Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Sexual Selection and Modern Dating

The other day my beautiful wife emailed me a link to this City Journal article entitled "Love in the Time of Darwinism" by Kay S. Hymowitz about the selective pressures which the modern dating environment places on the mating pool. It seems the same author had written another article earlier this year entitled "Child-Man in the Promised Land" about the phenomenon of single men in their twenties and even thirties who, rather than shouldering the "grown up" interests of their forefathers a generation or two before, linger in an extended adolescence of playing video games, watching cartoons and gross-out comedies, and seeking only uncommitted sex rather than marriage on the dating scene. In response to this first article, the author had received numerous emails from young men informing her that the reason that they behaved that way was essentially that the actions of the women on the dating scene left them little other choice. Hymowitz sums up their reaction this way:
Their argument, in effect, was that the SYM [single young male] is putting off traditional markers of adulthood—one wife, two kids, three bathrooms—not because he’s immature but because he’s angry. He’s angry because he thinks that young women are dishonest, self-involved, slutty, manipulative, shallow, controlling, and gold-digging. He’s angry because he thinks that the culture disses all things male. He’s angry because he thinks that marriage these days is a raw deal for men.
And so this article is basically an investigation into how accurate this complaint is.

As with many such articles, what follows is a mix of anecdote, analysis and mild titillation. Hymowitz essentially takes the position that in a society with no fixed paradigm for what what women can or should have as expectations in dating, women on the modern dating scene often simply choose to expect that men fulfill whatever expectations they happen to have at the moment:
But then, when an SYM walks into a bar and sees an attractive woman, it turns out to be nothing like that. The woman may be hoping for a hookup, but she may also be looking for a husband, a co-parent, a sperm donor, a relationship, a threesome, or a temporary place to live. She may want one thing in November and another by Christmas. “I’ve gone through phases in my life where I bounce between serial monogamy, Very Serious Relationships and extremely casual sex,” writes Megan Carpentier on Jezebel, a popular website for young women. “I’ve slept next to guys on the first date, had sex on the first date, allowed no more than a cheek kiss, dispensed with the date-concept altogether after kissing the guy on the way to his car, fucked a couple of close friends and, more rarely, slept with a guy I didn’t care if I ever saw again.” Okay, wonders the ordinary guy with only middling psychic powers, which is it tonight?

In fact, young men face a bewildering multiplicity of female expectations and desire. Some women are comfortable asking, “What’s your name again?” when they look across the pillow in the morning. But plenty of others are looking for Mr. Darcy. In her interviews with 100 unmarried, college-educated young men and women, Jillian Straus, author of Unhooked Generation, discovered that a lot of women had “personal scripts”—explicit ideas about how a guy should act, such as walking his date home or helping her on with her coat. Straus describes a 26-year-old journalist named Lisa fixed up for a date with a 29-year-old social worker. When he arrives at her door, she’s delighted to see that he’s as good-looking as advertised. But when they walk to his car, he makes his first mistake: he fails to open the car door for her. Mistake Number Two comes a moment later: “So, what would you like to do?” he asks. “Her idea of a date is that the man plans the evening and takes the woman out,” Straus explains. But how was the hapless social worker supposed to know that? In fact, Doesn’t-Open-the-Car-Door Guy might well have been chewed out by a female colleague for reaching for the office door the previous week.
The result, according to Hymowitz's analysis, is thus that men eventually decide that women are essentially out for whatever they happen to want at the moment (which in cases like some of those above certainly appears to be the case) and so decide they might as well seek to find tactics for getting whatever they want out of life (in this case: video games, sex and fart jokes.) The result is what Hymowitz describes as a Darwinian struggle in which both men and women seek tactics to get what they want out of the other without giving commitments or putting up with behaviors they don't want.

While I recognize that any "struggle for survival" has in our culture come to be referred to as "Darwinian", I can't help finding this a rather peculiar use of the term, since to the extent that all of this churn in the dating world is intended to be entirely sterile it really has nothing to do with "reproductive success". Hymowitz says
No, the problem with the Darwinian tenor of the Menaissance is neither antipathy to women’s equality nor a misguided reading of female nature. It is an uncompromising biological determinism that makes no room for human cultivation. We are animals, the new Darwinians seem to say; get used to it. They define manhood as alpha-style toughness and unsentimental promiscuity. And in that spirit, they cultivate manipulation, calculation, and naked (in both the literal and metaphorical sense) self-interest. “Nature doesn’t care about hurting people’s feelings,” explains dating coach Mike Pilinski. “It cares ONLY about reproductive success.”
And yet one of the things that strikes me about this described system is that while it is a struggle shaped by the ways in which certain tactics achieve or fail to achieve their goals, it is a wholly un-natural situation. The whole reason why the scene that the article describes is even able to exist is that modern technology allows people to totally separate (or at least, imagine that they are totally separating) sex from its traditional context of producing offspring.

