Jenna Witzleben


This blog contains reading reflections, experiments, and project details for my current thesis (my first extracurricular thesis) on alternative relationship structures. For the next few months I will be investigating alternatives to our society's current standard: heterosexual, monogamous, long term relationships, with children. This in part comes out of the research of my last thesis "Finding the Wild", as it has been theorized that early humans were actually polyamorous. It is also a personal exploration, as I am re-considering my own goals and ideas around what types relationships I want to engage in.

Sex at Dawn (Part I)

Part of this investigation was sparked by points of my research in my last thesis, Finding the Wild, which was about rewilding and drawing inspiration from hunter-gatherer lifestyles to live more environmentally-friendly lifestyles. In this research, I came across emerging discussions about the nature of relationships in early human societies, particularly that they were not necessarily monogamous. These researchers and thought leaders are questioning whether monogamy is actually a natural structure for humans to engage in. This current thesis will not necessarily be exclusive to the discussions of pre-history and evolution, but I found this to be a good place to start. The book "Sex at Dawn", written by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha, discusses just this - why the standard models of human evolution and relationships are inaccurate and what this means for modern relationships.

In the first part of the book, the authors discuss the "standard model" that many scientists have supported regarding relationship structures. They use the term "flintstoning" to describe how these scientists have seemed to find excuses for our current adherence to monogamous relationships and for why the nuclear family is "inherently human." Much of this research was coming about during Victorian England, a very prudent time in history. So it all reinforces prude and frankly sexist ideas about the nature of human romantic and sexual relationships. Ideas like women needing to barter their reproductive capabilities for resources and shelter and that females are inherently coy and need to be courted. It all ignores the many examples that the authors highlight later in the book of societies where this bartering and coyness are not evident (many of which are matriarchal societies).

Another aspect of research that is ignored in the "standard model" is how our current sexual behavior and inclinations are close to our near relative of the Bonobo, which maintain egalitarian and peaceful communities, centered around female-female bonding, have sex for pleasure and entertainment as well as reproduction throughout the female menstrual cycle, and engage in multimale-multifemale relationships. If we're so closely linked to the Bonobo in our sexual behavior, then it's not far-fetched to deduct that we'd also seek multimale-multifemale relationships. Or at least it shouldn't be assumed that monogamy is universally desirable for all human beings.

Here, the authors quote Frans de Waal:

"Just imagine that we had never heard of chimpanzees or baboons and had known bonobos first. We would at present most likely believe that early hominids lived in female-centered societies, in which sex served important social functions and in which warfare was rare or absent."

So why then do we currently engage in monogamy? The authors link it back to agriculture. With the shift towards agricultural societies came hierarchical social structures and ownership of private property. Gone were the days of sharing and egalitarianism that allowed for multimale-multifemale relationships. It can be argued that the shift to agriculture and therefore monogamy was a "natural" development of the human species (albeit not a very positive one). However, even so, this doesn't make monogamy the universally superior option for all humans. If the argument that Ryan and Jetha are making is true, then we still have roots in polyamory, and likely many of us still feel those biological inclinations. 

It's helpful to see through this reading that there isn't one clear answer on the biologically appropriate relationship structure for all humans. It strikes me that this argument of whether we should be monogamous or polyamorous maybe doesn't even matter. Even if it's proven healthier for us to be in polyamorous societies, we can't change the entire human population overnight. So perhaps what will be more important in this thesis is further sharing the stories that these author highlights of alternative relationship (and community) structures and designing against the corporate marketing pressure to go along with the standard narrative. 

Jenna Witzleben