MONOGAMY: A CRITIQUE | John McMurtry (1972)


Author(s): John McMurtry
Source: The Monist, Vol. 56, No. 4, Contemporary Moral Issues (OCTOBER, 1972), pp. 587-599
Published by: Hegeler Institute
Stable URL: 

“Remove away that black’ning church
Remove away that marriage hearse
Remove away that man of blood
You’ll quite remove the ancient curse.”



Almost all of us have entered or will one day enter a specifically standardized form of monogamous marriage. This cultural requirement is so very basic to our existence that we accept it for most part as a kind of intractable given: dictated by the laws of God, Nature, Government and Good Sense all at once. Though it is perhaps unusual for a social practice to be so promiscuously underwritten, we generally find comfort rather than curiosity in this fact and seldom wonder how something could be divinely inspired, biologically determined, coerced and reasoned out all at the same time. We simply take for granted.

Those in society who are officially charged with the thinking function with regard to such matters are no less responsible for this uncritical acceptance than the man on the street. The psychoanalyst traditionally regards our form of marriage as a necessary restraint on the anarchic id and no more to be queried than civilization itself. The lawyer is as undisposed to questioning the practice as he is to criticizing the principle of private property (this is appropriate, as I shall later point out). The churchman formally perceives the relationship between man and wife to be as inviolable and insusceptible to question as the relationship between the institution he works for and the Christ. The sociologist standardly accepts the formalized bonding of heterosexual pairs as the indispensable basis of social order and perhaps a societal universal. The politician is as incapable of challenging it as he is the virtue of his own continued holding of office. And the philosopher (at least the English-speaking philosopher), as with most issues of socially controversial or sexual dimensions, ignores the question almost altogether.

Even those irreverent adulterers and unmarried couples who would seem to be challenging the institution in the most basic possible way, in practice, tend merely to mimic its basic structure in unofficial form. The coverings of sanctity, taboo and cultural habit continue to hold them with the grip of public clothes.


“Monogamy” means, literally, “one marriage.” But it would be wrong to suppose that this phrase tells us much about our particular species of official wedlock. The greatest obstacle to the adequate understanding of our monogamy institution has been the failure to identify clearly and systematically the full complex of principles it involves. There are four such principles, each carrying enormous restrictive force and together constituting a massive social control mechanism that has never, so far as I know, been fully schematized.

To come straight to the point, the four principles in question are as follows:

1. The partners are required to enter a formal contractual relation: (a) whose establishment demands a specific official participant, certain conditions of the contractors (legal age, no blood ties, etc.) and a standard set of procedures; (b) whose governing terms are uniform for all and exactly prescribed by law; and (c) whose dissolution may only be legally effected by the decision of state representatives.

The ways in which this elaborate principle of contractual requirement are importantly restrictive are obvious. One may not enter into a marriage union without entering into a contract presided over by a state-investured official.1 One may not set any of the terms of the contractual relationship by which one is bound for life. And one cannot dissolve the contract without legal action and costs, court proceedings and in many places actual legislation. (The one and only contract in all English-speaking law that is not dissoluble by the consent of the contracting parties.) The extent of control here—over the most intimate and putatively “loving” relationships in all social intercourse—is so great as to be difficult to catalogue without exciting in oneself a sense of disbelief.

Lest it be thought there is always the real option of entering a common law relationship free of such encumbrances, it should be noted that: (a) these relationships themselves are subject to state regulation, though of a less imposing sort; and (much more important) (b) there are very formidable selective pressures against common law partnerships such as employment and job discrimination, exclusion from housing and lodging facilities, special legal disablements,2 loss of social and moral status (consider such phrases as “living in sin,” “make her an honest woman,” etc.), family shame and embarrassment, and so on.

2. The number of partners involved in the marriage must be two and only two (as opposed to three, four, five or any of the almost countless other possibilities of intimate union).

