I have read that there is scientific-evolutionary-biological evidence that homo sapiens were not meant to be completely monogamous. For example, they’ve found that only a small percentage of sperm actually are able to impregnate an egg; the function of more than half of sperm is actually to destroy any other males’ seed that may be encountered in a womb. This makes pumping more sperm important, if a competitor’s might be encountered. So, primates that are superslutty (bonobos) have huge testicles relative to body size, and primates who are monogamous (gorillas) have small testicles relative to body size. Human testicles, it turns out, are on the relatively small side – but definitely somewhere in the middle.
Also, when they first developed paternity tests, they found that a shocking number of kids (like five percent, maybe?) didn’t have the father that everyone thought they did. And I found it startling to recently read how in nineteenth century (“Victorian”) Europe, supposedly the high point of formal sexual rigidity, the playboy royal princes (back when being royalty meant more than getting your face on postage stamps) would meet some beautiful happily married woman at a ball or reception, and just sort of inform her and her diplomat husband that she was now going to be with him, and that was that. It was like an unwritten law that they had to do that every other a year or something until they were paired off with some young duchess to marry.
It also seems to me, though, that there was some point in recent memory where monogamy and faithfulness was the norm for most people in Western Culture. Two hundred years ago (or fifty, for that matter), for most people, my sense is, monogamous fidelity was enforced – it was enforced by the church, by grandma’s nosy questions, and by neighbors peeking through their curtains and whispering. And I imagine that there’s much of America where people are still like that. It sure appeared like that might be the case in the small towns in Utah my dad I bicycled through a year ago, where everyone went to same Later Day Saints church, and kept their lawn perfectly trimmed.
I think that we can all agree that it’s a good thing that we in modern day Bay Area hipster circles are rid of these relatively low-consciousness pressures of stigma, shame, and in-group-out-group crap to try to tell us what to do with our bodies and hearts. The phrase I use is, “the sex market has been deregulated” – as in, free commerce and open trading. We have less marriage, less monogamy, and more dating adventures than those Utah folks do or than those Victorian era squares used to. “Slut” is the new “married”. I saw some article recently about “hook up culture”, saying how of course that’s how college kids are rolling, but that’s how lots of folks people into their thirties and forties are playing now too. I sure see a lot of it (and, ummm, maybe do just a little myself – hey, if the market’s gonna be all frisky and “deregulated”, and if I’m gonna be single, then, damn, I’m gonna dive in and go get my share. “Say my name, bitch.”).
I think that the freedom we modern hipsters have – few of us locked-in-married-for-life by age twenty two – is basically good. Having a desire and being able to fulfill it, and having a variety of experiences, are of course great. More independence builds in us more self-reliance, more strength to be our own person and to validate ourselves. It helps people to develop more realistic, mature expectations of people (no one’s gonna be your perfect mommy or daddy, so stop looking). And more deregulated swinging means people are more constantly finding out what their actual attractiveness value is, what their “worth” is on the open market, which puts people on their growth edge, and leads people to work more on improving themselves.
I also think that something deep and good has been lost with all this freedom. Maybe it’s obvious to everyone, but I have found that there is something soul-fulfilling about growing to trust and rely on another person and to making plans taking them into account. In the short term, it can be a lot of work to stick in there with someone and work it out, but, in the long term, with the right person, the rewards can be many times the work. There is something amazing about having sex in the context of love, deep knowing each other, trust, and “holiness” of deep connection. There is something so beautiful about getting to know one person on a deeper and deeper level, burning through all the shit that comes up between a couple. And I think that it takes a certain level of maturity to see this, and, even more so, to live it.
It’s of course important that we live from our deepest personal truth, moment by moment. As we all know, however, there are times where the best results in life can be achieved by making a commitment that we review every once in a while, but which we generally hold as outside of our “truth of the moment”. Recovering alcoholics in AA sometimes wanna drink, and their body and mind can make that compulsion seem really compelling, but, ideally, they don’t take that drink, because of their mature commitment *not* to. And, when I’ve been at the Tassajara Zen monastery, it has sometimes seemed like a big mistake to be there. But, those feelings happened within a commitment to stick through the whole ninety days, and I am glad that I always did. Even more plainly, I know of few people who always want to go to their job each morning, and yet, we do it, because we’re earning that money for a larger reason.
