"Monogamy is inherently unnatural in our species," Dr. Julie Holland says without equivocation. She's a clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at the New York University School of Medicine, and author of the recent memoir Weekends at Bellevue. Metaphors like being "sex-crazed," "crazy about you" or even "crazy in love" don't seem so nutty when you consider the call of the wild may have followed us into the present day from our evolutionary past.
"We are social creatures," says Dr. Holland. "It takes an inordinate amount of self-control to resist our natural urges to mate with multiple others. Serial monogamy is about the best most of us can pull off, but we would probably be more true to ourselves, and our human nature, if we were more like the bonobos."
Bonobos, by the way, are what some scientists call our "closest cousins"—chimpanzees who share 98 percent of DNA with humans and who mate with the frequency and partner-swapping frenzy of certain golfers.
And speaking of certain golfers … the conversation about Tiger Woods may be largely tabloid titillation, but it's also opened up an opportunity to have a critical conversation about love, success, marriage and monogamy. That conversation could help break a silence that is literally killing us. I'm thinking of a forum I moderated at the National Association of Black Journalists conference this summer, sponsored by the Centers for Disease Control, about AIDS. We talked about urban and rural black America, hetero and same-sex relationships, and about silence and lies. According to the CDC, while only 12 percent of this nation is African-American, a staggering 46 percent of Americans living with AIDS are black. But it's too easy just to point to disease statistics alone. Divorces, the low black marriage rate, financial and emotional distress (on adults and children) are everyday realities of modern relationship wars. So as we're having our national conversation about cheating, we need to acknowledge that whether or not humans are inherently monogamous, we live in a sexual culture of lies and irresponsibility that we cannot afford to continue.
One of the major lines of conversation post-Tiger has been whether people who choose high-profile, famous or wealthy partners have to expect that those partners will cheat. Tai Beauchamp is a style and lifestyle expert and social entrepreneur who also appeared on SOAPnet’s reality TV dating show, Holidate. She says, "In conversations with girlfriends, both married, single and otherwise committed, we've spoken frankly about how for men, in most cases, wealth, fame and status is an avenue of greater ‘access’ [to sexual encounters]. Whether he chooses that lane of ‘access’ has nothing to do with how rich or famous he is." In other words, says Beauchamp, "A person's infidelity and disloyalty has to do with his value systems."
The neo-cliché "Don't hate the player, hate the game" has never applied more succinctly to modern questions of fidelity. There are many reasons people cheat. For some, it's literally a game—the conquest is not as much about the end result of having sex as the continuing refinement and mastery of a skill. So maybe it's time to change the game. Maybe it's time to expand our conversation from "did s/he cheat?" to "what is a healthy relationship, monogamous or not?"
Once you've been on the planet a while, you see that relationships come in a staggering spectrum of health and disease, complicated by factors of race, class, luck, religion and culture. I have seen honest non-monogamous relationships, including ones where a man and woman love and live with each other, and both have lovers. These couples seemed to take serious (though not infallible) health precautions to avoid the spread of disease, unlike so many people having furtive sexual encounters. There are great lifelong monogamies and (rarely, but joyfully) some bad marriages that, over the decades become astoundingly good ones. Of course, there are festering, hateful, long-term relationships and spectacular mid-air-collision divorces, the kind that begin with descriptions like, "I remember the day when my husband's girlfriend called me to say that she was pregnant."
Then, hovering somewhere between consent and complicity, there are people who choose to stay in unequal, cheating-filled relationships. Billie Holiday's haunting song "Don't Explain" delivers the soliloquy of a woman whose errant lover is welcomed back not with naiveté, but melancholy self-awareness. As she sings:
Cry to hear folks chatter
And I know you cheat
Right or wrong, don't matter
When you're with me, sweet
Sometimes I think it's easier to get to the emotional core of the issues we're struggling with in artistic rather than reportorial form. Questions of marriage, fidelity and faith were all themes I wove into a novel, Kiss the Sky, which came out this year. The main character is a black rock singer in a love triangle between a drug-abusing ex-husband (who is also her guitarist) and a manipulative boyfriend (who is also her manager). And though I, personally, have never been in a love triangle (or dated anyone I worked with, or been able to sing a note without hurting other peoples' ears), it was, of course, my everyday hopes and fears as a woman that allowed me to conjure Sky Lee as a character. In the end, Sky has to identify her own desire for a healthy relationship before she can pursue it.
I hope that the conversation in the novel helps some readers confront the dance of desire and expectation in their own lives. I certainly saw a powerful confirmation of the way fiction can shape real relationships at the memorial for novelist E. Lynn Harris. More than one person stood up and related stories about the way his book created a space for people coming out of the closet. Art can sometimes give us a way to talk about issues that tie our tongues in polite company.
But there are other tools we have at hand to spark conversation, including the mix of technology and kitchen-table chatter that is social networking. I'm a Twitter fiend (@faraichideya). So knowing that I wanted to write an article about the issues that were bigger than Tiger, I put out an invitation to my Twitter circle to discuss the issues. I lobbed specific questions like, "Would you see viable alternatives to marriage or monogamy that would be more respectful than the cheater game?" For about an hour, we had a vibrant virtual town hall meeting. (Some of the conversation is included in the sidebar to this essay.) I turned off my computer feeling refreshed and grateful for this serious discussion with a mix of friends, acquaintances and strangers. I remember the AIDS posters from the '80s that said "Silence = Death." Well, when it comes to the cycle of sexual lies, silence still equals death—physical death from diseases including AIDS, but also the death of the dream that we can love and be loved in return. Humans should be able to pursue the dream of respectful, consensual sex and love, a pursuit that may take many forms—many twists of fortune and fate—but hopefully bring us closer not only to others but our better selves.
Farai Chideya is an award-winning author and journalist. Follow her on Twitter.