Illuminating Love: On Carrie Jenkins’s “What Love Is”

By Skye C. ClearyJanuary 28, 2017

Illuminating Love: On Carrie Jenkins’s “What Love Is”

What Love Is by Carrie Jenkins

THESE ARE JUST A FEW TIPS from the ancient Roman poet Ovid — five things you can do now to cure your broken heart: stop eating onions, take a vacation, keep busy, humiliate the one who has scorned you, or criticize their weight.

Indeed, love potions and cures have enchanted humans for thousands of years — and yet it’s debatable how much closer we are to discovering love’s secrets. These days, some patch their problems over with sexual desire “dysfunction” and “disorder” medication such as Viagra and Flibanserin. Others pursue Band-Aid solutions — internet clickbait articles that promise quick fixes, self-help books, secret porn, couples therapy, sexy lingerie, and infidelity — to keep relationships on life support long after the plug ought to have been pulled. Others resign themselves to lifelong relationship boredom.

In What Love Is: And What It Could Be, Carrie Jenkins argues that it’s about time we give up on these pathetic and "desperate" solutions and, instead, think more expansively and inclusively about relationships. Arguing that lifelong monogamy isn’t natural and doesn’t work for everyone, Jenkins challenges the “normatively prescribed” but elusive romantic ideal that funnels lovers into the “cereal-box nuclear family.” Jenkins, a professor of philosophy at the University of British Columbia, published her first book on the philosophy of arithmetic. “I never planned to work on love,” the author explains, “But love snuck up on me and wouldn’t let me drop it.” On the first page of What Love Is, she describes how love seduces her:

On the mornings when I walk from my boyfriend’s apartment to the home I share with my husband, I sometimes find myself reflecting on the disconnects between my own experiences with romantic love and the way romantic love is normally understood in the time and place in which I live (Vancouver, Canada, in 2016). 

Jenkins’s analysis of love springs from her lived experience. The problem she faces is that she feels as if she has the biological machinery of romantic love with her husband and boyfriend simultaneously; but because her experience doesn’t fit neatly into the monogamous nuclear family model, she’s not sure if she can call it romantic. She points to this as one of the most alarming problems in our society; that is, we don’t know what love is, we treat it as something too mysterious to question, and we’re afraid that if we do question it, we’ll destroy it. Yet, since many people make major life decisions based on their romantic feelings, not to try to better understand is perplexing if not downright dangerous, since, as Jenkins suggests, we might end up in relationships and with families that we did not actively choose.

There are many different biological, social, and philosophical theories of romantic love, but Jenkins proposes that none can explain it entirely. Biology is tackled first, and celebrity anthropologist Helen Fisher — famous for her fMRI brain scans of lovers, TED talks with millions of views, and books such as Anatomy of Love — is Jenkins’s primary target. Jenkins disagrees with Fisher that the dopamine-fueled intense rush of the early stages of romantic love defines it exclusively. Oxytocin, Jenkins argues, though normally associated with the calm phase of attachment and affection, should be just as valid an indicator for romantic love: “It seems possible for romantic love to be calm and stable from the outset; why not?” According to Jenkins, romantic love is like a daiquiri. Most have rum, sugar, and citrus, but variations abound: frozen or on the rocks; strawberry, banana, kiwifruit, or any other flavor; and they can be made without rum, too. Just as daiquiri recipes vary, Jenkins suggests, “There is no one way to have a human biology. Romantic love is no exception to the rule.”

Helen Fisher also argues that monogamous romantic love was an evolutionary solution to “female neediness”: once women became bipeds and, arms full, could no longer carry babies on their backs, we needed males for protection. Because men couldn’t protect whole harems of women, heterosexual monogamous nuclear families emerged as the norm. With swift and graceful logic, Jenkins points out that this is highly unlikely, primarily because,

if over 1 million years passed between the arrival of bipedalism and the evolution of love, then there must have been other solutions to the problem of having one’s hands full of babies that worked well enough to keep hominid evolution going for over 1 million years […] And if bipedalism posed such a problem for female ancestors specifically, how come we didn’t end up with male-only bipedalism?

