn’t be buried and hidden, we modern guys must recognise and learn from it. Usually an assessment is made of a work’s worth and intention and the same has to be true of Darwin and sexism. It’s not his fault he was a Victorian, I’m not suggesting we throw his incredible and enlightening life’s work in the bin and start again. But I think he and his contemporaries’ prejudice has to be flagged because an entire area of science has been built upon it. If we were literally going to make a flag I would embroider it with Darwin’s list of pros and cons for getting married. It’s fun source material for finding out about Victorian sensibilities. You can find the whole text online but highlights include describing a ‘nice, soft’ future wife as an ‘object to be beloved & played with, better than a dog anyhow’ and looking forward to the charms of ‘female chit-chat’. I doubt those words come from a man who considered women his equal, but – well, he’s dead now and we’re not, so we win. See below for more female chit-chat!
Since the discovery of sperm competition, scientists, anthropologists and evolutionary psychologists have been building a more balanced model of human sexual behaviour. They don’t all agree and there’s loads of conflicting evidence and opinion to be found out there, but it can safely be acknowledged that women have a basic biological drive to have genetically strong children. Our sexual attractions are our body’s attempts to make clever, tactical decisions in regards to future offspring and those attractions do not always lead us towards one man and fancying him and only him forever and ever.
HETEROCENTRIC BIAS KLAXON: of course many women reading this will not fancy men at all. Every living person evolved from heterosexuals or at least from people who had some heterosexual intercourse and this means while discussing evolution, homosexuality can often be ignored or considered unworthy of comment. While I’m using these broad strokes of opposite-sex attraction I should make it clear that exactly the same process and instincts are at work in homosexual loves and lusts. The mechanics are identical, you’re still choosing possible parents to future offspring in every sexual encounter; the incentives or deal-breakers of certain partners are still assessed via a genetic agenda. Our bodies don’t understand that not all sex makes babies – like how using contraception or being infertile or post-menopausal does not affect heterosexual sex instincts; it’s always potential mummies and daddies we’re looking for. I know, it does sound gross when put like that, sorry.
We already know that the number of sex partners a woman enjoys won’t alter the number of children she could have. But if genetic strength of progeny is considered, we find that while the quantity of offspring may not be increased, the quality could be. Consider this for instance: for a woman in the pre-civilised, harsh environs of ancient Africa, having all her kids with the same father could be risky. With a single gene pool her children will have similar strengths and weaknesses; a disease or environmental factor that killed one might well kill all. Instead, breeding with several different men could work as a form of spread betting – her children would inherit a larger range of genetic traits and dispositions; Jeremy’s got darker skin and won’t get sunburn, Claire’s got longer arms which help with fishing. There would be a higher likelihood that some of her children would survive into adulthood and BANG, sister gone evolved herself a roving eye. Hallelujah and Merry Christmas, suddenly being a woman doesn’t look so committed and passive after all. I’m going to put on my sexiest beret to celebrate.
Have a go on my trumpet while I tell you a bit more:
Apparently multi-partnering could have been instrumental in our becoming the empathetic, social creatures we are now. Picture this: a tribe of nine or ten family groups, numbering around a hundred people in total. If all the families are headed by pair-bonded adults who are completely sexually exclusive then there’s little incentive for sharing and inter-familial support. Each may well look after her own. BUT if each adult woman is sleeping with a couple of her male neighbours, and each of those males are sleeping with a couple of other local women, then none of those men can be sure if any of those women’s children are his. With no paternity certainty there would be a greater incentive for families to work together, to pool resources and to be emotionally invested in each other’s success. The children of the tribe would be better protected and more valued, thus increasing their survival rates. The more adult caregivers each child has, the better their chances. Paternity uncertainty and multi-partnering connects people together. Our social groups, our fondness for our friend’s offspring and group childrearing can be linked to this system of mating. Cohesive social harmony induced by our horny female ancestors? It is time to don a second beret.