This second principle of our specific form of monogamy (the concept of “one marriage,” it should be pointed out, is consistent with any number of participating partners) is perhaps the most important and restrictive of the four principles we are considering. Not only does it confine us to just one possibility out of an enormous range, but it confines us to that single possibility which involves the least number of people, two. It is difficult to conceive of a more thoroughgoing mechanism for limiting extended social union and intimacy. The fact that this monolithic restriction seems so “natural” to us (if it were truly “natural” of course, there would be no need for its rigorous cultural prescription by everything from severe criminal law3 to ubiquitous housing regulations) simply indicates the extent to which its hold is implanted in our social structure. It is the institutional basis of what I will call the “binary frame of sexual consciousness,” a frame through which all our heterosexual relationships are typically viewed (“two’s company, three’s a crowd”) and in light of which all larger circles of intimacy seem almost inconceivable.4

3. No person may participate in more than one marriage at a time or during a lifetime (unless the previous marriage has been officially dissolved by, normally, one partner’s death or successful divorce).

Violation of this principle is, of course, a criminal offence (bigamy) which is punishable by a considerable term in prison. Of various general regulations of our marriage institution it has experienced the most significant modification: not indeed in principle, but in the extent of flexibility of its “escape hatch” of divorce. The case with which this escape hatch is opened has increased considerably in the past few years (the grounds for divorce being more permissive than previously) and it is in this regard most of all that the principles of our marriage institution have undergone formal alteration. That is, in plumbing rather than substance.

4. No married person may engage in any sexual relationship with any person whatever other than the marriage partner.

Although a consummated sexual act with another person alone constitutes an act of adultery, lesser forms of sexual and erotic relationships5 may also constitute grounds for divorce (i.e., cruelty) and are generally prescribed as well by informal social convention and taboo. In other words, the fourth and final principle of our marriage institution involves not only a prohibition of sexual intercourse per se outside one’s wedlock (this term deserves pause) but a prohibition of all one’s erotic relations whatever outside this bond. The penalties for violation here are as various as they are severe, ranging from permanent loss of spouse, children, chattel, and income to job dismissal and social ostracism. In this way, possibly the most compelling natural force towards expanded intimate relations with others6 is strictly confined within the narrowest possible circle for (barring delinquency) the whole of adult life. The sheer weight and totality of this restriction is surely one of the great wonders of all historical institutional control.


With all established institutions, apologetics for perpetuation are never wanting. Thus it is with our form of monogamous marriage.

Perhaps the most celebrated justification over the years has proceeded from a belief in a Supreme Deity who secretly utters sexual and other commands to privileged human representatives. Almost as well known a line of defence has issued from a conviction, similarly confident, that the need for some social regulation of sexuality demonstrates the need for our specific type of two-person wedlock. Although these have been important justifications in the sense of being very widely supported, they are not—having other grounds than reasons—susceptible to treatment here.

If we put aside such arguments, we are left I think with two major claims. The first is that our form of monogamous marriage promotes a profound affection between the partners which is not only of great worth in itself but invaluable as a sanctuary from the pressures of outside society. Since, however, there are no secure grounds whatever for supposing that such “profound affection” is not at least as easily achievable by any number of other marriage forms (i.e., forms which differ in one or more of the four principles), this justification conspicuously fails to perform the task required of it.

The second major claim for the defence is that monogamy provides a specially loving context for child upbringing. However here again there are no grounds at all for concluding that it does so as, or any more, effectively than other possible forms of marriage (the only alternative type of upbringing to which it has apparently been shown to be superior is nonfamily institutional upbringing, which of course is not relevant to the present discussion). Furthermore, the fact that at least half the span of a normal monogamous marriage involves no child-upbringing at all is disastrously overlooked here, as is the reinforcing fact that there is no reference to or mention of the quality of child-upbringing in any of the prescriptions connected with it.

In brief, the second major justification of our particular type of wedlock scents somewhat too strongly of red herring to pursue further.

