Monogamy as an Artifact of Scarcity

If you’ve read any of the Passionate Pantheon books, you’ve probably noticed that monogamy is not really a significant part of the City’s social structure. In fact, the concept of monogamy as a norm doesn’t really exist in the City; the idea that partnerships should be sexually exclusive (at least the way we think of exclusivity) is something that would leave the characters in the Passionate Pantheon scratching their heads. Imagine if someone told you, out of the blue, that you should only ever eat food in front of one person, and never in the presence of anyone else, and this was self-evidently the only morally correct stance—that’s about what sexual exclusivity as a social norm would seem like to the residents of the City.

So why is monogamy not part of the expected social fabric of the City?

The obvious, Doylist answer is “we’re the authors and we are not monogamous so we wrote the stories to fit our own relationship models.” But there’s more to it than that. Every part of the society in the Passionate Pantheon books is carefully considered—nothing is arbitrary. And we think a compelling case can be made for the idea that monogamy as a social institution is inherently linked to scarcity, and unlikely to be part of a deliberately designed post-scarcity society.

Before we get into that, we aren’t saying there’s no such thing as a monogamous person in the City, of course. In the fourth novel, tentatively titled Unyielding Devotions, we meet a character named Jakalva who is canonically sexually and romantically exclusive to one person.

“What do you want?”

“What do you mean?” Kaytin blinked owlishly at Jakalva. “Do you mean what do I want from you?”

“No, I mean in general. What motivates you? What do you want your life to look like?”

They sat on a stone bench in a small sheltered nook where a slow-moving stream made a sharp bend. A utility drone floated just over Jakalva’s head. Behind them, a tree spread broad branches to the sky. Thin lines of violet light pulsed along its bark. A lanky woman with skin the color of brass sprawled on a small raft that drifted along the stream, watching a holographic video projected from a terminal. Days after her party, Jakalva had asked Kaytin to meet her, but now their conversation left Kaytin confused.

“I want to understand people. I want to know why everyone seems to know the rules but I don’t. I want to stop saying and doing the wrong thing.”

“No.” Jakalva shook her head. Her hair, trussed up in a series of narrow braids that fell to her waist, shimmered in the light. “Those are means to an end, not the end itself. Dig deeper. Why do you want those things?”

“I don’t know. I guess…” Kaytin scrunched up her face. “I guess I want to stop saying and doing the wrong things because I want people to like me.”

“That’s more like it,” Jakalva said. “What you want is connection. You feel like you don’t have it because you don’t understand the dance people do to get it. But it’s not the dance that’s the thing, it’s the connection the dance brings.”

“Why does that matter?”

“There are things we all want, and things we’re all afraid of. The dance exists because we want to move toward the things we want but away from the things we’re afraid of. If you want connection, that makes you vulnerable to rejection. So the dance, then, is a way to offer connection without demanding it from others, or exposing yourself to the risk of rejection.”

“I don’t understand.”

“When you realize that other people are not so different from you and that they also have things they want and things they’re afraid of, you’ll come closer to understanding.”

“Oh.” Kaytin stared out across the sparkling water. “What do you want?” she said. “Connection?”

“No,” Jakalva said. “I only need one person in my life. That’s enough for me. When I have that, I stop needing it from others.”

“Do you have a person?”

“Yes.”

“You never talk about it.”

“No. We share a home. We’ve been together for…oh, I don’t even know. Longer than most of the people who come to my parties have been alive, I expect. We exchanged private names more than a hundred and eighty years ago.” She smiled to herself. “It doesn’t seem like that long. Time flies.”

In her case, Jakalva’s sexual exclusivity includes choosing not to engage in religious worship via the medium of orgasm-oriented activities. This is unusual in the City, although fortunately there is no social stigma attached to unusual choices. Jakalva receives no negative consequence from her preference. Most people who considered themselves monogamous would categorise ritualized, religious group sex differently from social sex for pleasure or personal connection, and therefore it doesn’t really count. This is what makes it possible for even self-identified monogamous people to be fully connected into the religious life of the City and the temples without any impact on their personal relationships. The society of the City rests on a foundation of worship of AI gods through ritualized group sex, yet in spite of that, there are monogamous and even asexual characters, and some of them have risen to high levels within the City’s social hierarchy. In Divine Burdens, we meet two characters, Tatian and High Priest Jevin, who are canonically ace (although those terms are never used).