Jenkins considers other theorists as well — such as Anne Beall and Robert Sternberg — who describe romantic love as a social construct. For example, romantic love in Victorian England was based on respect and admiration for the beloved, rather than sexual desire. In our contemporary society, the script of love tells us that we are expected to fall in love, marry, have children, and be monogamous for life. We get tax breaks for doing this, and are punished for choosing otherwise, which is why divorce is such a messy business, and why anyone who deviates from the norm is ridiculed, if not shamed. Those who indulge in too much love or sex are unfaithful, adulterers, cheaters, or sluts. Those who do not indulge enough, preferring to be alone, are discriminated against on the basis of “amatonormativity” — the idea that being single is abnormal.

After assessing these and a few other biological and social theories of love, Jenkins turns an antagonistic gaze toward philosophy, which she describes as: “a frankly embarrassing catalogue of pompous people tripping over their own assumptions.” Likening philosophies of love to a junky garage sale, she picks out a few “gems” in need of a really good wash. The work of rebel thinker and Nobel Prize winner Bertrand Russell is one such diamond in the rough. She describes his work Marriage and Morals as “intoxicating if a bit dodgy” because he advocated for open relationships and sex positivity, was fired from the College of the City of New York in 1940 for his radical views, although, to Jenkins’s disappointment, “he still thought that sex without love was of ‘little value.’ And he still ultimately presented extramarital sex and love as inevitable and forgivable rather than as things people might actively choose and prefer for their own sake.”

A passing nod is given to, among others, Plato, Simone de Beauvoir, Lucius Outlaw, Charles Mills, bell hooks, Berit Brogaard, as well as popular authors such as Dan Savage. Simon May’s Love: A History is jettisoned because it focuses on the views of 12 white men and treats women as subjects of contemplation rather than as thinkers. Schopenhauer is criticized for reducing love to heteronormative and sexist stereotypes. The author’s cool attitude toward philosophers of love seems, in some cases, overly hasty; for example, when Nietzsche is flippantly dismissed primarily on the basis that Jenkins finds him to be ambiguous: “And even before I knew there was such a thing as philosophy, I learned from my mother — who learned it from her grandmother — that there comes a point when you have to say what you mean and mean what you say.”


Just like Jenkins’s vision for more inclusive relationships, so too can we have a more inclusive theory of love. Jenkins explains that she has “custom designed” one of her own that mixes the best parts of the biological and social approaches in a philosophical way. The crux of her “dual theory” is that “[s]ome of our ancient, evolved biological machinery — a collection of neural pathways and chemical responses — is currently playing a starring role of Romantic Love in a show called Modern Society.” Romantic love’s “biological machinery,” which has evolved over millions of years, includes natural and universal chemicals such as dopamine or oxytocin. The “show” is about the nuclear family and gender roles. We should, however, abandon the mistaken idea that romantic love is naturally monogamous and tear up Modern Society’s romantic script that channels us into nuclear families.

Rather, Jenkins proposes that biology of romantic love evolved simply to encourage us to socialize and cooperate and that the monogamous nuclear model does not, and should not need to work for everyone. “As a species, modern humans are a romantically diverse bunch. What ‘comes naturally’ to us varies: our infinite variety cannot be reduced to one or two standard models” and “[i]f I know anything about romantic love by now, it’s that it’s not a one-size-fits-all phenomenon.”

Yet, to be able to call a relationship “romantic,” we do need to be able to check both the biology and social boxes. Operating systems (computers, phones, robots) — like “Samantha” (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) in Spike Jonze’s Her — may play the right social role in a romantic relationship; but because Samantha lacks the relevant brain chemicals, Jenkins concludes that she does not qualify for romantic love. Conversely, lesbians in the 18th and 19th centuries may have had romantic chemicals swirling about in their brains, but because they could not play the social role, were unable to express affection publically, marry, have children, or parent, they, too, were ineligible for romantic love. However, just as the biology of love persisted, the social script evolving to include queer relationships into the norm, so does Jenkins hope that society will evolve to be accepting of those who do not marry or procreate, those who love more than one person at a time, and those who reject romantic love altogether.