Contrary to what we’ve been told or what we might expect, women are not programmed to be purely monogamous. But we do form strong, chemically enhanced pair bonds, so we’re not completely wild and uncommitted either. We exist somewhere between the two extremes and it seems the flexibility of our desires is an ingenious survival tactic. We’re able to react to environment and circumstances when seeking a mate or a partner and to ascertain what we most need from him or his genes. But life has thrown us a paradox; raising children requires committed parenting and powerful bonding, while having the healthiest, most likely-to-survive children could require mating outside of that relationship. It would appear that for both genders, an ideal mating state could be a bonded family unit, with some extra sex with external partners.
How do you feel about that?
All morality and personal feelings aside, your ideal mating state could be to bag yourself a skilful person who is useful and great at providing, while having the occasional affair in order to deepen your children’s gene pool and encourage support from other adults. If you’re in a long-term relationship, you might find yourself attracted to people very physically different from your partner for this reason. You might get crushes on people who are more successful than them, a reliable signal of smart genes and access to resources. You might have a crush on their best friend or brother or someone else socially close … the guys and girls you fancy outside of your pair bond are determined by your subconscious desire to cuckold.
Morality and personal feelings back safely on the table, I find these theories and explanations of human bonding and attraction interesting and terribly troubling. It’s a relief to read about non-monogamous evolutionary programming as I always feel very guilty for fancying people outside of my relationship. I took it as a sign that my relationship wasn’t working or that I was a bad person. Now I understand that being in love doesn’t stop my body noticing handsome young men in the vicinity and I can forgive myself. My body is a baby-making machine honed by millennia and I’ve commandeered it for bike riding and buying stationery; of course I’ll wobble when I encounter a flat-bellied twenty-four-year-old who smells of the seaside. But I don’t want to provide excuses for cheating. While we can’t control who turns our head in the street or makes us flush by the photocopier, we are in charge of our hugging arms and kissing lips. I don’t think biology is an excuse to cheat – but it could provide an explanation for wanting to, or for trying open relationships or practising polyamory or any other non-monogamous state that is built on honesty and makes you happy. Our evolution has shaped us to have wide-ranging urges and lusts but topped our brain with a pre-frontal cortex to control ourselves. If you’ve promised a lover you’ll be faithful, don’t you be quoting my book and blaming me while he cries in the bath. You be kind to that boy. ‘We’re all monkeys, mate,’ is not a good enough excuse for hurting people.
Hang on, why does it hurt so much to be cheated on? If multi-partnering and philandering is in our genes, why do I get so jealous? The thought of my boyfriend kissing someone else ignites a volcano of pointless nauseous anger. I cry myself to sleep when he’s away, suffering the varied sexual jaunts I send him on in my mind. If we listened to my emotions they would dictate that monogamy is the only way, thank you, and couples should all be faithful to each other forever and ever until they die, the end. Even when you’ve broken up with someone they shouldn’t be allowed to go out with anyone else, you should be able to put all your exes in a freezer until some future date when it won’t wreck your weekend to find out they’ve got married from an uploaded photo on Facebook. Congratulations, Christopher, if you’re reading this.
I am trying to educate my emotions.
I watched a documentary about polyamory. These were not couples with open relationships, as I had been expecting from the title, but trios who were all in love with each other in committed love triangles. They lived in houses as threesomes. Took care of children together, shared chores and swapped beds. I was very sceptical, keeping alert for a strain of voice or sadness behind eyes that would signal ‘they’re just pretending to be happy’. One of the groups was made up of two women and a man. He’d had an affair at work and fallen in love. His wife had gone out on a date with his mistress, thought she was great and invited her to move in with them. ‘She didn’t wanna lose her bloke,’ I heckled the programme from my head, ‘she’d rather share him than be alone.’ I watched as she made dinner for their children while her husband had a night out at the cinema with his girlfriend. ‘What a mug,’ I judged and presumed, while she explained how well the situation suited her, how she had more time for herself and more love for her husband.
