MONOGAMY: A One-Act Screenplay | Bob Shepherd

A holographic virtual classroom meeting on a lawn on Kizhi Island in Lake Onega, Russia, 2059 CE, the onion-shaped domes of the Transfiguration Church in the background. Thirteen students, attending via remote presence avatars, sit in a circle, their professor’s avatar at the front. The holographic bodies look almost, but not quite, real. There is a shimmery, heightened quality to them, but they look quite substantial. Throughout the scene, “LIKES” thermometer icons beside student heads fill or empty as other students approve or disapprove their comments.

PROFESSOR
Does anyone have any question about today’s reading?

LINA S
Yes, I have a question. When Prince Andrei learns of Natasha’s affair with Anatole, he breaks off their engagement. Why is that? I don’t understand.

PROFESSOR
Well, this is one reason why we read older literature, to attempt to understand the culture and folkways of those who wrote these works.

LINA S
Yes, but why?

PROFESSOR
Well, this is not easy to explain, but I will try. You see, in the Oldtimes, people believed that married people, and people about to get married, like Natasha, should have only one sexual partner—the married partner.

BORIS K
You’re kidding.

PROFESSOR
I know that this will seem strange to you, but that was the belief. People used to think that having physical pleasure with anyone other than the married partner (or soon-to-be-married partner) was a great evil—that, in fact, a decision to marry entailed a promise to have sex only with that other person, the mate. They called this behavior “being faithful.”

LINA S
So this was some sort of contamination thing, like the menstruation taboo?

ELENA Q
Menstruation taboo?

LINA S
Yes, in some cultures, they made women stay alone in a separate room when they were menstruating. The ancient Hebrews did this. And then after, they had to take a ritual bath before they could be readmitted to social interaction. So, uh, Professor, for how long did this contamination taboo last?

PROFESSOR
I’m sorry. Could you rephrase that question?

LINA S
You say that the soon-to-be-married or married partner would have to not touch anyone else sexually. For how long?

PROFESSOR
Forever. Or, that is, until one of the partners died.

ELENA Q
What?

BORIS K
You’re kidding.

PROFESSOR
No, Boris. I’m quite serious. Let me see if I can explain this to you. They believed that a married person should have sex only with his or her partner. In fact, they were quite adamant about this. Violating this taboo was considered a very grave moral crime, a betrayal of the marriage contract. If someone did this, he or she had to keep the act secret, and because the knowledge was withheld from the partner, the act was considered a violation of trust, being “unfaithful.”

ELENA Q
Oh my God. That’s crazy.

PROFESSOR
Don’t just expostulate, Elena. Say why. Why is that crazy?

ELENA Q
Sure. It’s like if I said, “Hey, Boris. I saw you talking to Lina earlier. I don’t get it. You are MY friend. So you can’t have any OTHER friends and hold conversations. That’s a betrayal. That’s not being—what was the word?—faithful to me. Our friendship is over. I’m done.”

BORIS K
(Light blinks on, momentarily, above BORIS’S head, spelling out LMAO, and then disappears.) Ha! Yes, exactly, Elena! That’s just kooky. How could they possibly have thought such a thing, Professor? As Elena points out, it’s absurd, on the face of it.

PROFESSOR
I told you that this wouldn’t be easy to understand. You have to try to put yourself back into these people’s heads. They were very, very insecure, these people. They believed that if their mate had sex with someone else, he or she might prefer that sex and leave them. And weirdly, that’s just what some people—many people—did.

IRINA M
They would leave a partner because they had good sex with someone? What about commitment? the partnership contract? their shared experiences? their plans together? It’s just bodies enjoying each other. Did they do this if their partner had better tennis with someone else?

LINA S
Elena, I don’t know how to break this to you. But I went bicycling with Andre, and it was, well, very, very good. So I have to break off our relationship.

ELENA
Lina, how could you! Imagine that, bicycling with someone else! So evil. (Evil laugh icon above LINA’S head.)

PROFESSOR
You have to understand that we are not talking about rational creatures here. Our recent ancestors were very, very primitive. Remember the name of this novel we are reading: War and Peace. These are people who used to resolve disagreements by killing one another in large numbers. The insanity of that is led Tolstoy to write this novel.

LINA S
But this goes beyond ordinary irrationality, Professor. You would expect even very irrational people to act in their own interest. What on Earth would make them think that they WANTED only to have sex with one person, not for a day or a week or a month but forever? That’s just nuts. Certifiably insane.