And yet we all know folks who, in the name of “honesty”, make a devotion of following their sexual impulses of the moment. It often seems to me like an immaturity and an indulgence, a way of avoiding the challenge of going deeper in life.
My parents have had a combined three lifetime sex partners besides each other, I think. And there’s a Sisters of Mercy song with a lyric, “Too much contact, not enough feeling.” Those two things have gone through my head at the times when I wish the whole Bay Area hipster dating scene would chill out, and slow the fuck down (and especially at those times I wish that the “Adam” part of dating scene would chill out and slow the fuck down).
On a different but kinda related subject – I’ll be honest, and perhaps this will piss some people off, but I agree with conservatives and feminists who think that “hook up culture” might not be the greatest thing for many women. The pattern that I see is, women have a power relative to guys while in their twenties, mostly in terms their physical beauty and youth, which is multiplied by having less economic dependence on males than any other women in history. This power makes it relatively easy for a woman in her twenties to date around and have fun, to get as a much attention and action as she wants from a wide variety of dudes, all the while being picky and waiting for the guy of her dreams.
Of course, it’s good for people to do what they want to do, and to follow their intuition and inner truth. But sometimes the years sneak up on us while we are dating around, having a bunch of one-night to three-year “relationships”, thinking we’ll meet our life partner “some day” – or sometimes the years sneak up while we are busy each night in front of a television, a computer, a bottle of booze, or horsing around on social networking. And, sometimes, even when we settle down with one person and intend to make a lifetime out of it, prince/princess charming turns out to be a toad, and divorce can be a bitch and a half, but, in the end, no battalion of bishops and grandmas is gonna put a stop to it the way they would have a hundred years ago.
And so I see some single women in their late thirties and forties who I feel compassion for : they seem so hungry for a partnership, seem like they are secretly grieving that they probably won’t have the family they always thought they would/might have some day, and seem regularly disappointed that the latest guy she had such high hopes for being someone to make plans around turned out to be one more dude doing it all for the nooky (… or else the woman gets partnered with some guy they never ever would have “settled for” ten years earlier).
Another manifestation of the “deregulated market” is of course polyamory. I believe it was Saint Aquinas who said, “Seems like every motherfucker and their mother has some sort of strong fucking opinion about the goddamned polyamory.” My two cents about it : like libertarianism or socialism, it seems great on paper. With the poly, you can have true love and build a life together, and also you have pleasure, fulfillment, vibrancy, and freedom of self-expression that those lame Utah Mormons could only dream of. And you get to keep yourself sharp and alive and edgy by surfing the always dynamic open market.
Buttttt … in practice, from what I have seen, generally, the best place for poly is more casual dating, and monogamy is the only thing that works for true deep partnership. Everyone’s different, of course, and different things work for different people. But, what I see, is that often poly relationships seem to be relationships that are still on their way up (i.e. not that serious yet), relationships on their way down (i.e. sick and in trouble but the people are not yet ready to admit its over), relationships that are built for pleasure (i.e. two people who are more together because they enjoy getting sauced and having threesomes together than because they really want to know each other’s souls), or relationships are wildly energy-suckingly unstable. One final poly pattern that I have seen is relationships with one clearly more dominant, charismatic, and sexed-up partner who is the one initiating the swinging, and the less desirable partner who is going along with it, but would be just as happy for the partnership to be monogamous. I have sometimes watched a less-into-it partner at a party grumpily scanning around for someone to make out with, after their hot-to-trot partner already slipped off into another room with their latest obsession.
I’ve noticed that, as an adult, when I’ve been in a relationship, the way the world looks to me is that everyone else is in a relationship or will be eventually, and hey let’s all value structure more. When I’ve been single, it seems to me more like, everyone is either single or will be eventually, and people should stop being so uptight about shit. I suppose my deepest truth is, everyone is where they are, and I’d like to believe that long-term fidelity is possible, even in 2008 Bay Area.