And in that regard, when I read this sort of thing (which apparently the parents on our local Catholic homeschooling email list are forwarding around with proclamations of how this seals their determination never to allow their children to date) I can't help wondering how real and widespread a phenomenon is actually being described here. I don't doubt that the people interviewed in the article, and in the books and studies quoted in the article, exist. But what percentage of the population has actually experienced anything like this sex-saturated primal struggle to get everything one wants without compromising any of one's own desires? Perhaps it's huge and I've somehow managed to live in a small corner of the Catholic sub-culture where I missed it. However, my impression is that while the dating scene described in the article doubtless exists among people of a certain income and background, in certain areas of the large cities throughout the US, for most people the post-sexual-revolution dating scene is one in which most people end up having sex before marriage, but nonetheless fairly quickly find themselves in long term relationships where they have children, share bank accounts and argue about who left the dishes undone.

There must be, it seems to me, a strong pull towards a moderately "traditional" lifestyle inherent within the human person simply because we are creatures made to associate sex with the closeness necessary to form a family able to nurture the children which naturally result from it. So to the extent that the culture described in this article is widespread (rather than just a good story for scaring parents and exciting those who wish they knew what bars the interviewees were hanging out at), I don't see how it could be sustainable. It's a culture which one can only bring new people into the world by leaving, and as such it seems like something that would naturally burn itself out fairly quickly. Even in the present of birth control technology which is obviously socially disruptive, if people are indeed going to keep reproducing and having anything vaguely resembling a stable family culture, this kind of sub-culture must be either very small or very transitory.

As Christians, our duty is to make it clear through word and example what the sane alternative is.


Anonymous said...

Women have a natural hormonal cycle that provides a likely explanation for their constantly changing expectations of men noted in the article.

I agree that the exciting life of casual sex suggested anecdotally here is unlikely. The first set of statistics I could find stated average number of lifetime parters around 40 was 6-8 for men and 4 for women - hardly indicative that a majority of young men partcipate in the casual hookup culture.

It should be obvious that only a minority of men have the charisma and attraciveness to pick up women regularly enough to offset the advantages of a relationship and only a subset of these would be foolish enough to spend their youth chasing barflies when they could secure an attractive, well-adjusted wife instead.

-Peter G

Jeremy said...

I'd say it was pretty close. I wasn't in on the casual sex scene, but I was around it a lot. I was quite frustrated with dating. I never could figure out what was expected of me, or what kind of date it was going to be. I had decided to bale on the whole thing and just play video games and drink beer for the rest of my life, but then I met my wife, one of the few sane women I had met in the world, and things are much better now.

The Opinionated Homeschooler said...

The whole fuss on That Catholic Homeschooling List reminded me of the 18th-century middle class getting its frisson of moral horror from tales of the Hellfire Club(s). Did you know there are so-called gentlemen out there who are only out to seduce and ruin virtuous young ladies? Keep your daughters under a close eye!

Darwin said...

I certainly heard about the pickup culture, from friends who'd gone to colleges like Swarthmore and Pomona. I ran into it for a couple days visiting St. John's, Santa Fe as a high school senior, and that was pretty much what made my decision to go to Steuvenville (I felt like at a college with that active a drugs and sex culture I'd end up coming out a rather annoying puritan.)

But somehow I've managed to never run into it in the professional world. The middle-aged sales guys at the company I worked for in California were always talking about their visits to the Playboy Mansion, but the people my age were either quietly married evangelicals or people in long term "living with" arrangements. And now in corporate park Texas I mostly run into the long term living-withs or the married-late-with-two-bonsai-children two income professional set.

I don't doubt that the milieu described in the article exists, I guess I'm just not clear that it's actually very large. But then, I could be wrong. Some people don't know anyone who voted for Nixon...

Opinionated Homeschooler,

Yes, I'm always a bit put off by the working up of massive indignation (or intricate plans) around the need to protect one's daughters. While I will encourage my daughters to, as I did, not put themselves into situations where everyone they know is following a moral code that is alien and distasteful to them, I mostly count on making sure that _they_ are well prepared to protect their own virtue, rather than coming up with elaborate vetting processes for potential boyfriends.

But then, one of my influences there is that MrsDarwin and I were always very much annoyed by the heavy-handed attempts of the Steubenville student life office to make sure that couples didn't have any good places to be alone together on campus. Though we had no intention of acting as they feared, we did very much want to be able to go off and have some privacy to talk or what have you.

TS said...

Tom Wolfe said he did a lot of research before writing "I am Charlotte Simmons", a book that describes a lot of college promiscuity, so perhaps it is as bad as it seems.

NRO had an article way back when making the case for earlier marriages (i.e. before everyone gets corrupted) although I wonder at the feasibility.