BORIS K
Yeah, it’s like. I like pizza, but I don’t want to have it for breakfast, lunch, and dinner every day for the rest of my life.

LINA S
Exactly.

ELENA Q
(OMG light above ELENA’S head.) Oh my God. It just hit me.

LINA S
What?

ELENA Q
They would only know what sex was like with, like, one person. I mean, like, forever. (Exclamation lights appear above several students’ heads.) Oh my Lord. That is very, very sad. The poor things!

LINA S
They must have been pretty sexually inept, too, come to think of it. I mean, one partner? Forever? How would they possibly become at all accomplished as sexual partners? Think of it. How many partners do you have to spar with to become any good at judo or karate or kendo? How many do you have to dance with to become any good at salsa or ballet? These people would all have been complete sexual amateurs. They freaking wouldn’t have a clue. I’m with Boris. You have to be kidding.

PROFESSOR
Well, in all fairness, they typically did have more partners than just the one. During the recent past—I’m talking sixty, seventy years ago—they would typically date before getting married, and they would sleep with some of those partners until they found the one to get married to. So, they might have four or five partners altogether.

BORIS K
Four or five? In a LIFETIME? As vastly different as people are? You’re kidding. (Exclamation marks above heads all around.)

LINA S
That’s some crazy shit.

BORIS K
You’re telling me.

PROFESSOR
And, of course, since almost no one could actually keep from breaking this taboo over the course of an entire lifetime, they would have one or two other partners over the years, but those they would have to keep secret.

LINA S
Or their partner would leave them, the way Prince Andrei left Natasha.

PROFESSOR
Yes, you’re getting it.

LINA S
Freaking weird. These people were crazy.

ELENA Q
(Reaching over and touching BORIS’S avatar) There, Lina. I just touched Boris. So, we cannot be partners anymore. You will have to leave me.

LINA S
Yes! What about that? Again, it doesn’t make sense, Professor. Why would I break off my very satisfying relationship with Elena . . .

ELENA Q
Thank you. (Heart symbol blinks on and off above ELENA’S head.)

LINA S
Just because her body touched Boris’s body? It’s not like touching Boris made her any less desirable.

ELENA Q
Obviously.

(LINA waves her hand in air, sending a heart symbol to hover above ELENA’S head.)

PROFESSOR
But that’s just it. They did think that it made the partner less desirable. You hit upon something, Lina, in suggesting that it was a contamination taboo—a superstition—but it was more than that. It involved jealousy and possessiveness.

ANDRE G
Can you explain that?

PROFESSOR
I will try. But here we will be getting into some really primitive stuff, and this will require a little history, so bear with me. OK. You see, early humans lived in small bands, and these were very egalitarian, but with the rise of the city state in ancient Sumer and Akkad and Babylonia and Egypt and Mexico and the Andes, there came centralization of authority, specialization of work, and the creation of standing armies to take resources from the hunter-gatherers and foragers and herders living outside the city state. This continual expansion, through warfare—looting and killing—was necessary because a city state required lots of nonproductive workers that had to be supported—ones who didn’t grow or otherwise produce food—administrators and scribes and the warriors themselves. Tolstoy doesn’t get into this, but that’s where warfare comes from. Another gift of “civilization” and the city-state.

ANDRE G
But what does that have to do with jealousy and possessiveness? And what do you mean by those things?

PROFESSOR
I’m getting to that. One of the specializations that occurred in the city state was by gender. The female became responsible for the children, and the male had a job—as a farmer or administrator or warrior or whatever—and a relationship emerged in which the woman was considered the male’s property, like a cow or a horse or a plow. She no longer had any say in her own life. She was bartered to the man by her father. The man, her husband, was then her absolute master—her ruler. Everything in these city states was intensely hierarchical. We call this the emergence of patriarchy—rule by men.

ANDRE G
But what does that have to do with . . . .

PROFESSOR
I’m getting to that. The man wanted his property to belong exclusively to him, and just as a neighbor could not milk his cow, that neighbor could not have sex with his wife because she was his property.

ELENA Q
But the two are not at all the same. The milk is a limited resource. If you take it and drink it or make cheese with it, it’s gone. If I fuck Boris, it’s not like I can’t then fuck Lina.

LINA S
And very well, I might add. Because of her varied experience and expertise.

ELENA Q
Thank you. (Sends kissy emoji to float above LINA’S head.)