I have to remember that all of my discriminations are hardwired. I was tutored by my culture to view only two-person relationships as ‘normal’ and any other formation as an aberration, an emotional freak show. If I’d grown up in a polygamous society, I might consider Aunty Sandra and Uncle Trevor the weird ones. It’d be their love life I’d want to gossip about; why doesn’t Uncle get a younger wife to help with children? Why does Aunty not bring a nice local girl in to be her new sister and do the chores? How can they be satisfied only having each other?
In Britain, it’s not just rare or unusual, it is illegal to marry more than one person and punishable with up to seven years in prison. A couple of years ago I took part in a TV politics show with university students. The discussion was about the affordability of living in London but a question popped up from someone who said he represented the Polyamory Society. He asked the MP I was sitting next to: ‘Now gay marriage has been recognised, isn’t it time people who want to marry more than one person be given legal rights?’ The MP was flustered and I really felt for him. As he stuttered and corrected himself, you could tell how worried he was about replying stupidly to a question he was unprepared for. He was preoccupied with showing his respect and support for the gay movement and he finally announced, ‘These kinds of questions make me angry.’ People who were against gay marriage had criticised the government, saying their decisions were undermining the sanctity of the wedding ceremony, predicting that people would soon be able to marry animals – or cars and fences. The MP said, ‘Bigamy has nothing to do with gay people having equal rights,’ and then he stopped talking. The atmosphere in the room was tense and confused and the polyamory man who’d asked the question wanted to speak again. The presenter avoided him and moved the discussion on while the student waved his arm in the air, red-faced and misunderstood.
I thought about it afterwards. Of course a marriage of three or more people is not like marrying a pet or inanimate object, because it still involves consent and love and intentions and promises from all parties. And while most of us in that room considered polyamory a strange and perhaps scary thing, isn’t that how homosexuality used to be regarded a few decades ago? ‘Normal’ is a concept formed by averages but it changes with education and tolerance. I wish we’d been brave enough to investigate what the student was asking us, but we were too scared of offending people. Trying so hard to be tolerant that we were the opposite. I also realised the question wasn’t as off-topic as I’d first thought. Perhaps the only way any of us could afford London house prices would be to marry a few dudes and combine overdrafts until we got a deposit?
Human polyamory can be inextricably connected to economics and circumstances. Most countries where polygamy is legal seem to be very poor, like Bangladesh, Sudan and Ethiopia. For women living in countries where their gender prohibits them from a career outside of the home, they are better off as one of a rich man’s many wives than as the sole wife of a poor man. It’s almost always this way round because, globally, it’s men who control access to resources. The Polygyny Threshold Hypothesis posits that a male animal is more likely to have multiple partners when there is an uneven distribution of resources, when one male occupies a safer/more plentiful territory and can protect and provide for more than one female. This hypothesis was based on the behaviour of birds, where (because of the way they breed) females are reliant on males. It is interesting that the countries which allow men to marry more than one woman also seem to restrict the lives of women, for religious or cultural reasons. Female humans in such countries are similarly dependent.
As we’ve already discovered, a man with many female partners can potentially have more children – so polygamy makes sense as a mating strategy for a wealthy, powerful man. But because no amount of men can significantly increase a woman’s brood, cultures where women have more than one husband are very rare. There is a well-documented polyandrous society in rural Tibet. The exhausting methods of farming they undertake and the shared family ownership of land mean that if a woman wants to marry a man, she often has to marry all his brothers as well. In severe conditions with hard work and food shortages, polygamy is a survival tactic; with more bodies to toil and care for children, the extended family is far stronger and more likely to succeed than a lone man and woman would be under such circumstances. In cases like this, multi-person marriages are a response to the environment.
