There are two pieces I’ve already written on the topics of patriarchy and on romantic love but want to start with their most long-lasting and deepest ingrained outcome – monogamy. I’ll leave out Islam and any other cultures that allow polygamy but the implications for women are much the same. Likewise the gay and lesbian relations ’cos I’m less clear on how it works in those communities. For heterosexuals then, our lives, our histories, literature, talk shows, law courts, therapists’ and counsellors’ consulting rooms are full of the effects and failures of monogamous fidelity. But in the West, at least, the place of women and their economic and political independence has changed out of all recognition, whatever remains to be achieved in terms of equality. Yet this insistence on fidelity persists and it’s not just the men who demand it and/or deviate from it. Why?
It goes beyond financial security and even the effects of parents’ examples – our culture is steeped in this concept that the relationships of couples, at least heterosexual couples, ought to be exclusive. There have been attempts by many individuals and movements to move beyond that restriction but they have all tended to fail at some point. Nevertheless, as researchers into human behaviour have shown beyond all doubt, we are a promiscuous species. So why is it so difficult to break free of the bonds of monogamy (or monotony)?
I’m not a sociologist or anthropologist and don’t have any figures to back up my views but have lived through these contradictions for the last 50 years and that’s just in my own relationships. While women may seem to have most to lose from infidelity, especially if they’re dependent on their man’s income and have children, there are plenty of men who are just as hung up about it. One reason might be the fear of being alone in a very unsettled and competitive world after feeling secure for some time. This might be overcome if there was a sense of greater fluidity in the field. By this I mean that, if there were more potential partners available, we might be less inclined to cling on so desperately to the one we have. Those same rules certainly seem to apply in the job’s market.
Another possible scenario is when women become really economically independent. In English we used to have the expression ‘to swear like a fishwife’. These ladies, wives of fisherman, had the job of selling their husband’s catch and effectively managed the finances of the family .. moreover they carried very sharp knives. Whether this gave them more sexual freedom I can’t say – perhaps there’s a study out there somewhere – but I’m forced to a comparison with women with a similar rôle in places like Burma, where an Indian friend of mine lost his virginity as a passing fancy to a young woman from a similar background as our fishwives as he could never had done at home in Punjab. Then another band of self-employed matriarchs are still celebrated in the history of Brazil – the baianas. Even under slavery some Africans were allowed to provide services as independent traders, presumably on payment of some kind to their masters. In Salvador, the capital of Bahia state, women ran the markets and even traded with Africa. They wore their wealth in gold plaques on their chests. They also preserved their tribal deities, suitably disguised as Catholic saints. This is a description by a real anthropologist, Ruth Landes: ‘The black priestesses of Bahia accept lovers, not husbands. What matrimony gives in prestige, it takes away in freedom and happiness. None of them is interested in formal marriage before a priest or judge. None wants to be a handcuffed wife, a Mrs Someone-or-other. Heads erect, with languid swings, the priestesses move like queens of Creation, condemning their men to the incomparable torment of jealousy of the gods.’ – quoted in ‘Century of Wind’ by Eduardo Galeano. Take away the gods and there’s hope for us all.