PROFESSOR
I don’t know what to say to that, Elena. Of course, you’re right, but that’s not how these people saw it. There emerged a situation, which lasted for thousands of years, in which women were treated as property and men were allowed to have sex with whomever they wished, but women weren’t. Women were to be monogamous, and they were punished severely when they weren’t. The sexual freedom and other kinds of freedom that existed for women in hunter-gatherer societies simply ceased to exist. Women were chattel.

BEATA N
To hell with that!

PROFESSOR
Oh, it gets even worse. There emerged, in the Western world, in what was then called Europe, a religion that became very powerful and influential, and the founders of this religion—they called them “Church Fathers”—had some peculiar ideas. They thought that all pleasure was evil, what they called “sinful.” In fact, one of those Church Fathers, a fellow named St. Jerome, wrote that sitting in a garden was sinful because it was pleasurable.

LINA S
So they disliked pleasure? How could that even be possible? It’s, like, totally self-contradictory.

PROFESSOR
They believed that love of pleasure tied you to the Earth, with all the terrible things that the Earth has to offer, like, you know, fjords, music, clouds before the moon, the laughter of children, a lover’s embrace. They had this map of the world in which the real was unreal and the unreal was real and you would have pie in the sky when you die.

They taught that we should reject Earthly things and, among them, enjoyment of sex. They taught, in fact, that sexual interaction, except between married partners, was a terrible crime and that sex for any reason besides procreation was a terrible crime and that any kind of sex other than missionary position intercourse for the purpose of making children was a crime . . . .

ELENA Q
What?!?!?! No play?!?!?! (Exclamation emjois all around.)

PROFESSOR
and that if you committed any of these crimes, you would be punished not for a time but ETERNALLY by their primitive, revenge-seeking God. And for two thousand years, this church taught everyone, and women especially, that sex was shameful and made women, especially, ashamed of sex and of their bodies until many, perhaps even most, of the women became extremely, well, damaged, psychologically, to the point that many weren’t even capable of normal sexual response. By the twentieth century, a THIRD of all women went through their ENTIRE LIVES without experiencing orgasm. Two thousand years before that, among the ancient Greeks, it was considered a given that women were more libidinous than men were, but by the twentieth century, almost everyone thought that exactly the opposite was true.

ELENA Q
But even these Neanderthals must have figured out that women are much more sexually capable than men are. I mean, the clitoral nub alone has more nerve endings than does the entire penis and scrotum, for crying out loud, and the nub is just the tip of a much larger organ—the tip of the clitoral iceberg, as it were. Sorry, Boris.

BORIS K
No offense taken. That’s just basic anatomy.

PROFESSOR
You raise an interesting point, Elena, Boris. But these people didn’t understand basic anatomy, at least not female anatomy. The standard textbook on the subject from this period, which was called Gray’s Anatomy, was in print for over a hundred years before its authors finally got the anatomy of the clitoris right. I know because I did a thesis on this in graduate school. You see, people weren’t really interested in talking about female sexual response. Well, let me rephrase that—it wasn’t that they weren’t interested—it was that they had been taught by the church that women weren’t supposed to be interested in sex or sexually responsive—not decent women, at any rate—because, you see, the church taught that sex was indecent.

ELENA Q
Insane. But, but . . . surely even these people could see that women are capable of multiple orgasm, one on top of another, whereas men are, well—one pop, two at the most, and they need some serious recovery time. Obviously, women are more innately sexual.

BEATA N
Duh!

ANDRE G
We’re getting off track here. You were explaining about jealousy and—what was the term you used?—possessiveness.

PROFESSOR
Yes. Yes. Thank you, Andre. So, despite this religion that taught that sexuality in general was sinful and that people were supposed to be monogamous, things continued pretty much as they always had—with the women being body shamed by the church and forced to be monogamous and the men not being so. For many centuries, the men pretty much did what they wanted, not officially, mind you, but in reality. It just wasn’t talked about, whereas the women, for the most part, had their sexual lives severely curtailed. At the height of the Victorian Era, at the culmination of millennia of sexual repression, at a time when people were so repressed that they were actually putting little skirts on the legs of pianos to keep from exposing them, all the cities of Europe had thousands—literally thousands—of brothels—places where men paid to have sex with sex workers, but not like the ones we have today, but ones who were looked down upon severely by the culture in general. The men were having lots of sex—though it was incredibly guilty sex because they thought it was sinful—and the women who weren’t sex workers were having hardly any. This continued until about the 19th and 20th centuries, when, instead of granting women the freedom that men had always had, people decided that, in the interest of fairness, men should be as unfree as their women were.