The book culminates with chapters devoted to the future: what we can change and what we need to do to make changes happen. While neuroscience might well have answers for us in the future, the discipline is still relatively new. Even if manipulating love’s biology does become possible, Jenkins advises that we ought to proceed with great caution, since “[o]ur track record is not a shining example of humanity’s ability to wield medical technologies with competence and compassion.” Purported “cures” to homosexual love — such as “chemical castration” and “conversion therapy” — are examples of how medicalizing love can be ethically problematic.

The social side of romantic love is “malleable,” Jenkins argues, and acceptance of new relationship forms is high on her wish list for creating a new picture — what she calls new “contours” — of romantic love in modern society. While rejection of marriage, refusal to procreate, and singledom might seem so ubiquitous in the 21st-century Western world to be of little concern, Jenkins points out that polyamory is particularly controversial because it rocks the boat of patriarchal oppression: it threatens “paternity control through the sexual restriction of women and the conception of a romantic partner as one’s private property.” This may go some way to explaining why gender stereotypes persist — such as the idea that women ought to earn less and do more housework than men even if they work more — and that the highest ideal of love is for women to be obedient and loyal to husbands. Jenkins rightly points out that such stereotypes can perpetuate discrimination, oppression, and abuse. For example, it’s perfectly normal to be a serial monogamist; but “[i]f you have two permanent relationships simultaneously, you are ‘a degenerate herpes-infested whore.’” In some places, polyamory is punishable by death. There are anti-adultery laws in the United States, too, although Jenkins points out that the last time this law was tested was in 2004 and the punishment was community service. Overturning such outdated laws and leaving behind damaging stereotypes and stigmas would, Jenkins suggests, be good first steps toward reshaping the future of love for the better.


Jenkins does not explicitly encourage those who don’t fit into the nuclear norm to “come out” and risk the tyranny of the majority. Although she proposes that “[i]t’s time we got to choose our own adventures,” she does not think it’s achievable in the near term. The book’s immediate call to action is for readers to “think about love for yourself.” This is where using herself as a case study works to her advantage: she lets readers in on some personal secrets, thereby creating the feeling that the book is a safe thinking space. Her personal approach also humanizes her argument because it gives readers concrete examples about the aggressions, judgments, and discriminations to which she has been subjected.

Nonetheless, it’s a risky philosophical move to use oneself as a case study. Jenkins justifies it by acknowledging that it’s difficult — if not impossible — to be completely objective in one’s thinking but that all we have to do is be honest and acknowledge the baggage that we bring with us. The problem is that she writes as if polyamory is a kind of utopia — if only it weren’t for everyone else being so judgmental. Jealousy is a non-issue; there is no discussion of the emotional and psychological intricacies of creating and being in polyamorous relationships. Simone de Beauvoir is one of the few philosophers that Jenkins admires; yet, there is no acknowledgment that de Beauvoir herself wrote extensively about juggling her many long-term love relationships. The book acknowledges, briefly, that polyamorous and polyandrous cultures have existed, but there are no insights into how those societies worked, in what ways such structures were successful, what the obstacles were, and why they didn’t survive. If Jenkins has not herself experienced these issues, this reveals a major limitation of using only herself as a case study. If she has come across these kinds of complications, and omits them to paint an idealistic picture of polyamory, then the book does not reflect the “careful, rigorous, honest thinking” that she aims for.

