Is Monogamy Dead? An interview with Rosie Wilby
Okay, Rosie, is monogamy dead?
It's certainly wounded. Originally it meant staying with one person for life and nobody really does that any more. Internet dating means that we have way more choices available to us. We tend now to mean serial monogamy, which means that you have to endure a breakup every few years and often lose that person from your life entirely. Sometimes it’s necessary, but it seems like a waste to me. True connections in life are precious so why throw them away? I've always been monogamous, but I realised recently how counterintuitive to my natural human instincts and hard wiring it was. So I started to question whether there might be some better options.
How has the breakdown of monogamous relationships, that you’ve personally witnessed, affected your perception of them?
I've witnessed friends' long term relationships that I've thought were super strong break down. You think 'well if they can't do it, who can?' I was always a romantic who dreamed of meeting 'the one' but now I've understood that these expectations set us up for a fall and fly in the face of neuroscience. Lust dies and then more attached and companionate love takes over, because that's how the brain is supposed to work. It was designed to drive us towards procreation and rearing young in a stable environment as a first priority – not for individual happiness. Now we are starting to choose to be happy and finding ways to feel more free from society's imposed oppressive rules. A few exceptional monogamous couples manage to keep romance and sex alive successfully, but for the majority of us desire wanes as a partner becomes familiar. It doesn't mean you've failed, it means you're human.
Your show 2009/10 Fringe show The Science of Sex surely covered some of this ground already? What are the differences and similarities between the two shows?
In The Science of Sex I covered the key stages of lust, romantic love and attachment as well as some of the differences between gay men, heterosexual couples and lesbians in terms of sexual activity and the way our brains worked. But it's a sign of how much polyamory has come into the public consciousness that I was really only talking about monogamous and open relationships back then. Certainly in my lesbian circles, once the sex had died in a relationship, the only three options seemed to be to leave or have an affair or give up on your sexual self entirely (which I don't believe anyone, especially a woman, should do). Naomi Wolf's book Vagina brilliantly describes how great sex defines a woman's creativity, confidence and purpose. I think it can only be healthy that we are now more aware of people questioning all of these boundaries – and of course gender boundaries too. So this show is far more emotional and philosophical as I'm trying to wrangle with these conflicts myself.
Before you started researching for Is Monogamy Dead what was your perception of polyamory?
I was a little ignorant and assumed it was couples having agreed to have consenting open relationships or consensual swinging. But that’s only part of the story. I've learned from reading books like the wonderful Opening Up that polyamory can be about several simultaneous loving relationships, and that it’s much more about love than sex. I didn't really know much about triads and quads and those relationship structures with more than two people. Arguably, you could say that many of us are polyamorous if we have a partner and we have very close intimate friends that we love and share secrets with. If you took monogamy to its (il)logical conclusion we should only have one person in our lives that provides all of our needs. Which we know is impossible (and sounds terrible!) In the animal kingdom monogamous animals tend to be antisocial and isolated guarding their territory and young – not nearly as much fun as being a promiscuous and social bonobo. People always hold up birds as monogamous but they're actually socially monogamous. They nest in pairs but have other sexual pairings. Birds are having open relationships. How modern of them.
Do you think your show will help to dispel some of the more negative stereotypes about relationships between more than two people, or having multiple or secondary partners?
I want the audience to come on the journey that I've been on over the past few months and, hopefully, some people will feel a little less trapped and stifled by these enforced societal rules. Even having a discussion with my partner and agreeing, for now, to stay monogamous made me feel so much more empowered than never having really talked about it at all. I have found much more space to flirt with other people now that I know my partner's boundaries. In my opinion polyamory is by far the most rational choice. But it's a leap into the unknown when monogamy's been drilled into you for years.
The more niche sexual communities are notorious for having their own lexicon that’s difficult for ‘outsiders’ to understand. Did you feel that about the polyamorous community? Does your show serve in any way as a dictionary for the uninitiated?
Yes I will explain a few fun terms that I've stumbled across – like polysaturated, frubbly, unicorn hunters, and one penis policy – in the show itself.
You put together an anonymous online survey as part of your research for the show. What kind of questions did it ask?
It asked what kind of things counted as 'infidelity' in a monogamous relationship and what other secrets couples kept from each other. I wanted to shine a light on monogamy and show that maybe we’re the weird ones.
Are you concerned that some polyamorous people might see your show as making fun of their orientation or lifestyle choices?
No. As per above, I've come to view polyamorous relationships as far superior in terms of communication and mutual respect. Yes of course they can also go wrong but my thinking is 'isn't monogamy difficult and weird? Why do so few of us question it?'
Have you been converted to polyamory or will you be returning to exclusivity now that the show is ready and the research has ended?
My partner and I have not ruled anything out.