Is Monogamy Natural?

The concept of “companionate marriage” is the reified norm in our society. Both in prescriptive and implicit systemic frameworks, heterosexual and monogamous relationships within the institution of marriage are the only relationships society approves as the moral good. Many a times, advocates of marriage try to justify that heterosexual monogamy is the “natural” form of human sexuality and all deviations from it in terms of sexuality and sexual orientation are undesirable because they are “unnatural”. Religious and Medical discourses are often quoted or rather misquoted to propagate that promiscuity, homosexuality and age-gap relationships are unnatural, deviant or pathological behaviour patterns requiring corrective interventions. In reality, such seemingly medical discourses are political.

As radical feminist Gayle Ruben has said, the organisation of sexuality is laden with power lines. Monogamy is neither the first nor the only natural sexuality pattern as many authoritative institutions claim it to be. Promiscuity, homosexuality, group marriage and polygamy are recorded in most primitive societies as well. What people today are not realising is that the rise of the idea of “companionate marriage” is being thrust upon us as the norm because it benefits the state and the private corporation monopolising power to have us in organised familial units. The ideas of “fidelity” and “commitment” did not have value connotations of morality since time immemorial. Rather, such value connotations of morality have been deliberately and forcefully juxtaposed with monogamy, which was one of the many forms of sexual relations.

Why infidelity to one’s self-ideals and feelings is considered secondary to fidelity to one’s marital partner? Why is it considered morally upright to continue “commitment” in a relationship from which real affection has departed? Why does law make it easier to get into marriage than to get out of it? Why was there such a backlash when the Supreme Court’s ruling to legalise adultery was passed?Marriage, relationships and commitment in relationships might appear as an extremely personal domain, but it really is not. Personal is political. Marriage is political. Sex is political. Every institution is serving the purpose of implementing a power nexus. In the case of marriage, Marxian Feminist Sociologist, Sylvia Walby calls “housewives” a class in Marxian terms being universally subordinated in access to consumption and mobility and unrewarded for their domestic work.

Other than the subordination of men by women, the wave of “companionate marriage” has always been a larger social engineering strategy to organise the population in a way that eases taxation, succession, population mapping and hence the scope for intervention measures by the state.Universally, under modern law, it is easier to get into a marriage than to get out of one. The legal procedure to get into a marital contract is much less copious than the procedure to dissolve a marriage. Modern rational law tilts towards trying to make people work out marriages unless one of the concerned parties has erred. Marital spouses are also given legal benefits and rights not accrued to cohabiting partners. It is a conscious effort by the state to organise and keep people in a marital bond. Domestic laws are increasingly taking out the individual volition out of matters of intimacy.

It almost represents a commodification of intimacy wherein elaborate laws have been made on marriage, divorce, adoption, abortion etc., increasingly factoring out the free will and emotion that characterises personal bonds.Adoption laws represent another measure to mould intimacy. Under the Hindu Adoptions and Maintenance Act (1956), a Hindu family having one child can only adopt a child of the opposite gender, trying to instil a picture of the ideal family consisting of one male and one female child.It is important to not solely look at family as a function of social actors voluntarily coming together in a personal relationship, but in context of larger changes in other institutions reflecting the change in the means, ethos and efficiency of production. Family is an organised labour unit facilitating the paid and unpaid labour that it takes to keep a household going.

It provides for non-earning members or dependants. It benefits the state to have unemployed people organised as “dependants” in a family rather than them being homeless and hence being an economic liability to the state. Many state beautification projects have entailed the forced movement of homeless people to “beautify” the streets.India does not have a well-developed system of social security. Family is the only system of social security in India. In the United States, the number of divorces is higher as people have the option of falling back on the state and claiming unemployment allowance. In a way, the Indian state has shirked the responsibility of social and economic security of its citizens to individuals by promoting the Family as a legitimised unit of social security. The Indian Penal Code also recognises till date the Hindu Undivided Family (HUF) as a legitimate tax category.

HUF gets many advantages in income tax deduction where the whole family is taxed as an individual.Domestic Laws also represent a percolation of Patriarchal Logic coming right down from the lawmakers. At the heart of it, marriage is a labour contract requiring highly gendered work to maintain it. The idea of “companionate marriage” does not actually give equal duties to the husband and wife. Somewhere, promoting the construct of family is also a patriarchal agenda of the men in power. Historically, women have always been disadvantaged by the institution of marriage. Marriage is an institution based on the alliance between two unequal partners, which requires one partner, the husband, to be dominant and the wife to be subservient in order to function.

The premise of the so-called perfect traditional marriage is rooted in the idea of the man having all economic control in the relationship and thus the powerful partner, as financial control leads to control of how the money is spent and how life is lived. The idea of Marriage and Family has been consciously romanticised by the state in media representations of public policy.The emphasis within prescriptive literature on the education of girls in and for domesticity inevitably produced a one-sided view of who within marriage was primarily responsible for the home. After the Second World War, there was mass infrastructural destruction and homelessness. City revamping took place in Britain to reconstruct housing spaces. At the time there were very less young people owing to war deaths.

Hence, the government’s family ideology was “pronatalism” which they tried to subtly program in their population by media representations at the time.Urban planning and spatial segregation are used as effective tools by the state, the religious body or any institutional power apex of society to instil certain desirable values in the population. How physical space is segregated and available translates into the nature of social interactions possible. It shapes social life. In post-war Britain, “pronatalism” was promoted by building houses whose size was just right for the nuclear family of parents and children.

The social reconstruction of the idea of companionate marriage in Britain in the period after Second World War (1945-59) can provoke the question in a reader “how does it benefit the state to have people organised in monogamous, heterosexual familial units?” In the age of capitalism, the nuclear family is the most efficient economic unit of production, distribution and consumption and hence it has benefited the state to have the population in nuclear family units. We must learn to look through the politics of knowledge at the heart of any such naturalising discourses attributing value desirability to monogamy or the idea of companionate marriage and note the power play the goes on in the very creation of norms. So yes, one way to look at it would be to say that monogamy is not natural.

Picture Courtesy- Rebel Circus

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