BORIS K
Professor, that’s seriously messed up.

PROFESSOR
I’m not denying that, of course. It IS pathological. Imagine the possibilities of experience that these poor people, living with such mind-forged manacles, never had.

ALEXI V
What will you do with your wild and precious life?

DIMITRI R
Not much I guess! (LOL symbol above DIMITRI’S head. He waves a kissy emoji to ALEXI.)

ELENA Q
Just what I said. Sad. It makes me want to cry thinking of all they lost, of all they did not experience because they were so messed up. How narrow their lives must have been!

ANDRE G
I still don’t get this jealousy and possessiveness thing.

LENA S
Don’t you see? As Professor P just explained, they first thought of the women as cattle, as possessions. And then, much later, they decided that they had to start treating the men that way, too. It’s like, each, to the other, was a cow, an object, a thing owned and possessed, utterly possessed, the way you might possess something you’ve swallowed whole. Damn. I’m mixing my metaphors.

ANDRE G
OK. I get the possession and property thing. But what about the jealousy? I still don’t get that. What does that mean?

PROFESSOR
Well, when their taboo against sex outside of the marriage was broken by one of the partners, this caused the other partner to feel lessened because they thought—OK, this is going to sound very strange to you—they thought that if someone wanted to have sex with someone else it meant that they weren’t enough, that this somehow lessened them, reflected poorly on them, was a judgment about their own desirability, or lack thereof. The partner who found about this illicit sex would feel hurt, as well as fear of losing the other partner, and that hurt and fear would morph into hatred and rage and a desire for revenge. Very primitive stuff.

ELENA Q
OMG. You said they were insecure.

PROFESSOR
Yes, pathologically so. So insecure that they were actually willing to limit their own freedom FOREVER in exchange for not feeling that.

ANDRE G
So, you’re saying that they would feel all this simply because their partner rubbed his or her body against another body? And that if that happened, they would trash their relationships? And that they would give up their own personal freedom and force their partners to do the same because they were pathologically insecure? That’s fucked up.

PROFESSOR
Well, yes. But that’s how they thought. I told you that it wouldn’t be easy to get inside the minds of these ancients. Superstition, contamination taboos, insecurity, fear of their partners’ freedom and of their own, treatment of women as chattel, absurd beliefs about a pleasure-hating god, different rules for men and women, and male prerogatives in every sphere of life. It was a toxic brew.

ELENA Q
Incredible. One partner for the rest of your life. It’s hard to imagine. It’s so desperately, desperately sad. A lover is another country or even another world. Living the way these people used to would be like, like living your whole live in a five-mile radius of where you were born. Or like CHOOSING to live your whole life in a dungeon with a view, through a slit, of a few cobbles in a courtyard. Here, my friends, through this slit—the world. It consists of a few cobbles.

BORIS K
But what about love? Didn’t these people love their partners?

PROFESSOR
Ah. That is a very good question. We’ll return to why you are asking that in a bit. But first, the answer. Did they love their partners? For many, many centuries, no.

ELENA Q
What?!?!

PROFESSOR
For most of human history, marriage had nothing to do with love. It was a contract for exchange of property—the property being the woman, someone to clean and have children and take care of those children, alone, for they no longer lived in large social units—those hunter-gatherer bands, in which the burdens of childrearing were borne by the group. This contract, by the way, was arranged for the woman while she was still a child. She had no say in the matter. But that changed over time. Eventually, after hundreds of years, there was a kind of revolution in people’s thinking—we call it the Romantic Revolution–and many came to believe that married people were supposed to love one another. This happened in the 18th and 19th centuries.

BORIS K
So that’s when they finally got rid of the taboo about sex with others?

PROFESSOR
Oh, no. That taboo persisted. People began to think that people were supposed to have this business sort of relationship with their partners AND to be in love with them AND to have sex only with them.

BORIS K
But that makes no sense. (Question mark emoji above his head.) If they supposedly loved their mates, if they actually cared about and for them, why would they want to limit their mated partner’s freedom and experience so . . . so extremely?

LINA S
Exactly! Elena, I love you very, very much. You are the most important person in the world to me. Therefore, I want you to have as little pleasure and experience as possible for the rest of your life. That’s just freaking crazy. These people were batshit crazy.

