The History of Non-Monogamy

There is a common misconception around the existence of non-monogamy. This misconception is the idea that non-monogamy is something that is new; that non-monogamy is somehow something that is simply trendy and has only come around recently, and in turn, will not be around to stay.

This, however, is simply an inaccurate statement. Non-monogamy is, in fact, nothing new. It has been around for centuries cross-culturally. Most people simply do not know this. The research on this topic has been quite suppressed and they just do not teach this sort of history in formal school classroom settings. It is no wonder, then, that so many people seem to think that non-monogamy is merely a trend. 

You might not believe this. You might believe that this is simply a talking point by those who are here to promote non-monogamy. This article will illustrate the evidence that shows that not only has non-monogamy existed throughout history cross-culturally, but in many respects, it has flourished throughout history and the fact that it hasn’t flourished recently is actually an odd phenomenon from a historical standpoint.

The origin of the modern criticism of non-monogamy can be seen in the 1920s when the philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote his book Marriage and Morals. A liberal, in this book, Russell promoted a more pluralistic view on relationships and sexuality. Part of this outlook was the inclusion of promoting non-monogamy, which at that time in Western cultures, was a moral, social, and sexual taboo. In this book, Russell explicitly stated that, insofar as there are agreements on this matter, there is absolutely nothing wrong with extramarital sexual and/or romantic affairs. It is needless to say that this was a profoundly radical view for someone with so much to lose to make in the 1920s in Western culture. 

Russell expected criticism. Many contemporary philosophers and cultural critics lamented about this book, calling it disgusting and immoral. The consequences of Russell expressing these views, however, extended beyond mere criticism. Due to the complaints of the parents of his students, Russell lost his position as a professor at the City College of New York. At the very least, however, Russell did not lose his career. However, he lost his social standing in New York City, and because of this moved from the city, seldom returning.

This highly resembles how the criticism towards non-monogamy persists today: unreasoned and reflexive. Yet, the facts are clear enough: historically speaking, non-monogamy is quite normal. 

Although we will take a bit of a deeper dive later on, technically speaking we need not go back too far back in time to see that non-monogamy has been practiced for as long as humans have existed. I use a more contemporary example first simply to shed light on how absurd the criticism towards Russell in the 1920s truly was –as all this criticism was based upon was puritanism and ignorance. As late as the 1800s in the West, communities that were non-monogamous existed and were large in number. An example of this was the Christian Oneida community in New York, in which the community promoted extra-marital sex and frowned upon possessiveness and jealousy. 
It is quite ironic that those who criticized Russell did so on supposedly Christian grounds. And yet, biblically speaking, the Oneida community is much more accurate than puritans when it comes to sexual freedom. Indeed, there are many examples of non-monogamy that can be found all throughout the Bible. There are about 40 examples –if not more– of non-monogamy in the Bible. And the Bible simply does not mandate monogamy as many puritans believe it does. In particular, passages in the old testament (Exodus 21:10 and Deuteronomy 21:15–17) give guidance on how to treat your multiple partners if you indeed have multiple partners. Clearly, the puritans missed something in their Sunday school Bible lectures. And indeed, they missed out on something important: the Bible simply permits the existence of non-monogamous relationships 

If non-monogamy is found in the Old Testament, this means it can at the very least be dated back to 1200 BC, as this was the time when the Old Testament is said to have been first written. 

This is in only Western culture, however –something which probably shocks many of us.  One of the primary reasons non-monogamy became stigmatized in the West, however, was due to the influence of St. Paul upon the Catholic Church, and the rule of the Catholic Church over Western civilization for centuries. Paul is the source of all sexual stultification in Christianity. And this includes non-monogamy, amongst homosexuality, sexual intercourse before marriage, and many others. 

In any case, we can date non-monogamy back even further than the beginnings of the Old Testament. It was practiced in ancient Mesopotamia. What this means, is that ever since the beginning of human civilization, non-monogamy has been practiced. It has been practiced in ancient Egypt, throughout the majority of the major Chinese dynasties, by the ancient Greeks, and in the Roman empire. This is only to name a few times and places where the point that non-monogamy is nothing new is made abundantly clear. 

The most common objection to non-monogamy is that it is abnormal. Monogamy is the norm and it always has been the norm, so such people say, so those who wish to practice non-monogamy should either hide their feelings within their own sub-communities or suppress them altogether. To that, one can simply state the obvious: non-monogamy has deep roots in human history. Indeed, given this, it almost certainly has deep roots in human biology. On that note, one can say that not only is non-monogamy normal but it almost always –in most places and times– has been normal. The only thing that is fueling these criticisms is ignorance and intolerance. The only way that we can combat ignorance and intolerance is through education and empathy. The hope in laying out a brief history of non-monogamy was to educate and to hope to inculcate some empathy for those who simply want to freely express themselves emotionally and sexually. 

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