Jenkins also glosses over arguments about romantic love and overlooks important thinkers. For example, it’s unclear why Simon May is singled out for criticism, while other contemporary philosophers of love, sex, and marriage — such as Harry Frankfurt, J. David Velleman, Roger Scruton, Irving Singer, and Robert Solomon and Kathleen Higgins — remain untouched. She does not consider religious arguments for monogamy — for instance, the view that love unites two individuals to one other, to nature, and to God. Then, too, she applies the term “romantic” very broadly, to relationships that might more accurately be described as passionate, erotic, or conjugal. Because she wants to assume that romantic love dates back millions of years, the fact that love wasn’t described as “romantic” until the Romantic Movement of the 18th century doesn’t register as an issue. As Robert Solomon and Kathleen Higgins, for example, point out in The Philosophy of (Erotic) Love, romantic love emerged specifically as the alternative to arranged marriages with the rise of Western individualism and capitalism.

For the Romantics, romantic love was built on a foundation of sexual desire. For Jenkins, it is not. The omission of sexual desire from her theory could be part of a broader strategy to divert the focus of polyamory away from sex. In July 2016, Jenkins published a piece with The Establishment critiquing the media for its propensity to publish articles about polyamory with pictures of multiple sets of feet under a white duvet, thereby implying that “polyamory is all about having sex with lots of people.” Sexual desire and the dopamine rush that Helen Fisher attributes to romantic love are optional add-ons in Jenkins’s theory: all we need is oxytocin, the chemical that seems to fuel affection and attachment. But since attachment and affection describe all kinds of love, it’s unclear what makes love romantic in Jenkins’s dual theory.

To her credit, Jenkins foresees this criticism — that romantic love might become indistinguishable from other forms of love. She writes:

I don’t see that this would be a common problem; often a selection of the optional extras would be present, helping to determine that the love involved is romantic. But in an ideal world — where we have ceased privileging romantic love as the norm for everybody — who cares?

However, it’s not at all certain that we will be able to identify love as romantic from an infinite buffet of possibilities. How will we know if it’s friendship or romantic love? Ultimately, what we call a relationship doesn’t matter to this author: “If it’s a close call whether a relationship is romantic or platonic, the people in the relationship could just call it how they want it. Why not?” Nevertheless, since Jenkins has spent the book arguing that we need to get rid of the “romantic mystique” in order to understand what romantic love is, declaring that it’s whatever we want it to be — and does whatever we want it to do — risks creating even more confusion and mystery.

However, despite these limitations and the author’s penchant for frivolous rhetorical questions such as “who cares?” and “why not?”, the book does give an exceptionally clear and easily readable account of the current research into romantic love and ideas for how we might think differently about it. It’s a warm and friendly sort of book; the tone is bubbly and chatty, as when she aptly promises: “it’ll take us into the realms of medicine, magic, queerness, wisdom, dopamine, gender, Romans, rainbows, rationality, Sappho, soul mates, politics, and, of course, human nature. Buckle up!” and when she introduces the challenges of thinking about love:

Answers are not going to appear neatly tied up with a heart-shaped bow. We can and should trace out the broad-brush contours of love, but if we go looking for sharp edges — a tidy, simple theory — we are bound to be disappointed. Trying to state the nature of romantic love with precision is like trying to nail some Jell-O to a wall made of Jell-O, using a Jell-O nail.

In her prologue, Jenkins proposes that “[l]ove is an extreme sport, and we don’t skydive without parachutes.” While love (in general) does survive the leap herein, romantic love is at risk of being theorized out of existence. Nevertheless, if one takes What Love Is in the spirit in which the author intends — “not to passively absorb my ideas but to question, challenge, and ultimately push these investigations far beyond anything I can imagine right now” — if we can have a conversation about our assumptions and expectations and how we exercise our agency in relationships, perhaps we will eventually find ourselves more accepting of the alternatives and of those who choose them.


Skye C. Cleary PhD is a philosopher and author of Existentialism and Romantic Love. She teaches at Columbia University, Barnard College, and the City College of New York.

LARB Contributor

Skye C. Cleary, PhD, MBA, is the author of How to Be Authentic: Simone de Beauvoir and the Quest for Fulfillment (St. Martin’s Press, 2022) and Existentialism and Romantic Love (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), and co-editor of How to Live a Good Life: A Guide to Choosing Your Personal Philosophy (Vintage, 2020). She teaches at Columbia University, Barnard College, and the City College of New York.


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