London Food & Culture

Why monogamy is dead

Comedian Rosie Wilby's book tracks her journey from one-woman-woman to 'playfairer'

‘I’ve found the answer!’ I gasped into my mobile, ‘let’s talk later?’

‘Ok fine,’ sighed my then-girlfriend Jen, keen to get back to work.

I was standing at a dreary crossroads in the backwaters of Islington, which felt like a pretty good metaphor for my love life. No direction took my fancy.

During my lunch hour, I’d been reading as many online articles as I could around sex, monogamy and infidelity. My first search, ‘no sex in a relationship’, rendered depressing results.


A Daily Mail headline screamed, ‘It’s NOT normal’. The feature was aimed at people who wanted to have sex with their partner. I wanted mine to stay away, physically at least. But I longed to feel that having a sexuality would be possible again somewhere, somehow, with someone in the future… ideally alongside a deep friendship with Jen.

It was clear that monogamy, as I had done it before, would have to be redefined. For someone as middle-class and conventional as me, that was a pretty terrifying prospect.

Jen was the best friend I’d never had. We were building something… a sense of family, stability and belonging that had never been possible before with a sexual or romantic partner. We had firm foundations, yet with Jen, sex had come to feel like plunging myself into a lonely pool of sadness and grief. We needed to do something about it.

Later that evening, across our thick wooden kitchen table, I presented Jen with some of the articles and ideas I’d found.

I’d been reading British sociologist Catherine Hakim’s book The New Rules. She had observed a much lower divorce rate in countries such as Italy and France where the adventure of ‘playfairs’, her term for playful affairs, is accepted as part of the sexual landscape. Whereas British and American divorce rates are among the highest in the world, due to our puritanical, ultra-monogamous stance.

Jen and I talked in very hypothetical terms about how we would go about a system of tacit affairs and what our rules would be. Don’t choose someone we know. Don’t bring them back to our shared living space. Don’t involve our mutual friends. Above all, be discreet.

‘As an intellectual idea, yes,’ said Jen, looking at me quizzically. ‘But… in practice…?’

She was right. I could almost hear the sound of our names being crossed off party invitation lists. A spot of swinging would not play well with most of our couple friends.

‘You’re lucky I’m willing to discuss this. Most people wouldn’t,’ she sighed, as she turned her back on me to finish the washing up.

Rosie’s 7 monogamous musings

1. Nobody actually knows what ‘monogamy’ means
For research for my comedy show and book I conducted a survey asking ‘what counts as cheating?’ The results revealed that there’s no ‘one size fits all’ monogamy. For some people, emotional forms of infidelity such as ‘staying up all night talking to someone’ or ‘falling in love with someone with no sexual contact’ were more important than simply ‘having sex with someone’ or ‘kissing’.

2. We are all, to some extent, ‘polyamorous’
If emotional forms of connection such as deep friendship count as ‘relationships’ then effectively none of us are being completely exclusive even if we are sexually faithful. There’s a grey area here that we don’t fully acknowledge.

3. We live longer
The word ‘monogamy’ originally came from the Greek ‘monos gamos’ and meant ‘one marriage for life’. However, we now live so much longer that this is a much bigger ask. Most people nowadays tend to mean, ‘one marriage at a time’. In other words, serial monogamy.

4. We live in an ‘upgrade culture’
We’ve become accustomed to getting new gadgets and iPhones every couple of years so have a mindset geared towards upgrading and novelty. We want the new latest products right now. This impatience spills over into our romantic lives.

5. We want to be happy
Nowadays, we tend to marry for love and because we think we’ve met ‘the one’. Whereas a couple of generations ago, people married for very practical and pragmatic reasons such as financial security.

6. Our feelings change
Anthropologist Helen Fisher has written about the different stages of romantic love and has scientifically proven that the effects of the chemical high we experience during the heady, early stages of lust wear off pretty quickly.

7. Romantic films
Popular culture presents a highly, idealised and unrealistic version of love. Our real relationships can never live up to this. So we become restless and stray, in our minds if not physically. But some of my survey respondents would say that still counts as cheating. The latest trendy term for these more ambiguous crushes is ‘micro-cheating.’

We are human and, therefore, complex. The binary idea of simply being monogamous or not doesn’t account for the vast spectrum of feelings and connections we actually experience.

Grab a copy of Rosie Wilby’s Is Monogamy Dead? At Gay’s The Word or Housmans. Rosie will be in conversation and reading from the book on May 2 at Rock N Roll Bookclub at the Dublin Castle, on June 6 at Camberwell Library as part of Southwark Literature Festival and on June 9 at Balham Literature Festival. Follow @rosiewilby

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