4 min

Love Sense author says we’re (mostly) like monogamous voles

Meet monogamy’s crusader, Sue Johnson

Academics have pointed out that many treasured myths about monogamous animals — penguins, swans and voles, for example — are false. Dan Savage has chipped away at monogamy for years to anyone who reads arts and culture news magazines. The president of France recently proved it is possible to have an affair behind the back of the woman for whom you left your partner, while holding the nation’s highest public office, and not even blink.

Monogamy — if we believe some researchers — has never been very popular; for the first time in a long time, however, it is actually becoming intellectually unfashionable.

Into this tide wades University of Ottawa clinical psychology professor Dr Sue Johnson, with her new book Love Sense: The Revolutionary New Science of Romantic Relationships. Johnson (not to be confused with sex educator Sue Johanson) believes exactly what Savage and the new apologists of open relationships do not: humans are intrinsically, biologically monogamous; monogamous marriage is the best, healthiest, most natural form of relationship; and casual sex, pornography, non-monogamy and even excessive kink are pathologies of weak or damaged relationships.

Johnson is at the forefront of attachment theory, a branch of psychology that says romantic relationships are based on emotional bonds of attachment, replacing the loving care of a parent figure. Because of this, she says, couples should embrace emotional codependence, strengthen pair bonds and reject modern narratives of romantic and sexual independence.

She points to research on the bonding hormone oxytocin, isolated prisoners, sexually primed co-eds, and emotionally attached rats to argue that people are not meant to be alone. Humans, she says, rely on each other in mated pairs; the modern emphasis on sex and independence weakens those bonds, threatening life-sustaining relationships.

It would be easy to dismiss Johnson as a conservative moralist, but in many ways she is not. For one, she is unreservedly pro-gay. She argues vehemently for gay marriage on the basis that gay couples also deserve the benefits of socially-recognized monogamy. She is also scientifically respected; her research and clinical methods are taught to counsellors and health professionals across the country.

When you start talking about gay men and monogamy, however, things get complicated. It is difficult to know how many coupled gay men have non-monogamous arrangements, but the proportion seems significant. Even in the midst of gay-marriage victories, one study showed that half a recruited sample of San Francisco gay male couples were consensually non-monogamous (good research on lesbian couples is harder to find). Some argue that heterosexual couples are no different, just significantly less honest.

Either way, there is a growing realization, even in the non-gay press, that non-monogamy is a significant force in gay culture — married or not.

Johnson says she thinks gay non-monogamy will likely fade.

“My clinical impressions are that being gay is changing, because our society is changing,” she says. “What I hear is that as those relationships are becoming legitimized, gay people are voicing the same kind of longings as the heterosexual population. They want stable relationships. They want long-term relationships.”

And stable relationships, she says, require monogamy. As gay people adopt the socially accepted, long-term relationships that, she says, humans crave, the need for sexual variety will wane.

“My perception is that in 20 years’ time, I’m not sure if there’s going to be much difference between the gay and heterosexual population,” she says.

This all depends, however, on whether humans are naturally monogamous. Johnson claims we are, and not only based on clinical experience. She says evolution has hardwired us to be serial monogamists, comparing humans to prairie voles, a mammal known for raising children and bonding as couples. Just like the voles, she writes, humans produce the bonding hormone oxytocin, care for our mates, and raise our young together.

This is where Johnson’s argument gets weird. Prairie voles, genetic studies have shown, are not actually sexually monogamous. In fact, almost no mammals are — no matter the salutary effects of oxytocin. Our closest cousins, chimpanzees and bonobos, certainly are not. Many mammals raise their young in couples, but that does not stop them from having promiscuous sex on the side.

Johnson freely admits this but writes that in this one respect, we should end our comparison with the voles.

“Should we take this to mean that an occasional fling has a biological rationale — that it supports the old ‘it didn’t mean anything’ argument? No! The fact that we can occasionally get turned on by someone other than our partner does not mean that we are not suited for monogamy. We are much more complex than rodents.”

When I push Johnson on why humans should be like voles in all ways but one, she returns to her clinical experience with couples.

“The problem with people who make arguments about monogamy not being natural is that they go on to draw conclusions about relationships that are — from my point of view — completely nuts,” she says. “I do think it’s exceedingly difficult to have a secure supporting bond when you’re trying to allow for open sex, because it’s a threat.”

The core thesis of Love Sense is not really about monogamy, but rather the human need for secure, attached relationships. It is hard to read the book as anything but a retort to monogamy-skeptical books such as Cacilda Jethá and Christopher Ryan’s best-selling Sex at Dawn. Johnson is no less than a social crusader of love — she says she hopes her book will help change the way the Western world views relationships — but she does not care if you like men or women; she just hopes you choose only one.