There is, it seems, little to recommend the view that monogamy specially promotes “profound affection” between the partners or a “loving context” for child-upbringing. Such claims are simply without force. On the other hand, there are several aspects to the logic and operation of the four principles of this institution which suggest that it actually inhibits the achievement of these desiderata. Far from uniquely abetting the latter, it militates against them. In these ways:

(1) Centralized official control of marriage (which the Church gradually achieved through the mechanism of Canon Law after the Fall of the Roman Empire7 in one of the greatest seizures of social power in history) necessarily alienates the partners from full responsibility for and freedom in their relationship. “Profound closeness” between the partners—or least an area of it—is thereby expropriated rather than promoted, and “sanctuary” from the pressures of outside society prohibited rather than fostered.

(2) Limitation of the marriage bond to two people necessarily restricts, in perhaps the most unilateral possible way consistent with offspring survival, the number of adult sources of affection, interest, material support and instruction for the young. The “loving context for child-upbringing” is thereby dessicated rather than nourished: providing the structural conditions for such notorious and far-reaching problems as (a) sibling rivalry for scarce adult attention,8 and (b) parental oppression through exclusive monopoly of the child’s means of life.9

( 3 ) Formal exclusion of all others from erotic contact with the marriage partner systematically promotes conjugal insecurity, jealousy and alienation by:

(a) Officially underwriting a literally totalitarian expectation of sexual confinement on the part of one’s husband or wife: which expectation is, ceteris paribus, inevitably more subject to anxiety and disappointment than one less extreme in its demand and/or cultural-juridical backing;10

(b) Requiring so complete a sexual isolation of the marriage partners that should one violate the fidelity code the other is left alone and susceptible to a sense of fundamental deprivation and resentment;

(c) Stipulating such a strict restraint of sexual energies that there are habitual violations of the regulation: which violations qua violations are frequently if not always attended by (i) wilful deception and reciprocal suspicion about the occurrence or quality of the extramarital relationship, (ii) anxiety and fear on both sides of permanent estrangement from partner and family, and/or (iii) overt and covert antagonism over the prohibited act in both offender (who feels “trapped”) and offended (who feels “betrayed”).

The disadvantages of the four principles of monogamous marriage do not, however, end with inhibiting the very effects they are said to promote. There are further shortcomings:

(1) The restriction of marriage union to two partners necessarily prevents the strengths of larger groupings. Such advantages as the following are thereby usually ruled out.

(a) The security, range and power of larger socioeconomic units;
(b) The epistemological and emotional substance, variety and scope of more pluralist interactions;
(c) The possibility of extra-domestic freedom founded on more adult providers and upbringers as well as more broadly based circles of intimacy.

(2) The sexual containment and isolation which the four principles together require variously stimulates such social malaises as:

(a) Destructive aggression (which notoriously results from sexual frustration);
(b) Apathy, frustration and dependence within the marriage bond;
(c) Lack of spontaneity, bad faith and distance in relationships without the marriage bond;
(d) Sexual phantasizing, perversion, fetishism, prostitution and pornography in the adult population as a whole.11

Taking such things into consideration, it seems difficult to lend credence to the view that the four principles of our form of monogamous marriage constitute a structure beneficial either to the marriage partners themselves or to their offspring (or indeed to anyone else). One is moved to seek for some other ground of the institution, some ground that lurks beneath the reach of our conventional apprehensions.


The ground of our marriage institution, the essential principle that underwrites all four restrictions, is this: the maintenance by one man or woman of the effective right to exclude indefinitely all others from erotic access to the conjugal partner.

The first restriction creates, elaborates on, and provides for the enforcement of this right to exclude. And the second, third and fourth restrictions together ensure that the said right to exclude is—respectively—not cooperative, not simultaneously or sequentially distributed, and not permissive of even casual exception.

