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The Myth of Monogamy: Fidelity and…

The Myth of Monogamy: Fidelity and Infidelity in Animals and People

by David P. Barash

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An entertaining look at the history...and future...of monogamy, and the biological status as an unnatural state of affairs for humans. Detailing the various forms of information to determine monogamous habits, the authors conclude that humans are not, in fact, naturally monogamous. ( )
  quantum_flapdoodle | Apr 29, 2011 |
The main problem with the book is that it purports to go about dispelling the myth of monogamy, but it goes about doing so using monogamous language. The term bandied about most in the book, "EPC," stands for "extra-pair coupling." The term assumes that coupling should take place in what researchers perceive as a pairing and anything outside of that is extra when perhaps, what is seen as a pair has nothing to do with coupling. The authors also use words like marriage/marital to refer to animal pairings, which makes no sense at all, and don't even bother to use quotes around it; by contrast, when they refer to female primates bonding platonically with males so that those males might protect them, they call it "friendship" in quotes. Other terms they use without quotes that are questionable include lady-love, serenade, cad, divorce, jealousy, wives, girlfriends, Mrs., and bachelor. Sometimes, they even switch back and forth between using quotes for a word and then not.

Quote marks are not the only forms of punctuation with whose proper use the authors seem to be unfamiliar. One of the most infuriating things the authors do is speculate extensively in parentheses. The most egregious example is when they speculate about how women within harems compete. Instead of just researching the behavior of women in households with multiple female partners and only one male, which is a common occurrence all over the world, they decided to ask an easily-answerable question as if it were the biggest mystery in the universe. Another form of punctuation that the authors abuse is the exclamation point. When used sparingly, the exclamation point can be a functional part of a good piece of writing, but they use it in excess -- even in the index (!)

One example on which the book spends considerable time is that of predatory birds. Because the male of the pair tends to spend a lot of time hunting and the female on child-rearing, the birds do not have time to seek other partners. When discussing this, the authors frame it in language that implies that the female of the pair allows the male to mate with her because supposedly, if she is already raising a brood with that male, there would be no reason for her to mate with him. Sadly, the authors completely ignore the fact that the male would have no reason to mate with the female, either, and there's no way to assess which male is "allowing" which to mate. Here, as in with other parts of the book, patriarchal thinking trumps science.

The analogies used in the book, especially in reference to female behavior, tend to be questionable. In some cases, they are downright disgusting. One such case is when they compare a female mating and acting favorably with each of her multiple male partners as analogous to a grandmother telling each of her grandchildren that he or she is her favorite. Not only is this obviously somewhat stomach-churning, the fact that they could only think of a platonic family situation to compare to a highly sexual one speaks to the authors' lack of imagination.

The book's points on pornography are unforgivably biased. The book talks about how men are aroused by hetero porn, but not about how women are physically aroused by ALL kinds of porn, from depictions of gay men, straight couples, lesbian pairs, and even animal sex. The book doesn't talk about female response to porn at all. I don't know how new the study that shows that is, but I doubt all research on the topic of female response to porn is newer than 2001.

The authors' dismissal of rape is particularly troubling. They imagine a scenario where a woman "happens" to visit a man's hotel room at night as a way in which a woman might have sex outside a pairing, something that too closely resembles the way in which rape apologists speak. Furthermore, their only mention of feminism or even writings against rape is in criticism of a single point in Brownmiller's important work, Against Our Will: they call her out on her claim that only human beings rape. While they might be right about her being wrong, to describe a rape apologists' fantasy for victim-blaming in nudge-wink terms and then to reduce Brownmiller's work to nothing but a single claim to disprove is to bulldoze over the importance of the fight against sexual violence.

The authors, even aside from their troubling discussion of rape and glossing over of women's response to pornography, do very poorly on women's issues. The books' criticism of property theory as a solution for the problem of the worldwide poor treatment of women sets up a strawman instead of actually addressing the heart of that particular theory: the fact that women are often treated as property. Instead of actually debunking that claim, they just decide that the theory is wrong because men supposedly amass property to attract women and don't even address the fact that women are often seen as property to be amassed. Furthermore, their choice of language re female animals tends towards "feisty" while males are described as "aggressive," a clear projection of human feelings on animal behavior.

I can forgive a book for being outdated or uninformed, but I cannot forgive all of the assumptions, horrible misuse of language, and overbearing, forced informality of this book. I had to actually stop in the middle of reading this book to take notes on what was so wrong with it in order to be able to finish it in relative mental peace. Even as an artifact representative of outmoded thinking (and the book is less than ten years old), it's not worth the time I spent reading it. In the end, I had far more notes than could be fit into a coherent review, and so I will just say, again, that the book is not worth reading. ( )
1 vote heina | Dec 5, 2010 |
full of intriguing ideas that conform every mans fantasy that they should be allowed to go out and screw anybody they want at anytime they want. They have a biological dispensation to do so - according to this book. Unfortunately, I think I agree with the authors. ( )
  benitastrnad | Feb 20, 2009 |
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0805071369, Paperback)

Shattering deeply held beliefs about sexual relationships in humans and other animals, The Myth of Monogamy is a much needed treatment of a sensitive issue. Written by the husband and wife team of behavioral scientist David P. Barash and psychiatrist Judith Eve Lipton, it glows with wit and warmth even as it explores decades of research undermining traditional precepts of mating rituals. Evidence from genetic testing has been devastating to those seeking monogamy in the animal kingdom; even many birds, long prized as examples of fidelity, turn out to have a high incidence of extra-pair couplings. Furthermore, now that researchers have turned their attention to female sexual behavior, they are finding more and more examples of aggressive adultery-seeking in "the fairer sex." Writing about humans in the context of parental involvement, the authors find complexity and humor:

Baby people are more like baby birds than baby mammals. To be sure, newborn cats and dogs are helpless, but this helplessness doesn't last for long. By contrast, infant Homo sapiens remain helpless for months ... and then they become helpless toddlers! Who in turn graduate to being virtually helpless youngsters. (And then? Clueless adolescents.) So there may be some payoff to women in being mated to a monogamous man, after all.

Careful to separate scientific description from moral prescription, Barash and Lipton still poke a little fun at our conceptions of monogamy and other kinds of relationships as "natural" or "unnatural." Shoring themselves up against the inevitable charges that their reporting will weaken the institution of marriage, they make sure to note that monogamy works well for most of those who desire it and that one of our uniquely human traits is our ability to overcome biology in some instances. If, as some claim, monogamy has been a tool used by men to assert property rights over women, then perhaps one day The Myth of Monogamy will be seen as a milestone for women's liberation. --Rob Lightner

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:07:28 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

Describes how new research investigating sex in the animal world concludes there is no question of monogamy being natural.

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