Who needs monogamy? Let's get physical

Comedian Rosie Wilby discusses the pros and cons of monogamy at Edinburgh International Science Festival

Is monogamy dead? When posing this question as the title to my 2013 Edinburgh Fringe show, I had no idea that I was embarking on a monumental emotional journey. The time constraints of the Fringe comedy format meant that I could only really scratch the surface of the deep philosophical ideas I found myself reading about, touching on such human essentials as who we are and how we connect.

At 5pm in the beautifully polite surrounds of Assembly Hall, couples seemed a little wary of me quizzing them on fidelity. I considered quietly retiring the show after the festival, wondering if it was a subject too serious to joke about and a debate that mainstream audiences weren’t ready for.

But then something happened. I started getting enquiries and bookings from science festivals. One sell-out performance followed another. Post-show discussions raged healthily. Audiences at these events contained a higher proportion of people who had successfully negotiated open and / or polyamorous relationships and were more than happy to question the construct of monogamy. They often spoke to me appreciatively afterwards about my balanced, non-prurient presentation of these alternate structures.

One monogamous woman ran across the room towards me, saying she’d had a ‘moment’ and was rethinking her approach to intimacy, friendship and the grey areas in between. I realised that I’d stumbled upon an important field of enquiry with genuine links to our emotional wellbeing. If a comedy show was an accessible route into lovers communicating better about boundaries, then it was one worth honing and persevering with.

At the same time, a number of books investigating the subject were published including Daniel Bergner’s What Do Women Want and Helen Croydon’s Screw the Fairytale, while my fellow comedian Sara Pascoe included a section on monogamy in her 2014 show. The debate was opening up. Bergner’s book found that women are the ones who are particularly dissatisfied with monogamy and crave sexual novelty more, yet society conditions us to deny and bury these feelings.

An intriguing window into gendered behaviour is offered by studying the test case scenario of same-sex relationships. What do men do with no women around to muddy the picture and vice versa? At first glance, the patterns of activity would seem to flip Bergner’s proposal on its head. Gay men are the ones who typically negotiate sexually open partnerships.

My friend, the poet Nick Field, could only think of one long-term couple he knew who didn’t have such an arrangement. While a vast number of lesbians lend an echo of truth to the stereotype that we move in on the second date and immediately start to fuse our identities and lives. A San Francisco study found that in the year 2000, sexual activity outside a relationship was down to 8% among gay women and 59% among gay men with heterosexuals around 14% (intriguingly after much higher stats across the board in the swinging 70s).

Yet sadly, while lesbians try the hardest at exclusive lifelong commitment, we also fail the hardest and are the most rapidly serially monogamous group, periodically switching the full force of our devotion to an exciting new person. This is reflected in civil partnership dissolution rates which are twice as high for female unions as they are for male ones. For these reasons, I advised caution in embracing same-sex marriage in a Woman’s Hour discussion. Dr Anna Einarsdóttir of Hull Business School, who completed a doctorate about same-sex marriage, conceded that evidence suggests women across all orientations were more likely to end relationships than men but that we should allow more time to gather meaningful data.

The important thing to note is that this doesn’t mean that lesbian relationships are failing per se. They work brilliantly for a finite time. The trouble is that we tend to measure relationship success in length rather than quality. This yardstick is dangerous. If we adapt our expectations and models to better fit with our natural behavioural patterns then we could avoid this routine disappointment. We should also keep an eye on whether an increase in lesbian parenting acts as a glue to keep more couples together.

Among the women I interviewed, the most enduring and fondly discussed relationships were lifelong platonic friendships. One even described particular connections as ‘love affair friendships’ as a way of marking their significance. I wondered if that for women in particular, it would make more financial sense to marry a platonic best friend, set up a stable home to raise children and keep the transient unstable rollercoaster of romance separate.

My own primary partnership has progressed to this deep companionate stage yet we’ve agreed not to sacrifice it. It could be that writing a comedy show has provided a very precious insight.

Rosie Wilby appears alongside Prof Frederick Toates, Jules Howard and Zoe Cormier in The One and Only?, Summerhall, Edinburgh, Tue 7 Apr.

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