A lot of folks fuss about whether monogamy is “natural” for people or whether we “naturally” gravitate toward plurality in our sex lives, as if this tells us anything about how we should behave. This is the wrong question. In reality, a tendency toward exclusive or inclusive sexual relationships in different people is just part of ordinary human variability. Some people naturally seek connection with only one person; some seek connection with many people; some, under certain circumstances and contexts, can probably be happy and fulfilled with either.

You see some of that variability in the City. From a social perspective, the City has no expectation of monogamy. You can, like Jakalva, be monogamous if you choose, but there’s no pressure to limit your sexual connections to just one partner, and in fact the social expectation is that you probably won’t. Monogamous people in the City are unusual.

Why? To answer that, let’s look at where monogamy comes from.

For a long time, anthropologists adopted a ‘child-rearing’ model of monogamy in humans, arguing that because human infants are born so weak and require years before they are able to care for themselves, investment by both parents in helping to care for our young led to the adoption of monogamy.

This hypothesis ignores evidence that many nomadic, non-agrarian societies don’t appear to be monogamous, and that entire social groups can cooperatively raise children just as effectively as two parents. (In fact, the idealised nuclear family model is surprisingly new, only decades old, and hasn’t been the social norm for most of humanity’s existence. Historically, we see communal raising of children across multiple cultures, usually in the context of large, multigenerational, extended families living together.)

A more modern hypothesis, based on mathematical modeling of different reproductive strategies, suggests that monogamous mating behavior is more likely based on mate-guarding and female scarcity. This hypothesis suggests monogamy is intrinsically linked to scarcity.

The anthropological record seems to suggest that monogamy really took off with the Agrarian Revolution, when individuals began accumulating wealth for the first time. One of the key factors driving the adoption of monogamy was the idea of primogeniture— men who accumulated wealth desiring to pass it along to their male children. It’s significantly easier to determine who birthed a child, since a woman is generally present for the entire time, whilst men can’t know (in the era before paternity tests, at least) that the child was their blood unless they controlled access to the woman. So men began engaging in mate-guarding behaviors, largely to prevent having their estate pass to an heir not related to them by blood. Women became, in effect, a means by which men produced male heirs. (This is why throughout history, social penalties for women who stray have tended to be much more severe than for men who stray—something that still exists in the “men with lots of sexual partners are studs, women with lots of sexual partners are sluts” double standard so common today.)

But what happens when you have a society where there’s no privation, no concept of financial value (sentimental value is significantly more important), and anything anyone desires can be called forth from a Provider at will? (The closest thing to the concept of ‘personal property’ in the City is gifted representations of expended labor; in many ways, the culture of the City is a gifting culture—perhaps we’ll write about that soon!)

And what happens when child-rearing is seen as a group commitment, a responsibility chosen and shared by intentional family and AI drones?

Mate-guarding becomes a lot less likely when you have no wealth to pass down to your children, and technology has rendered bloodlines irrelevant to family ties. (Of course, mate-guarding behavior can also emerge from jealousy and possessiveness, but the prevalence and expression of those feelings through mate-guarding is a cultural phenomenon, largely  determined by the socially sanctioned ways you are expected to demonstrate emotional commitment within your culture. Perhaps we’ll write about that, too!) Inheritance doesn’t matter if you have nothing to pass down, and no particularly compelling reason to pass it down to people related to you by blood.

In such a society, would monogamy be a cultural value? We think the likely answer is ‘no.’ The factors that gave rise to monogamy as a social norm simply don’t exist in the City.

And for most residents of the City, sex is not strongly connected to having children. The people of the City have voluntary control over their fertility; accidental pregnancy is literally impossible. Residents have very long lives—hundreds of years, typically—and choose to have children only rarely, and only within conscious, intentional family groups that invariably include at least three adults (typically around 6 or 7 adults, sometimes as big as a dozen adults caring for one child). So the normal mating strategies anthropologists talk about when they discuss reproductive game theory in social species just don’t apply.

Our technology changed our reproductive strategies during the Agrarian Revolution. It seems plausible that new technologies, especially in the bioengineering field, combined with the resultant development of a post-scarcity society, would do the same again.

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