Since people are probably not generally naturally completely monogamous, and sexual desire can be such a compelling emotion, I think that fidelity is an achievement that takes intentionality. And I think that monogamy can be extra difficult in hip urban circles, what with all the deregulated sexiness sloshing around. Maybe simple monogamy is not so difficult for some of my friends who just stay at home with their partner all weekend on a quiet street in San Ramon and watch TV. But for my many friends in marriages/LTRs who actually go out and have fun, and spend time with our sexy flirty friends (and who may be sexy and flirty themselves), I think that it can be damn hard. My hat is off to my friends who are making simple coupleness work in the scene, without “opening things up a little” (or even saying, “this is too difficult – bring on the next one”). Hand over fist, slight bow, Ali G style “RESPECT”.
When I was a teenager, I used to believe the Hollywood crap that said love success comes from finding your one-in-six-billion soul mate. You see them out in public, the waters part, a ray of light shines down on them from Heaven, and … there they are, “The One”. When I got into studying “communication/relationship skills” in college, however, I was more like, anyone can make it work with anyone, anyone can be the “One” – all you need is the right commitment, intention, and skill – just make sure you use “I” statements, keep your agreements, and make sure you have one night a week scheduled for special couple time. But, it didn’t take many relationships into my twenties for me to learn : intentional practices around communication and deepening relationships are important for long-term relationship success, but so is the right chemistry too. It seems to me that i’s relatively easeful and natural for some couples to be together, “working on things” or not, and, other couples, not so much.
What does motivate people to pick someone for partnership, or for hooking up? One factor I notice the factor of “status-seeking”. On that subject, I once read the transcript of a lecture by Thomas Wolfe were he said :
“Even before I had left graduate school I had begun to wonder if somewhere in the brain there might be a center that interpreted incoming data and gave the human the feeling he was improving its status, merely maintaining its status, or suffering the grave wound of humiliation. What I have found is that even the most trivial and the most unlikely circumstances can be colored by a person’s constant and unrelenting concern for his own status. Which is to stay, his own standing, his own rank, in the eyes of others and in his own eyes. It could be anything as minor and trivial as a woman in New York in a taxi five, perhaps even ten blocks from her destination, agonizing over what tip she should give the driver. Her status verdict would be in the hands of only one person, the driver, someone she would most likely never see again. And yet, the human is perfectly capable of devoting the most excruciating mental energy to such a trifling decision. When I was working on a novel about college life entitled “I Am Charlotte Simmons”, I kept coming upon sexual situations in which I thought surely other emotions would rule, love, and, if not love, passion, or if not passion, at least lust. Instead, as elsewhere, above all, competition for status ruled.”
I think that Wolfe is being a li’l blunt here (as he tends to be). But also I also think that he’s got a point. I think that many of my friends are more emotionally secure and know themselves at a deeper level than typical mainstream college undergraduates, so maybe sexual/romantic motivation is more organic; but I also think that status seeking may be more of a motivating factor for hooking up than many people let on. For example, I think that, “if people found out about this, what would they think of me – would they be impressed or not?” is in the back of some people’s minds when they decide whether to hook up or not, whether to make a commitment or not. And I’ve noticed that sometimes people will make a big deal out of saying, “Hey, look everyone, here’s the new person I’m dating, you should meet them, they’re great” or making sure that everyone sees them holding hands, while other times, people will more keep things on the down low, like they are embarrassed to be seen with someone. To quote a friend’s experience of her community, it’s like sometimes “someone is good enough to hook up with, but they’re not beautiful/smart enough to be considered as someone they would date/be seen with, let alone called a girlfriend/boyfriend”.
That same friend asked me, “You are single and dating, in a modern way, and also a serious Buddhist. Do you try to live by Buddhist principles in your dating and sex life?”
I wrote her back and said: Yeah, I do try to live by Buddhist teachings with regards to my dating, as best I am able.