PROFESSOR
I can’t argue with that. But try to think as they did about this. Because of the teachings of the church, they considered sex dirty—that’s the contamination taboo part—they had a whole raft of linguistic terminology related to this—sex was dirty, obscene, nasty, impure, vulgar, perverse, immoral, and so on. They actually used these terms. They had such a low opinion of sex that terms like fuck you were actually considered insults. The term came from a Germanic root meaning ”to hit,” “to strike.” In many languages, the idea of a parent having intercourse was considered extremely repugnant. In French, for example, a common insult was Nique ta mère, which meant fuck your mother.

ELENA Q
Fuck you, Lina.

LINA S
Yes please.

PROFESSOR
Today, we use the term slut in a very positive way, of course, but at one time, it was considered a terrible insult and was one of a great many terms invented for shaming women about their own sexuality—whore, cunt, skank—there were many, many of these that have now, fortunately, dropped out of the language.

This sort of language was like pollution in an aquifer. It absolutely permeated our ancestors’ thinking and feeling about sex and sexuality. Even people who were relatively open-minded had thoughts and emotions infected with this nonsense. Because people operate mostly on autopilot, they developed extremely low opinions of sex and sexuality and of sex workers, all of which they considered nasty or dirty, not good, healthy fun like tennis or working out at the gym.

Consider, for example, the word crummy. It originally meant delectable, tasty, like a crumb, or piece, of cake. But Victorian men used the word to refer to the prostitutes at the brothels, as in, “Oh my, but isn’t she crummy?”—meaning delectable, and then, because they thought sex was somehow unclean or “dirty,” they came to associate the word crummy with anything that was lower-class or unpleasant. So, when they thought of their partners having sex with someone else, they didn’t think of it as we do, as normal, healthy, pleasurable experience available to everyone in extraordinarily delightful variety but as something sickening because they had been taught that they were supposed to think of sex as something sickening, and they did. Again, I have to ask you to try to make the effort to think about this as they did.

ELENA Q
Oh my God. No thank you!

PROFESSOR
I understand. I’m sure we’re all agreed on this point. But hey, you guys asked. And at any rate, it’s interesting, isn’t it, how strange things used to be? It literally took thousands of years for people to undo the damage done by those early city states and by the church. But thankfully, that’s all history now, like war and enslavement and poverty and economic inequity and sexism and racism and ageism and classism and homophobia and the creation of money in the form of indebtedness and wage-slavery—all these other evils from the infancy of our species. And we’ve been saying “ancient history” here because, obviously, everything has changed, but none of this was very long ago. Vestiges of all this nonsense still survive. OK. Any other questions? There’s a bigger lesson here, even, than this. It takes a great deal of effort to get into the minds of people long, long ago. They didn’t think like us.

LINA S
You can say that again.

ELENA Q
Didn’t think like us? My Lord. They didn’t think at all it seems. Or, at least, they didn’t think at all well or clearly.

PROFESSOR
Yes. Well, yes, of course. That’s true. . . .

ELENA Q
But? You sound like there’s a but there.

PROFESSOR
No. No. You’re right, Elena, of course. But please remember that this was before any augmentation of general intelligence. These people lived in a demon-haunted world, and they were slaves to their own collective histories. They didn’t—how do I say this nicely?—they didn’t have the ability to think beyond what they had been taught by their cultures, beyond these superstitions and folkways passed down from generation to generation. It’s like their cultural histories were a river of molasses, and they were trying, with their limited ability, to swim in this river.

BEATA N
And all that most of them could do was swim in the direction in which that history was carrying them, however nasty and sticky and dark and suffocating it was.

PROFESSOR
Yes. Well put, Beata. Exactly.

Copyright 2018. Robert D. Shepherd. All rights reserved.

For other essays (and cartoons!) by Bob Shepherd on philosophical subjects, go here: https://bobshepherdonline.wordpress.com/category/philosophy/

For more essays on love, go here: https://bobshepherdonline.wordpress.com/category/love/

For more essays on sex and gender, go here: https://bobshepherdonline.wordpress.com/category/sex-and-gender/

 

About Bob Shepherd

interests: curriculum design, educational technology, learning, linguistics, hermeneutics, rhetoric, philosophy (Continental philosophy, Existentialism, metaphysics, philosophy of language, philosophy of mind, epistemology, ethics), classical and jazz guitar, poetry, the short story, archaeology and cultural anthropology, history of religion, prehistory, veganism, sustainability, Anglo-Saxon literature and language, systems for emergent quality control, heuristics for innovation
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