A local talk show host says that society is only as good as its women, since they are the "gate keepers". Since he was a male, you could read into that he was trying to absolve his gender from responsibility, but it does seem women have changed more than men over the past 40 yrs due to feminism and the sexual revolution - i.e. the nuturing sex being far less nurturing. It seems possible that the changes in females have helped trigger the prolonged adolescence in males.

Steve said...

This analysis described my college experience perfectly.

I was too timid to date, not sure what was expected of me at all. It's not just the men though, but the women too. My wife pursued a relationship with me because she knew what my values were and that there wouldn't be expectations of sexual activity.

If young adults with family values are the majority, they are indeed a silent majority. Most of them are shying away from relationships and dating because the loud, promiscuous, substance abusing crowd causes so much confusion. The "good" kids have a lot of friends but rarely date.

Sadly, my brother (23) has fallen into the video games and garage bands cess pool. I'm not blaming women entirely, but I think that the behavior described in this article is definitely a contributing factor.

Kyle R. Cupp said...

I got married and continued to linger in an extended adolescence of playing video games.

John Farrell said...

I'm over 20 years removed from the scene--but enough of what's described in the article struck me as genuine, and it brought back memories. (If I had to categorize myself, I pretty much fit into the "nice guy" category. After a while I began to think of myself as 'every scorned woman's best friend.')

It got old. Fast.

entropy said...

I'd venture that most of these women are just as confused as the men. How are we to know which kind of guy we're on a date with ... the one that expects sex right away, one that's willing to wait a little while (but not too long) or one that will wait until marriage? When are we supposed to let this guy know what kind of girl we are? One the first date? "oh, btw, I'm not going to sleep with you." Yes, certainly, you'll get a second date there. If the girl waits to tell him that she plans on waiting until marriage, will he feel he's been led on or that she's just a tease?

In a culture that implies something is wrong (or you must be some sort of religious nut) if you're not having sex after an unspecified but decidedly short period of time, it makes it hard to know where the boundaries are, probably because there are none.

TS said...

it makes it hard to know where the boundaries are

In the past it was easier because women set the boundaries. They had the power.

Men were assumed to be cads by default while women were assumed to be not. (A double standard, but is it really going out on a limb to say that men like sex more than women?)

Karen said...

These guys are blaming other people for their problems. If they really don't like this kind of dating then they should quit and take up playing bridge or making pastel sketches or something useful that doesn't involve hanging out in bars and hitting on girls.

And TS, do think it's going to help make stable marriages to teach girls 1. They don't like sex, or at least shouldn't like it; and 2. when they get married they are obligated to submit to this gross and disgusting THING every time their husband demands it and 3. He's going to demand it as often as possible while at the same time thinking she's a filthy slut if she doesn't hate it?

CMinor said...

TS and Karen--
I think the crucial difference lies in the meaning of sex to each gender.

I think girls, at the root of it, want to feel loved and in love. Sex is very tied in with the emotional. Sex for physical jollies palls quickly.

Guys are more physical and less emotional--less likely to worry about the commitment aspects as long as their physical drives are being met.

Girls need to understand that this difference in outlooks means that they have to put the brakes on things if they want the whole package and not just a poor imitation. Unfortunately, too many girls are not being taught this; in fact the opposite view--that the body is a source of entertainment--is reinforced by much of the culture.

Sorry if I seem too cynical about male integrity, gentlemen. Rest assured that if my hubby sees this comment he'll tell me off about that.

Anonymous said...

I dip in at this blog only very occasionally; apologies for the tardy comment.

I read the Hymowitz articles; not worth anybody's time. But you, Mr. Darwin, have hit on something in your blog comment on them, which you immediately then turn away from. Don't.

"...if people are indeed going to keep reproducing and having anything vaguely resembling a stable family culture, this kind of sub-culture must be either very small or very transitory."

Uh, guys... you mean "stable family culture" like... clans, like... cousin marriage? That sort of thing?

You mean "keep reproducing" as in the vast worldwide fertility declines occurring as we speak, which are unprecedented in time of plenty, sometimes referred to as demographic winter?

It's a big world, and it ain't pretty.

I've recently found one ray of hope. John Mueller's simple logistic regression equation accounts for tremendously more of the variance in fertility decline worldwide than any other model, yet this and his other studies remain almost totally unremarked. Go to this link, then find 'View as pdf' at the top right, click on that, follow the directions that pop up and download the pdf of the paper, and read the whole thing.

It is a remarkable paper in so many ways: a re-starting of the entire field of economics, to include, for example, the insights of St. Augustine; and using this more complete view of human economic nature to tease out factors that can account for variance in fertility decline worldwide.

So, one thing we might do to "keep reproducing and having anything vaguely resembling a stable family culture" is, it appears, to get the tax structure right.

And, yeah, I'm not kidding. Mr. Mueller sure isn't.