The thing of it is, I do not know of any traditional teachings about how to casually date in simultaneously a modern and Buddhist manner. Many traditional Buddhist teachers, just like traditional Western monotheistic theologians, seem to have simply taught, “No sex outside of procreation”. I have heard that even the current Dalai Lama has expressed the opinion that homosexuality, as an example of sex purely for pleasure and not for procreation, is “a defilement”. Also, most senior and accomplished Buddhist teachers that I know and respect are either monastic and celibate, or else got monogamously married while young, and seem to have no experience with dating.
Perhaps some day I will feel like no sex outside of procreation is appropriate for me, or even monastic celibacy. I do not feel that way right now.
I have seen that there is a book called, “If the Buddha Dated: A Handbook for Finding Love on a Spiritual Path”, by someone named Charlotte Kasl. I’ve never read it, and it looks to my eyes like personal-growth fluff. I did read the book “Lust For Enlightenment: Buddhism And Sex” by John Stevens many years ago, and it explored the issue of sexuality from the perspective of what seemed like actual real Buddhist scholarship and teaching. My impression after finishing it was that the “right sexuality” element of “right action” (which is part of the eightfold path) has actually been defined and considered in widely divergent ways over the years between the different Buddhist traditions.
One basic Buddhist paradigm for “right action” is, “don’t do harm”. And I suppose that doing no harm, in its most basic sense, could mean “don’t do actions that would leave any other person ever feeling upset, jealous, or hurt”. And certainly avoiding hurt feelings, anger, and upset is always a positive general goal in life. But, in my perception, no matter what a hip modern person does sexually, even within the context of a monogamous relationship, probably there is at least one person who knows one or both partners and who will feel jealous, judgmental, or otherwise not happy about it. So, perhaps this is maybe not the best guide for “not doing harm”.
It may be that there are no authoritative Buddhist teachings specifically on how to best date casually, any more than there are any authoritative Buddhist teachings on how to manage accounts receivable for a business, how to unblock a stopped up sink, or how to reverse cholesterol buildup. So, I’m left with the feeling that, if we wanna be our most Dharmic and at our best in any of those fields, going partially or wholly with Western experts and resources may be the way to go. And the Western experts and resources on dating, well, as you probably know, some of them seem to be trustworthy/spiritual/honest, and some don’t.
I once read a book on sex (“The New Male Sexuality”, by Bernie Zilbergeld) that suggested that healthy sex has at least three aspects: respect (only engage sexually with people who you respect), honesty (be truthful about other partners, true intentions, STDs, and all else), and consent (consciously and freely given). Within that framework, the book suggested, do whatever your dirty li’l minds come up with. That definition made a positive impression on me. And now, years later, having developed in my Buddhist practice, I like those three as good guidelines for a basic foundation of “right sexuality” that fits with the modern world that I live in.
I also think that other basic Buddhist teachings – for example, being conscious and aware, being present, striving to have our actions be undriven spacious and non-compulsive (“free from attachments”), and compassion and open-heartedness – are of course also relevant to being healthy around dating, sex, and communication. I have found that meditating knee-to-knee with women I am dating as part of our dates is an especially helpful way to cultivate some of those positive attributes.
And the subject of “telling the truth” of course brings up the subject of “cheating”. The history of “being down with the O.P.P.” stretches back into our misty mammalian evolutionary past, and, it seems, yeah, people still do it today. Personally, like many of my friends, I value truthfulness, open communication, and awareness – so, I have always kept my word sexually, been loyal, and not cheated (with, ummm, the exception for a pass-out-drunk thirty second kiss on a business trip in 1998). And, to the best of my knowledge, I am grateful that I have never been cheated on.
If a woman has wanted to break her word to someone else to get with me, however, my decision as to whether to go along with it has depended on whether I have thought that it’s a healthy move for her, and, of course, how much I desired her. More than anything else, though, my decision has depended on how much I value my friendship with the partner she is thinking of cheating on. I think there is an unspoken code that says, “if you are part of someone sexually breaking their word, never expect to be on good terms with the cheated-on partner again.” It’s similar to how, if I value a guy friend, I won’t date his ex until either he overtly says it’s cool, or until the years pass, whichever comes first. Since I have so many male friends who I respect and value, that means that I rarely have said “yes” to potential cheating, and, when I have decided to go for it (as in, at the start of things with my last two serious gfs), I have accepted the tension and enmity that their ex-boyfriends seem to have felt for me afterwards. It amazes me when guys I know violate these simple rules, and somehow expect there to be no fallout.