In other words, the four restrictions of our form of monogamous marriage together constitute a state-regulated, indefinite and exclusive ownership by two individuals of one another’s sexual powers. Marriage is simply a form of private property.12

That our form of monogamous marriage is when the confusing layers of sanctity, apologetic and taboo are cleared away another species of private property should not surprise us.13 The history of the institution is so full of suggestive indicators—dowries, inheritance, property alliances, daughter sales (of which women’s wedding rings are a carry-over) bride exchanges, legitimacy and illegitimacy—that it is difficult not to see some intimate connections between marital and ownership ties. We are better able still to apprehend the ownership essence of our marriage institution, when in addition we consider:

(a) That until recently almost the only way to secure official dissolution of consummated marriage was to be able to demonstrate violation of one or both partner’s sexual ownership (i.e., adultery);

(b) That the imperative of premarital chastity is tantamount to a demand for retrospective sexual ownership by the eventual marriage partner;

(c) That successful sexual involvement with a married person is prosecutable as an expropriation of ownership—”alienation of affections”—which is restituted by cash payment;

(d) That the incest taboo is an iron mechanism which protects the conjugal ownership of sexual properties: both the husband’s and wife’s from the access of affectionate offspring and the offsprings’ (who themselves are future marriage partners) from access of siblings and parents;14

(e) That the language of the marriage ceremony is the language of exclusive possession (“take,” “to have and to hold,” “forsaking all others and keeping you only unto him/her,” etc.), not to mention the proprietary locutions associated with the marital relationship (e.g., “he’s mine,” “she belongs to him,” “keep to your own husband,” “wife stealer,” “possessive husband,” etc.).


Of course, it would be remarkable if marriage in our society was not a relationship akin to private property. In our socioeconomic system we relate to virtually everything of value by individual ownership: by, that is, the effective right to exclude others from the thing concerned.15 That we do so as well with perhaps the most highly valued thing of all—the sexual partners’ sexuality—is only to be expected. Indeed it would probably be an intolerable strain on our entire social structure if we did otherwise.

This line of thought deserves pursuit. The real secret of our form of monogamous marriage is not that it functionally provides for the needs of adults who love one another or the children they give birth to, but that it serves the maintenance of our present social system. It is an institution which is indispensable to the persistence of the capitalist order,16 in the following ways:

(1) A basic principle of current social relations is that some people legally acquire the use of other people’s personal powers from which they may exclude other members of society. This system operates in the workplace (owners and hirers of all types contractually acquire for their exclusive use workers’ regular labour powers) and in the family (husbands and wives contractually acquire for their exclusive use their partner’s sexual properties). A conflict between the structures of these primary relations—as would obtain were there a suspension of the restrictions governing our form of monogamous marriage—might well undermine the systemic coherence of present social intercourse.

(2) The fundamental relation between individuals and things which satisfy their needs is, in our present society, that each individual has or does not have the effective right to exclude other people from the thing in question.17 A rudimentary need is that for sexual relationship(s). Therefore the object of this need must be related to the one who needs it as owner or not owner (i.e., via marriage or not-marriage, or approximations thereto) if people’s present relationship to what they need is to retain—again—systemic coherence.

(3) A necessary condition for the continued existence of the present social formation is that its members feel powerful motivation to gain favorable positions in it. But such social ambition is heavily dependent on the preservation of exclusive monogamy in that:

(a) The latter confines the discharge of primordial sexual energies to a single unalterable partner and thus typically compels the said energies to seek alternative outlet, such as business or professional success;18

(b) The exclusive marriage necessarily reduces the sexual relationships available to any one person to absolute (nonzero) minimum, a unilateral promotion of sexual shortage which in practice renders hierarchial achievement essential as an economic and “display” means for securing scarce partners.19

(4) Because the exclusive marriage necessarily and dramatically reduces the possibilities of sexual-love relationships, it thereby promotes the existing economic system by:

(a) Rendering extreme economic self-interest—the motivational basis of the capitalistic process—less vulnerable to altruistic subversion;

(b) Disciplining society’s members into the habitual repression of natural impulse required for long-term performance of repetitive and arduous work tasks;

(c) Developing a complex of suppressed sexual desires to which sales techniques may effectively apply in creating those new consumer wants which provide indispensable outlets for ever increasing capital funds.

