Now that the hubbub about Ray Rice is in danger of becoming old news, might it be a good time to take a step back and think about the contribution that a culture of monogamy makes to the prevalence of domestic violence? I’ll say up front that this discussion is going to have to be mostly theoretical, and not very empirical, as there aren’t any good statistics on the prevalence of domestic violence in polyamorous households, but I think there’s still a lot to think about.
I’m hardly the first person to question whether there’s a connection between monogamy and violence. Consider this post from the PolyWoman blog, titled: “Monogamy - A Breeding Ground for Domestic Abuse?” The author identifies a number of ways that monogamy contributes to domestic violence, including:
Sense of Ownership: throughout history, and still in some cultures, marriage has been assumed to give men certain rights to control their wives. Under that cultural framework, a man has a right to be abusive if his ‘property’ doesn’t obey his wishes. Now, we’ve moved away from this somewhat in most of the western world, but it’s still the case that each partner is taken to have the right to control the other’s sexual behavior. Courts often view sexual jealousy as a mitigating factor in domestic violence cases: if a husband comes home to find his wife in bed with another, and immediately shoots them both, many states will call the action manslaughter instead of murder, because it’s assumed that anyone would be soooo upset from seeing infidelity that of course they want to just shoot everything that moves.
Isolation: “Monogamy not only allows for [isolation of couples], but it is often seen as a positive quality,” according to PolyWoman. We assume that it’s natural for couples to spend most of their time only around each other, which (a) increases the likelihoods that small frustrations will fester and become big issues and (b) creates a situation where both partners are vulnerable to violent outbursts from the other. In most monogamous households, there are only two adults in the house at most times. If one of those adults gets mad at the other one, there are no peers on hand to step in between them and calm things down, or to stand up in defense of the vulnerable partner and make sure that no violence occurs.
Loneliness, Financial Insecurity & ‘No Other Choices’: I list these factors together because they both come from the same place: the need of someone else, either to be social with or to help with the financial burdens of living and raising kids. Monogamy substantially limits the ability of spouses to get help in either of these areas from anyone other than their spouse, and this gives the spouse an unnatural amount of power over them. Some people talk about the difficulty involved in getting a divorce and the difficulty in going it alone financially as being good things, in that they incentivize couples to stay together and try to work things out. But this is the flip side of that equation. The harder it is for a mother (or father, but let’s not kid ourselves that women aren’t affected by these factors much more than men) to raise a kid on her own, the more incentivized she’s going to be to stay with a man who’s abusive to her, physically or emotionally. And given that power over his wife, men are more likely to abuse it. It’s not completely their fault, in that power is always corrupting, and the artificially high levels of power that men in monogamous societies fall into (some of them actively want the power, but not all of them) are always going to be corrupting.
PolyWoman goes on to list several other factors, including fear and low self-esteem. And her whole post is great and well-worth reading, especially since (no way around it) I’m a man and she’s a woman and their are dimensions of this issue that I’m not going to be as in touch with as she is. But there’s one other factor I would explicitly call out in her list: jealousy.
The Green Monster
Jealousy is implied in many of the other factors discussed above, but I think because of it’s centrality it needs to be specifically called out. While sexual jealousy isn’t the only reason that partners become abusive to each other, it’s the most common. Consider these statistics, from an academic paper by Paul Mullen:
“In a recent community study of jealousy 15% of both men and women reported that they had, at some time, been subjected to physical violence at the hands of a jealous partner (Mullen & Martin 1994). The role played by jealousy in both initiating domestic violence and in attempts by perpetrators to justify their violence cannot be overstated. In a study carried out in Scotland nearly half of the 109 battered women interviewed identified their partner's excessive possessiveness and sexual jealousy as the typical precipitant of violence (Dobash & Dobash 1980). Two thirds of the women at a refuge for battered women in the London area reported that their partner's excessive jealousy was the primary cause of the violence and that in many cases the partner's suspicions were entirely Without foundation (Gayford 1975, 1979). Studies from North America produced similar results with for example Hilberman and Manson (1977) reporting that extreme jealousy contributed to the violence in most of their group of 60 battered women; and Rounsaville (1978) noted similar findings with 52% of the battered women listing jealousy as the main problem and no less than 94% naming it as a frequent cause. Interesting in one of the few studies to ask men why they battered their partners, they most often nominated anger at supposed infidelity (Brisson 1983). Whitehurst (1971) reporting on 100 cases of spousal violence noted in newly every case, the husband appeared to be responding out of frustration at his inability to control the partner, and that the overt accusation was that the partner was sexually unfaithful.” (Hong Kong Journal of Psychiatry , Vol. 5 , November 1995)
I was going to highlight the remarkable statistics from those studies, but then I realized I’d be highlighting every sentence. I’ll note that these are all pretty small studies, but it’s pretty hard to look at those numbers and not be staggered.
And despite that, the Rational Model’s proponents and most of civilized society insist that sexual jealousy is (a) natural, a part of human nature and (b) a good thing, so long as it doesn’t become overbearing. Atavists debate the first point, but even if jealousy was natural, can't we agree that it’s not a good thing, and that we should be trying to lessen it? We’re taught not to be jealous of each other’s wealth, or property, or accomplishments, or anything else a person can own. But when it comes to their partner’s sexuality, something that we agree should not be owned, we sharpen the edge of jealousy until it can, and does, split hairs.
And what’s the rationale for this jealousy? Supposedly, so that fathers can be sure that their children are their own, and so that mothers can be sure that their partners aren't supporting a second family on the side, because no one wants to be a sucker. We get that impulse: no one wants to be a sucker. No one wants to pay more for something than they needed to, and the feeling of finding out that you did sucks. It’s makes you feel like a fool, an emasculated fool, if you’re a dude, like someone who’s being taken advantage of by the world. We get that that sucks.
But there’s more than one way out of that conundrum. One way of not having to feel like a sexual sucker is to aggressively police your partner’s sexuality. But that route can lead to violence, as discussed above, and it’s no fun for anyone. It requires husbands and wives to be each other’s jailhouse guards. The other way out, and the method that Atavism advocates, is to try to create a culture wherein sexual jealousy is discouraged, whether it’s a part of our human nature or not.
Green and Purple Monsters
by Jackson Lay
September 15, 2014
Domestic violence is an incredibly important issue. Why shouldn't we consider whether the form that our relationships take encourages or discourages it.
When is it acceptable for a man to turn his back on his family? Why, when his wife has sexually displeased him, of course.