But I’m still biased by my background, my subjectivity is emotively playing the trumpet and I’m imagining this poor Tibetan woman – what if she fancies only one of the brothers but has to do it with all of them? What if they gang up against her and she is bullied and mistreated in her own home? Same with the Pakistani or Saudi Arabian women who share their husbands with younger wives; do they feel rejected and jealous? Do they wish they lived in a country where they could have a husband all of their own? The problem with a completely prejudiced world-view is separating the benefits of someone else’s marital arrangement from how I would feel if it were imposed upon me. I wouldn’t want to be married to five brothers in Tibet, or be part of a harem. But that doesn’t mean there’s not lots of happiness, satisfaction, love and joy available to the people who choose that set-up. Marrying three brothers, if that’s completely normal to you, might be super-hot. I’m trying not to project, and I am failing. I remind myself that a two-parent family is not ‘normal’, it could be interpreted as a sign of environmental luxury, access to food and no fear of predators. It’s just one of the ways that humans can choose to live.
I have tried to imagine situations where I would share my boyfriend, or take another lover into our house … they all involve an apocalypse and I’m not happy even thinking about it. Two boyfriends … yes, I could probably manage that, but I don’t find the idea sexy because I know I’d simply be watching two grown men playing iPhone games for seven hours a day. Unless the electricity has run out because of the apocalypse and then the iPhones won’t have battery and if I know my boyfriend, which I do, he will kill himself. So, forty-five minutes into the apocalypse and we’re back to monogamy. The opposite way, being one of his girlfriends? I know he’d love it and it upsets me so much I’m crying as I type this.
Sexual jealousy is an ugly trait and I’m ashamed of it. I know it stems from insecurity, I know that mostly it’s irrational and I wish I didn’t care. I wish I could have open relationships and not be raw at the thought. I can repeat to myself calmly, ‘It’s just sex, just genitals, it’s just flesh and skin and –’ AARGH no can’t do it, my body isn’t big enough for these feelings. I hate my boyfriend’s past and I am terrified of his sexual future and if all the women in the world could just sign here to promise they’ll never kiss him then I could relax a little bit:
I ______________ do solemnly swear never to kiss or do anything else sexual with Sara’s boyfriend no matter how much he begs or how good he is at iPhone games.
Jealousy evolved alongside pair bonding. They are intertwined and inseparable, ancient and animal. There’s a lot to lose when you are investing time and resources into bringing up children – a man who is cuckolded will spend his life ensuring the success of another man’s genes. A woman who shares her partner with other women will lose some of his potential resources. If the man with a pie has two wives, they each get half a pie. If the man with a pie has fourteen children with six different women then everyone gets a tiny bite of pie and those children now have a lower survival expectation. If your dad is a jazz musician like mine then he can’t afford any pie and your mum will have to work very hard to support you on her own. In terms of genetic inheritance, the suspicious, jealous, possessive types may have ensured their own genes were carried into future generations, and into us. This ugly trait is a mating technique too and another aspect of ourselves to struggle with and hope to forgive.
Our next battle is forever. Eternity. The idea that the only successful relationship is one that never ends. If you’ve accepted that human beings have an inherited predisposition towards something slightly more flexible than monogamy, let’s move on. Even if you haven’t accepted it, come anyway, the bottom of a page is no place to be sitting on your own.
* The man, not the genital jewellery.†
† Unless penis piercing works as a metaphor here? ‘My love was like a small hole in my—’ No, it doesn’t work.
‡ He lives in Japan now and hopefully won’t find out about this book, but if you do happen to be reading this in Tokyo please tippex out each ‘Colin’ and write ‘Julius’ or something. There is also a little piece of legislation called privacy law that means I have to disguise anyone I’m talking about so please can you imagine Colin with a moustache and a beret.
§ Sorry my mum was being so heterocentric here. Obviously loads of men don’t fancy women at all.
¶ I mean I was reading Freud, not that he was my actual lecturer, I’m not that old and if I were, I don’t think the father of psychoanalysis would’ve been slumming it at Havering Sixth Form College.
|| And delicious.**
** I’m joking.
†† If your boyfriend is a woman, studies have found that she will never ejaculate more than zero sperm.
§§ These names have been changed to protect their prehistoric privacy.
¶¶ Real name, long hair, lived near a dry ski slope. If you know him, tell him to pay my mum back.