( 5 ) The present form of marriage is of fundamental importance to:

(a) The continued relative powerlessness of the individual family: which, with larger numbers would constitute a correspondingly increased command of social power;

(b) The continued high demand for homes, commodities and services: which, with the considerable economies of scale that extended unions would permit, would otherwise falter;

(c) The continued strict necessity for adult males to sell their labour power and adult women to remain at home (or vice versa): which strict necessity would diminish as the economic base of the family unit extended;

(d) The continued immense pool of unsatisfied sexual desires and energies in the population at large: without which powerful interests and institutions would lose much of their conventional appeal and force;20

(e) The continued profitable involvement of lawyers, priests and state officials in the jurisdictions of marriage and divorce and the myriad official practices and proceedings connected thereto.21


If our marriage institution is a linchpin of our present social structure, then a breakdown in this institution would seem to indicate a breakdown in our social structure. On the face of it, the marriage institution is breaking down—enormously increased divorce rates, nonmarital sexual relationships, wife-swapping, the Playboy philosophy, and communes. Therefore one might be led by the appearance of things to anticipate a profound alteration in the social system.

But it would be a mistake to underestimate the tenacity of an established order or to overestimate the extent of change in our marriage institution. Increased divorce rates merely indicate the widening of a traditional escape hatch. Nonmarital relationships imitate and culminate in the marital mold. Wife-swapping presupposes ownership, as the phrase suggests. The Playboy philosophy is merely the view that if one has the money one has the right to be titillated, the commercial call to more fully exploit a dynamic sector of capital investment. And communes—the most hopeful phenomenon—almost nowhere offer a praxis challenge to private property in sexuality. It may be changing. But history, as the old man puts it, weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.




  1. Any person who presides over a marriage and is not authorized by law to do so is guilty of a criminal offense and is subject to several years imprisonment (e.g., Canadian Criminal Code, Sec. 258).
  2. For example, offspring are illegitimate, neither wife nor children are legal heirs, and husband has no right of access or custody should separation occur.
  3. “Any kind of conjugal union with more than one person at the same time, whether or not it is by law recognized as a binding form of marriage is guilty of an indictable offence and is liable to imprisonment for five years” (Canadian Criminal Code, Sec. 257, [l][a][ii]). Part 2 of the same section adds: “Where an accused is charged with an offence under this section, no averment or proof of the method by which the alleged relationship was entered into, agreed to or consented to is necessary in the indictment or upon the trial of the accused, nor is it necessary upon the trial to prove that the persons who are alleged to have entered into the relationship had or intended to have sexual intercourse.”

    (Here and elsewhere, I draw examples from Canadian criminal law. There is no reason to suspect the Canadian code is eccentric in these instances.)