One of my favorite quotes of all times is something William Blake wrote. It’s something like, “A saint is not someone who has extinguished the fires of Hell, as is commonly assumed. A saint is someone who lets the fires of hell burn along merrily, but channels and guides those fires with the structures of heaven.” Here, “fires of hell” means sexual desire, anger, pride, aggression, status-seeking – human passions. And the “structures of heaven” are self-restraint, patience, social consideration, letting go, reflection, being above/beyond status seeking, “spiritual” stuff like that.
I find that one little saying so fascinating and so true. A few thoughts about it :
(1) From the outside, it seems to me that for some people in underground burner hipster circles, a saint is actually more seen as someone who lets the fire burn anywhere and everywhere, all passion, all self-expression, all following impulse, with as few limits as possible. This is, of course, the mirror opposite of what Blake said most of the eighteenth century English around him thought. And, as I’ve been saying, I think it often goes too far.
(2) Blake’s saying reminds me of how fire in a powerplant or an internal combustion engine can light up a city or propel a vehicle, but fire unconstrained can also burn down a building. We need fire for motion and energy, but it can kill us if escapes its bounds. So it is with our passionate energies.
(3) I’d like to think that such a balance between fire and structure is possible for all of us around sex : being alive, passionate, turned-on, sexy people, who also are mature, considered, patient, and beautiful about how we express ourselves.
One last, kinda unrelated general theory : in the past few years, observing myself and other people, I have been realizing how vital it is for folks to take some time alone after a love affair ends. Like how the forest service does controlled burns to clear out a tangled-up field for new trees to grow, I think that we all usually need open, empty space to grieve and clean out the pipes in order to clear out a space for love to bloom again. If a person fills up space to quickly with immediate sex and love so as to avoid crying their tears, I’ve noticed, a pressure of avoidance starts to build, and folks often get overinvolved with the new partner (and/or with the person after that) .
I don’t really have any one point to all of this, they’re just some random things that I have been thinking about. There is so much I could say about my personal experiences, feelings, and desires around all of this, but this seems like too public a place to spill all that out. Some people write about the specifics of their feelings about their current and past love affairs online, but, for whatever reason, that idea horrifies me.
I do feel comfortable saying that I wrote all this as someone who knew from childhood that I want what my parents had – long-term monogamy and children (plural) – and never having wavered from that desire. I had mostly long-term monogamous relationships in my twenties, with a few flings in between. I finally felt myself ready to really have kids and partnerships in 1998, but made the indulgence of picking two beautiful amazing bright but really young partners in a row, and spending a combined six years babysitting them coming into their womanhood. For one of them, from 1999 to 2003, I was in a single monogamous living-together relationship, and I think that most of my friends used to think of me as only as a monogamous and committed sort of person. And, in the years since, I’ve had a few brief commitments, checking out if it could work long-term. But most of time, I’ve dated around, sometimes multiple women at once. When I started seriously dating a woman last fall, her housemate (who has only known me as single) reportedly said to her something like, “Adam Coutts? Eh, you’ll never get much of a commitment out of him – total swinger.”
I think that part of why she might be convinced by more recent swinger-ness is because, over time, I have come to be a big believer in the “bone or baby” rule. The idea with the “bone or baby” rule is that three-month-to-three-year partnership “relationships” are fine for many people, especially in their twenties. But, once you reach a certain age and have had enough of them already, there are only two things are still really still healthy or fun for you in dating :
(1) Bone. “Bone” does not literally mean just “connection-free sex”, you could also call it “fun short term and recreational relationships” (although that doesn’t quite roll of the tongue quite as easily). A “bone”/”casual” dating relationship can (and, ideally, does) contain respect, caring, openness, honesty, connection, vulnerability, joking, and affection, as well as pleasure, fun, and sex. But, as you know, if any two people get to know each other on a deeper sexual/romantic level, inevitably, at some point, maybe sooner and maybe later, issues and disagreements will come up. And, the main thing about “bone”/”casual dating” relationships is that you don’t invest too much of your time, energy, and soul in trying to work those out, once they do come up, if they get complex. You don’t spend another few years getting all into it and then end it, if you’ve already done that a few times before. Instead, when the complexities weigh more than the fun, you make your move and end it (and clear space for the next one).
