In Defense Of Open Relationships & Casual Sex

Illustrated By Anna Sudit.
Did you know that open relationships never work and casual sex is a lie you whisper to yourself as you try in vain to suppress your pair-bonding instincts? If not, please join me for this edition of An Expert Tells You You're Doing The Sex Wrong, because it's edifying. Last week, the New York Times ' Weddings section published a story on open relationships titled "The Secrets to an Open Marriage According to Mo’Nique." Mo'Nique and her husband of a decade, Sidney Hicks, say they are in a mutually fulfilling open marriage — which they discuss on their podcast Monique & Sidney's Open Relationship — and so writer Tammy La Gorce set out to evaluate the legitimacy of this seeming paradox, turning to anthropologist Helen Fisher, PhD, for judgment of whether Mo'Nique and Hicks are really as happy as they claim.

"People have had open marriages forever, because a lot of us would prefer to have more than one relationship," Dr. Fisher opines. "But they never end up working long-term" because, as the Times paraphrases her belief, "the parts of the brain involved in romantic love are next to areas that help orchestrate thirst and hunger," and in Dr. Fisher's words, "thirst and hunger aren’t going to change anytime soon." Sounds science-y, right? Romantic love is just like hunger and thirst, because the "parts of the brain" that "orchestrate" them all hang out together! Please do go on.

"If you could get her to talk about how she feels or how her husband really feels," Dr. Fisher says of Mo'Nique — since apparently that's not what Mo'Nique is already doing — "you might find that beneath all this talk about how, intellectually and cognitively, they understand what they’re doing and it seems to make sense, emotionally the human animal has a very hard time with it." Don't worry, Mo'Nique. You and your husband thought you were happy with a longstanding arrangement about which you, by both of your accounts, communicate honestly, lovingly, and consistently, but a woman with some degrees who has never met you is here to show you the error of your ways, because science. Dr. Fisher's body of guidance grew the day after the publication of the NYT article, when Business Insider released a video of her titled "A sex expert reveals something surprising about casual sex" — namely, that it doesn't exist. Surprise! Specifically, surprise that a PhD is propagating inane generalizations.

"There's no such thing as casual sex," Dr. Fisher stresses in the video. "Unless you're so drunk that you can't remember it, something happens in the brain. Five of the 12 cranial nerves become activated when you have sex with somebody. Any stimulation of the genitals will drive up the dopamine system and sometimes put you over the threshold into falling in love, and then of course with orgasm there's a real flood of oxytocin and vasopressin linked with feelings of attachment." I know just what she means about genital stimulation — I got a little too close to a subway pole on my commute home last night and almost proposed to it. And every time I hug someone, the "flood of oxytocin" I get has me following that person around for the rest of the day. Science!
Illustrated By Anna Sudit.
In the informal survey I just conducted, the first three reactions to Dr. Fisher's stance on casual sex were "bullshit," "absolutely not," and "no."

"Just from personal experience, it seems pretty common for people to say sexual experiences were casual when they weren't, due to social pressures," one responder adds. "But that doesn't mean casual sex doesn't exist. If you are comfortable with yourself and your body and your desires and needs and what you want is sex without emotional connection later on, it's possible."

And, as Dan Savage summarizes Dr. Fisher's position on open marriages on his blog, "Open relationship failed? Proof that open relationships never work out! Monogamous relationship failed? Try, try again!" Savage also reached out to a lecturer in cognitive biology, Qazi Rahman, PhD, to clarify Dr. Fisher's statement about the adjacency of the "brain parts" that orchestrate love, hunger, and thirst. "It is a rather odd claim to say that the reason a phenotypic trait will operate the way it does is because a particular brain region responsible for it is adjacent to other brain regions which do something else," Dr. Rahman says. "That kind of model of brain-behavior relationships would generate all sorts of very odd predictions which most neuroscientists or neuropsychologists would find strange." And laypeople too, it turns out.

Dr. Fisher's attitudes toward non-monogamous relationships and casual sex are case studies of biological determinism, the idea that all human behavior is dictated by genes or other biological characteristics. It leads to such sweeping statements such as "Men and women can't be friends, because underneath they always want to bang each other" — a pseudo-psychological tenet that implies that any frisson of sexual attraction between a heterosexual man and a heterosexual woman means that they are not and cannot be friends, in the same way that Dr. Fisher asserts that the release of hormones such as oxytocin and vasopressin make all sex ever "meaningful."

Not your "activated cranial nerves" nor your dopamine system nor your hormones nor Dr. Fisher define meaning and happiness in your life. You do. Some people don't like casual sex. Some love it. Some people would hate to be in an open relationship, while others swear by them. To proclaim that individuals can't assess their sexual encounters and relationships for themselves is more than inaccurate, it's insulting. There are many, many people in the world who will try to tell you that you're doing it wrong, whatever "it" is: work, parenting (or not parenting, as the case may be), tying your shoes, having sex, being in love, building a life. Many of them will have authority in some form; some of them will have degrees. But they can't tell you want you want. They can't tell you if you're happy. And they should leave your sex life — and Mo'Nique's — the hell alone.
The Bed Post is a series that explores what holds us back from sex and love with whom we want, when we want, where we want, and how we want — because we all deserve sex and love lives that are not only free of evils, but full of what is good. Follow me on Twitter at @hlmacmillen or email me at hayley.macmillen@refinery29 — I’d love to hear from you. Find all of The Bed Post right here.

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