  4. Even the sexual revolutionary Wilhelm Reich seems constrained within the limits of this “binary frame.” Thus he says (my emphasis): “Nobody has the right to prohibit his or her partner from entering a temporary or lasting sexual relationship with someone else. He has only the right either to withdraw or to win the partner back” (Wilhelm Reich, The Sexual Revolution, trans, by T. P. Wolfe [New York: Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 1970], p. 28.) The possibility of sexual partners extending their union to include the other loved party as opposed to one partner having either to “win” against this third party or to “withdraw” altogether) does not seem even to occur to Reich.
  5. I will be using “sexual” and “erotic” interchangeably throughout the paper.
  6. It is worth noting here that: (a) man has by nature the most “open” sexual instinct—year-round operativeness and variety of stimuli—of all the species (except perhaps the dolphin); and (b) it is a principle of human needs in general that maximum satisfaction involves regular variation in the form of the need-object.
  7. “Roman Law had no power of intervening in the formation of marriages and there was no legal form of marriage. . . . Marriage was a matter of simple private agreement and divorce was a private transaction” (Havelock Ellis, Studies in the Psychology of Sex [New York: Random House, 1963], Vol. II, Part 3, p. 429).
  8. The dramatic reduction of sibling rivalry through an increased number of adults in the house is a phenomenon which is well known in contemporary domestic communes.
  9. One of the few other historical social relationships I can think of in which persons hold thoroughly exclusive monopoly over other persons’ means of life is slavery. Thus, as with another’s slave, it is a criminal offence “to receive” or “harbour” another’s child without “right of possession” (Canadian Criminal Code, Sec. 250).
  10. Certain cultures, for example, permit extramarital sexuality by married persons with friends, guests, or in-laws with no reported consequences of jealousy. From such evidence, one is led to speculate that the intensity and extent of jealousy at a partner’s extramarital sexual involvement is in direct proportion to the severity of the accepted cultural regulations against such involvements. In short such regulations do not prevent jealousy so much as effectively engender it.
  11. It should not be forgotten that at the same time marriage excludes marital partners from sexual contact with others, it necessarily excludes those others from sexual contact with marital partners. Walls face two ways.
  12. Those aspects of marriage law which seem to fall outside the pale of sexual property holding—for example, provisions for divorce if the husband fails to provide or is convicted of a felony or is an alcoholic—may themselves be seen as simply prescriptive characterizations of the sort of sexual property which the marriage partner must remain to retain satisfactory conjugal status: a kind of permanent warranty of the “good working order” of the sexual possession.

    What constitutes the “good working order” of the conjugal possession is, of course, different in the case of the husband and in the case of the wife: an asymmetry within the marriage institution which, I gather, women’s liberation movements are anxious to eradicate.

  13. I think it is instructive to think of even the nonlegal aspects of marriage, for example, its sentiments as essentially private property structured. Thus the preoccupation of those experiencing conjugal sentiments with expressing how much “my very own,” “my precious,” the other is: with expressing, that is, how valuable and inviolable the ownership is and will remain.
  14. I think the secret to the long mysterious incest taboo may well be the fact that in all its forms it protects sexual property: not only conjugal (as indicated above) but paternal and tribal as well. This crucial line of thought, however, requires extended separate treatment.
  15. Sometimes—as with political patronage, criminal possession, de facto privileges and so forth—a power to exclude others exists with no corresponding “right” (just as sometimes a right to exclude exists with no corresponding power). Properly speaking, thus, I should here use the phrase “power to exclude,” which covers “effective right to exclude” as well as all nonjuridical enablements of this sort.
  16. It is no doubt indispensable as well—in some form or other—to any private property order. Probably (if we take the history of Western society as our data base) the more thoroughgoing and developed the private property formation is, the more total the sexual ownership prescribed by the marriage institution.
  17. Things in unlimited supply—like, presently, oxygen—are not of course related to people in this way.
  18. This is, of course, a Freudian or quasi-Freudian claim. “Observation of daily life shows us,” says Freud, “that most persons direct a very tangible part of their sexual motive powers to their professional or business activities” (Sigmund Freud, Dictionary of Psychoanalysis, ed. by Nandor Fodor and Frank Gaynor [New York: Fawcett Publications, Premier Paperback, 1966], p. 139).
  19. It might be argued that exclusive marriage also protects those physically less attractive persons who—in an “open” situation—might be unable to secure any sexual partnership at all. The force of this claim depends, I think, on improperly continuing to posit the very principle of exclusiveness which the “open” situation rules out (e.g., in the latter situation, x might be less attractive to y than z is and yet z not be rejected, any more than at present an intimate friend is rejected who is less talented than another intimate friend).
  20. The sexual undercurrents of corporate advertisements, religious systems, racial propaganda and so on is too familiar to dwell on here.
  21. It is also possible that exclusive marriage protects the adult-youth power structure in the manner outlined on pp. 592-93.

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