(2) Baby. “Baby” does not literally mean “reproduction”, you could also call it “intentional long term and deeply committed relationships” – relationship as yoga practice, relationship as someone one devotes oneself to so as to find a larger union. The idea here is partnership, relationship as spiritual practice, traveling the world together, having a house and kids (if you want that), doing couples therapy/coaching/workshops together, “stick in there”, “go deep”, “work things out”, “burn through resistance”, etc. This means that when those disagreements come up, you use them as something to grow from, improving your communication skills, self-awareness, and your commitment to opening in love.
Again, the idea is that, when you’ve had enough relationships already, anything that drops between those two models is probably a waste of time. Many people you date might seem like they fit in somewhere in between, though : they might seem like not exactly life partner material, but they are someone you care about and like, would like to have something of a relationship with. The “bone or baby” rule says : yo, Dude/Dudette, unless you want to go all the way whole hog with them, don’t go too deep. Another “relationship” that comes and goes? You’ve been there, done that, and, well, the number of days in your life is getting shorter each day.
As most of my friends now know, I am about to go live in Buddhist monasteries for two years starting this Summer. I want to think that, when I get back, I will find a “baby”/”long term committed” partner, a woman that I’m attracted to, enjoy time with, who is healthy, into personal growth, who wants to have kids, and who wants the simplicity of monogamy. Honestly, since I want children, my goal will be to find someone thirty five or younger. I went to a lecture last year, a dialog between the directors of obstetric research at UCSF and at Standford Medical, that left me convinced that, for many reasons, it’s healthier for a woman to have children before age thirty-five than after. Since I was a kid, I’d heard forty as the healthy baby cut off age, but my new opinion is that that’s kinda idealized thinking.
At this point, though, I can’t imagine picking someone under age twenty-seven, no matter how sparkly and shiny younger females often are. My idealized future babymama is someone who has spent her time on the deregulated market already, and gotten “hook up culture” out of her system (as well as the habit of bailing on relationships when they get boring or hard). The vision is someone who has picked the path of relationship for herself, as a conscious choice, having experienced the other options. (… as I have.)
I have read for years about how women sometimes feel like they need to choose between a boring stable committed beta male, or an exciting sexy shit-disturbing unreliable alpha male. I feel some concern about having to making an analogous choice in a woman. I do know, however, that as head tenant trying to pick a new housemates, I’ve sometimes felt like I’d have to pick between either a candidate who has a job and good credit, seems stable, looks like they’d do their scheduled cleaning, and generally avoids week-long drug benders, or else someone who is does art or music, goes to Burning Man, has traveled, tells funny stories, knows where cool parties are, and makes me laugh. When I’ve looked hard enough, though, I’ve always been able to find someone who has a fair amount of both.
And I know that my world is full of people who have both mature stability and sexy fun, both Blake’s structures of heaven and fires of hell. I suppose that we get out of life what we put into it, and being with someone with a nice balance of both is a question of how fiercely, deeply, and truly I am living my own life on both of those sides of the equation.
P.S. *None* of these generalities were inspired by anybody that I know in person. Of course. 🙂
P.P.S. If you’re all like, “them’s some great thoughts Adam, but your blog post just aren’t long enough, I’d like some more stuff to read”, then, my friend, this is your lucky day. Here are some articles that I’ve read recently got me thinking about this topic:
Amy Leblanc’s beautiful blog post about the work of her hipster commitment to Jay for ten years, and how rewarding that work has been:
Jason McClain’s essay about how polyamory and monogamy can both be “evolved” or “unevolved”, depending on how it is that you do them:
Article about choosing “settling” :
Blog post about the maturity of marriage:
A pick-up artist guy who claims to seduce married/committed women as easily as single women:
A kind of bitter article about aging women’s choices: